What is a girl to wear?

The trouser suit is back: Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and now even Julia Roberts (who wore a white Stella McCartney pant suit to the première of Eat Pray Love a few months ago) are all high-profile advocates of what many associate as the ne plus ultra of power dressing for women at the top.

A few weeks ago BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour debated the pros and cons of the trouser suit: does it imprison women’s feminine self-expression or free them to get on with the job?


It is not a new debate. Remember the firestorm created when the Bank of England sent female employees on a “Dress for Success” seminar last year? The leaked follow-up memo from the branding agency involved advised:

“Look professional, not fashionable; be careful with perfume; always wear a heel of some sort – maximum two inches; always wear some sort of makeup, even if it’s just lipstick … Shoes and skirt must be the same colour.”


The previous year 400 of Ernst & Young’s female staff voluntarily attended a course put on by House of Colour image consultants to help women negotiate the “fraught” issue of choosing appropriate clothes for work. Women were encouraged to embrace their femininity by wearing skirts with heels.

The Coutts Woman website offers advice from former fashion editor of Vogue and trend forecaster, Vanessa de Lisle, who says:

“It’s no good wearing a Next suit five days a week.”

For inspiration on how to look great and professional, I would advise a quick Google Images search on Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister. Here is a woman who can wear black leather thigh-length boots and a leather jacket to a finance summit, is unafraid of shortish skirts, colour, and even when she is in a trouser suit manages to invigorate it with a Birkin bag and Hermès scarf.

That’s the French for you – savoir faire and savoir vivre.

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen. www.ft.com/womenblog

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.