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Fashion shift -- Boomers frustrate rather than drive the apparel trade

Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- Fall fashions are starting to appear in stores and boutiques, but Baby Boomers who once were clotheshorses probably won't be running to buy. Comfortable in middle age, these women just don't have that old hankering for the latest styles.

A confluence of factors over time caused this change in attitude, including desire for individuality and more relaxed dress codes. Equally important is that women Boomers no longer need their wardrobe as a ticket of admission to the work force.

''I'm wearing a muumuu!'' Victoria Martinsen crowed when called to talk about clothes.

That's a long way from the way she used to dress for work. Like millions of other female Boomers, for years she dutifully donned suits, pantyhose and pumps to go to work.

''I was a suit,'' recalled Martinsen, a spokeswoman for Safeco Corp., the Seattle-based financial services company. ''I remember when people wanted jobs like mine because they could dress up.''

Peggy Berk, who has owned New York-based public relations firm Strategic Communications for 20 years, said that when she started working, an uptight business suit was her uniform.

''Very accessorized, but nothing that would be outrageous,'' she said. ''That's what everyone wore, from secretaries to the highest women in the organization.''

Women were acutely aware that what they wore influenced how bosses, clients and co-workers judged their ability and competence. Berk recalled a day in the mid-1980s that she wore a sleeveless designer dress with a duster over it. A client -- chairman of a large advertising agency -- commented on how attractive the outfit was.

''It made me terrifically uncomfortable and and made me feel he wasn't taking me seriously,'' Berk said.

But now women are an integral part of the work force, and that has contributed to this fashion shift, said Joanne Arbuckle, a professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

''They're less focused on proving themselves. There's no 'I have to wear this,''' Arbuckle said.

Berk said she gradually wore less formal attire as the years passed, but the big change came three years ago when she moved her company from midtown Manhattan to a part of town that was home to many young, high-tech firms. In that casual atmosphere, she began wearing to work the clothes she wore on weekends -- jeans, flat sandals, v-neck T-shirts.

Martinsen's wardrobe changed when Safeco relaxed its dress code three years ago. But she believes another factor in changing styles is a problem common among many Boomers as they've gotten older.

''We all went into middle age and had to go from size 10 to size 12,'' Martinsen said. ''So I go into a store and say, 'I'm not buying that suit -- I'd rather buy that cashmere sweater.''

Elizabeth Rhodes, director of the Rodgers and Silverman School of Fashion Design and Merchandising at Kent State University in Ohio, said changing priorities also figure into the mix.

''As women matured and became 50 to 60, they've always taken less of an interest in fashion,'' Rhodes said. ''We don't want to be dressed like old ladies, but we're acting a little bit like old ladies act -- investing our money is more important than spending our money.''

For many Boomers, saving for retirement or children's education is more important than spending on clothes. So is travel or renovating a home.

This shift has left the fashion business in some disarray.

While in the 1980s anything with a career look was a guaranteed winner, apparel retailers have struggled -- often in vain -- for more than a decade to satisfy Boomer tastes. Store chains have tried to remake themselves, but how to appeal to a broad section of the Boomer population remains elusive.

Complicating matters is the fact that there's no ''Boomer look'' and that women don't need the fashion industry or anyone else telling them what to do.

''Women today are much more likely to follow their own fashion,'' FIT's Arbuckle said.

The size of the Boomer generation makes it that much harder for the apparel trade. Companies can't rely on the women who drove the market during the 1980s to bail them out today.

''The problem with Baby Boomers is there are so darn many of us!'' Kent State's Rhodes said.

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