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Women at work
Feature: 3/5/2002



Both Austin Reed and Moss Bros have reported that recent sales have been boosted by a noticeable trend back to formal and business suite (director-e News, Monday 15 April).

And many large companies in Europe and the US have had second thoughts about 'dress down' Fridays in their offices.

Corporate clothing suppliers such as Simon Jersey have also become aware of the trend, reflected in increasing demand for a more formal approach to office uniforms for both men and women.

In most western nations, choosing suitable clothes for the office is not really a problem, although many women would argue that it is far easier for a man - who can simply wear the same suit, day in, day out.

But for Japanese women, the problem is more serious, as a recent newspaper article in that country highlighted. It provides a far more personal insight into business dress codes and suggests that there might be opportunities for enterprising corporate clothing suppliers to exploit.

Formal work wear like this from Simon Jersey, is still a rarity for Japanese women.
Formal work wear like this from Simon Jersey, is still a rarity for Japanese women.


Showcase clothing

For working women in Japan, business wear is often an important tool to showcase their position and capability. However, unlike men, who have a 'uniform' of suit, shirt and tie, women's business clothes lack a standardised style. This can lead to embarrassment when inappropriate choices are made, says the article.

A woman's choice of business wear usually reflects her sense of style and her consciousness of her work. Recently, the Japanese phrase 'shobu-fuku', literally meaning 'showdown attire', has become a buzzword among working women.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi wears red suits and jackets on important occasions, like a meeting with her Russian counterpart just after her appointment, and the announcement of important personnel affairs.

Referring to such special occasions, the Minister remarked: "Red clothes are my shobu-fuku" - a sentiment with which many Japanese women empathise.

Thirty-something Rei Hashimoto, who works for a trading company, said she wears suits in her favourite colours when she wants to cheer herself up. "A suit is the best choice when I want the respect of clients", she said.

Properly dressed

Yoko Aoki, working in the public relations division of a food manufacturer, said she always wears suits in the workplace, so that she can feel properly dressed for sudden visits by clients and news reporters. "Clothes are one way to express myself. And clothes have a big effect on other people", she said.

However, the choice of workplace clothing depends on the individual. In following fashion trends, some people show up to the office in surprising clothes.

A 39-year-old woman working in a publishing company said she was recently astonished when a younger colleague came into work wearing a shirt with a wide neckline. "I felt she had worn the shirt to attract her male colleagues rather than to encourage herself to work", she said.

And a 40-year-old woman working at a hotel agreed. "Some colleagues work in fishnets and body-conscious dresses", she said. "I'm fed up with them, because we are here to work".

A 29-year-old woman working in a department store said: "When a younger colleague wearing hip-hugger jeans stooped down, you could see the top of her buttocks. I could not find the words to describe my surprise".

Dress codes

Because of such extreme cases, some companies have now begun to establish dress codes. UFJ Bank has set a rule that tellers must wear the company uniform or a suit. The rules also state that employees' clothes "must make clients feel a sense of cleanliness and trustworthiness".

Casual clothes, such as jeans, are unacceptable. And a department store in Tokyo obliges both male and female clerks to wear jackets.

On the other hand, career women in their 30s and older complain they cannot find appropriate 'shobu-fuku'.

A 42-year-old woman working for a home appliance maker complained: "Most 'working women' who appear in fashion magazines are younger. When a woman gets older, the only choices are clothes in overly vivid colours, like those worn by female politicians".

Yoko Kawai, 35, who works for a web site management company, also expressed dissatisfaction with business wear. "I want clothes with inside pockets, and wider choices in size", she said.

Business wear brands

Business wear brands reflecting those needs are increasing, though the pace is slow. Recently, apparel maker Gunze Ltd. and the Japan Association for Home Economist In Business, and Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business, jointly planned and developed a brand of women's wear called the 'HEIB Collection'.

The brand meets many Japanese women's demands for more practical work wear, including the use of wrinkle-resistant fabrics and more pockets.

Another brand, 'Natural Beauty Style', launched this season by Sanei International Co., is also aimed at working women in their 30s and older. Featuring silk and stretchy fabrics, the line is said to have been designed to suit changes in women's bodies as they age.

A spokeswoman for Natural Beauty Style said: "Many women are looking for clothes that are not too extravagant, but not too casual, either".
Author: John Gibbon
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