For better or worse, plunging necklines on the rise as office attire

Young women are more secure on the job; often, attitude is: 'I can flaunt it'

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acuneo@crain.com

Newspaper and magazine ad dollars aren't the only thing plummeting these days. Skin is in, and female necklines are plunging to new lows in the workplace.

A study conducted for Advertising Age by market researcher Synovate found almost seven in 10, or 68% of respondents, think women are showing more cleavage today.

Indeed, the neckline trend is turning heads. When a moderator at this year's Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association conference asked for audience questions, the panelists froze as a young woman in the front row leaned forward to speak.

"I do recall the moment," said one panelist, an entertainment-company executive and a self-described happily married man who requested anonymity, as he attempted to describe the decolletage of the woman. Her question has been long forgotten.

Women young and old have broken free from the masculine-styled suits with padded shoulders that asserted equality. Now, deep-cut scoop and V-neck tops are finding their places in the working woman's closet.

"Low, plunging necklines have been in style and have transcended the workplace," said Ashley Baker, associate editor for style at Conde Nast's Glamour-and not just for the office Christmas party either. "I certainly see it at [daytime] events, even breakfasts," said Liz Schroeder, executive director, Advertising Women of New York.

Marian Salzman, exec VP-director of strategic content at JWT, said the new necklines have come with a new attitude. Women, especially younger women, are "very unapologetic" about it. The attitude is: "I can flaunt it. It's mine, and I can do with it as I please."

Perhaps it's a sign that today's younger women are more secure in the workplace, having grown up in an era where training in harassment is almost universal, where there is less experience of gender discrimination and where, while older men might find it a distraction, male peers say it's a nonissue, said Ms. Salzman. The work world, she said, "has to accommodate this mind-set and mood."

The guys will talk

For some men, it's not that simple. John Geoghegan, an ad-industry executive recruiter, said it "always confuses me" when women in business are wearing low-cut clothing, even though he's been through requisite training. Trained or not, "the guys behind the door will talk about it, expressing surprise or shock, then immediately after that, appreciation. At the end of the day, we're all primates," he said.

Fashion watchers say a number of underlying social trends have led to more cleavage. More and more tastemakers and celebrities, Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray among them, have shown cleavage to the millions of women who watch them, said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director, Doneger Group, a retail consultancy.

Another trend is the increase in women-owned businesses, said Irma Zandl, principal at trend forecaster Zandl Group. "If they choose to show a little cleavage, then far be it for anyone to tell them no," she said.

At the same time, women have become heavier and have more cleavage to show, said Ms. Zandl. On the other hand, many have become more body conscious, not only through exercising but having pricey plastic surgery. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons said 291,350 women underwent breast-augmentation surgery in 2005, up 37% from 2000, while 92,740 had breast lifts, up 76% from five years ago.

"People are spending more money on their breasts," said Rebecca Luke, CEO, Les Egoistes, a Seattle styling and image consultancy. After putting up $5,000 or more, "if you have it, you want to flaunt it and show off your assets," Ms. Luke said.

The extent of the flaunting traditionally had been dictated in part by the industry and culture of individual companies. Jobs in advertising, media, fashion and other creative industries have afforded women greater fashion freedom.

HANDLED IN ORIENTATION

Most marketers handle cleavage and other workplace issues in orientation sessions. Procter & Gamble Co., for example, doesn't have a formal dress code but expects employees to dress in "a way that reflects P&G's professional image, shows respect for others and is appropriate for the business they will do that day," a spokeswoman said.

The same is true of advertising agencies. For example, DraftFCB doesn't address cleavage specifically but makes it clear "we expect proper attire at all times," spokeswoman Melissa Murray said.

But interviews with male executives found them reluctant to be quoted on the record, citing concerns over sexual-harassment claims. Most said any overexposure would be referred to human resources for handling.

But some couldn't resist off-the-record comments such as: "It's a topic I'd be fairly up on." One male executive noted: "This is an advertising agency. It is a sexy business."

When asked whether the agency had ever suggested a little cleavage might keep a prospective client's attention during a pitch, the executive said: "If I ever stoop to that, get me out of this business."

Witnessing a social trend come to life in your office? Have an outrageous tale of navigating airport security on a business trip? Describe it in an e-mail to Mike Ryan , special reports editor, at mryan@crain.com.

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Editor’s note: Unashamedly lifting a great idea from our siblings, Crain’s New York Business and Crain’s Chicago Business, Ad Age this week debuts Business of Life, where we’ll take a look at some of the human stories behind the business news we normally cover. As with the People & Players page it replaces, this page will include personality profiles and look at pastimes, but more than that it’ll examine how our family, leisure and business lives have blended. We’ll cover everything from mobile devices, to cars, restaurants, and the clothes you wear--or don’t.
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