Looking smart amid mixed signals

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Long after "Erin Brockovich," debate about appropriate hemlines for the office rages on.

Nothing gets me more annoyed than men telling women what to wear. I'm on the record saying that baseball's dress policy was too Our Lady of Perpetual Judgment for my taste. But, like hemlines on a morning show host, this issue keeps coming up.

It's a lot more fun to talk about how to translate the message of a men's business suit into women's wear than it is to, say, pay women 100 cents for every dollar men earn. But I digress.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about how women are supposed to dress in professional settings, like here and here, and here. These writers focus on female attorneys who apparently went a little too "They're called boobs, Ed" in the courtroom for judges. It got to the point that a Tennessee juris with a lot of prudence issued a dress code.

One writer suggested the culprit (dun-dun) could be television legal dramas, where every professional woman is a mere lingering glance away from a clandestine affair.

First of all, I'm sympathetic to any woman who is winging it and comes off looking like a cross between Tootsie and Erin Brockovich.

How the hell are you supposed to know how to dress at work? If you go full suit you look like Melanie Griffiths in "Working Girl." And what are our role models wearing? Even women in television news are showing it all -- and they have been the leaders in the business attire field forever. Watch a few newscasts, and most men are dressed in full suits, all covered up except for their serious faces, while the ladies are wearing cocktail attire minus the cigarette holder. They look great, mind you, but it's not Jane Pauley and it's changing the game.

Jennifer Lopez did an excellent send-up of this double standard in the video for "I Luh Ya Papi." Even if the song's name was trying too hard, the video's premise is solid. J-Lo and two of her clothed lady friends ogle naked-ish men hanging out on a boat. Really, you should watch it nine or 10 times just to fully appreciate the satiric overtones. I'll wait.

Back in the "real world," the honorable Judge Royce Taylor said female attorneys in his courtroom need to wear sleeves that extend below the elbow, which is amusing because I have watched the no-sleeves trend like a hawk. I'm one of those genetic losers who can't Jazzercise away bat wings and hasn't the courage to pay some surgeon to slice them off and feed them to the wolves.

We ladies know what we're good for. Just peek at the latest issue of Golf Digest, with "golf celebrity" Paulina Gretzky in a bikini top and white golf tights. (Golf tights are a thing, right?) Society lets us know from every Victoria's Secret billboard to those obnoxious ads for diet aids that pop up on your FaceBook timeline. (Oh? Just me?) What women are really valued for is their sexuality, and you really want to be valued in the workforce.

It's easy to see how some people get confused. Dressing all sexy may have worked in the workplace when there were only a few other women around, but it's probably less effective now for the simple reason that no judgment is more cutting than that of a woman evaluating another woman. I wish I could be more Gloria Steinem about it, but you know it's true.

With more women in the workplace, you are most likely dressing to impress female bosses ("I love your bag!") and not so much get your series renewed for next season ("Why counselor, don't you want to extend my storyline?"). It is a fine line, and one we might all have to go back to graduate school for. (Blargh, more loans!)

Over the years I've seen some very attractive young women walk into locker rooms in high heels and too-short skirts. But they don't seem to last long. The women I've seen succeed over time are the ones who've led with their smarts, not their sexuality.

As much as it pains me to say it, you send a message with your clothes. And much as the Supreme Court has taken pains not to limit your speech when it comes in the form of campaign dollars, it's still in our best interests to figure out what we want to say.

So better to look for clothes that say, "Promote me now" or "Pay me the same money that the guy across the hall is making."

The rest is just window dressing.

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