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What’s provocative? 

Professional women walk a fashion tightrope.

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So which is it?

Can sex appeal be part of a woman’s professional wardrobe? Should it be? Does she have a choice, if she’s under 40 and wants to look remotely in style?

The year 1977, it seems, was a simpler time. “Wardrobe engineer” John T. Molloy, author of the best-selling “Dress for Success” books, used a presidential campaign’s worth of focus groups to come up with a uniform for the new wave of women entering the traditionally male-dominated management ranks. Stick with a dark, knee-length skirted suit, a contrasting blouse, minimal make-up and basic pumps, he advised. No sweaters: “Sweaters in the office spell secretary. … They say lower middle class and loser.” Anything but skin-colored hose was “unthinkable” in the workplace. And furthermore, Molloy advised — apparently missing the irony of a statement like this in a book urging women to neuter their femininity at the office — anything but skin-colored hose would turn men off.

Oddly, even tailored pantsuits weren’t acceptable. Even as women were supposed to be dressing to de-emphasize their womanliness, according to Molloy, they needed to wear clothing that revealed their legs for their colleagues’ pleasure and/or judgment.

Molloy set up, or at least reflected, a tightrope that women still navigate today — and as business casual has become the norm in a lot of workplaces, not to mention as fashions have grown progressively revealing, the tightrope’s gotten thinner and thinner. We’re not supposed to dress like men, but if our clothing emphasizes our femaleness too much — if we show too much leg or too much cleavage or too much curve — we may cause men’s eyes to light up, but, research has demonstrated, we won’t cause their brains to take us seriously. Not to mention the even harsher judgment women can bring down on other women they believe have crossed the invisible line.

And now what this article isn’t about. It’s not trying to pin down where that line is, or taking a moral stand on women who use provocative dress to make a sale or get a bigger tip or even just get attention. Sex, or in this case just the suggestion of it, sells because people are willing to buy it; if those people are so easily separated from their money, well, who’s to tell a woman acting of her own free will that she’s immoral for taking advantage?

But we all do, of course, and that’s why there is a line. The problem today is that it’s very difficult sometimes to know where the line is. It changes depending on industry, company culture, age, season, and current fashion.

There’s the line, for instance, that Shannon Wynne draws. Wynne owns the Flying Saucer, a chain of pubs with a location in the River Market district. The Flying Saucer is known for two things: the beer selection, which is huge, and the waitresses’ uniforms, which are not. They consist of a tight tank top or T-shirt, a (sometimes extremely) short plaid skirt or skort and knee socks. But Wynne differentiates between the Flying Saucer and Hooters because, he said, the girls he hires choose the length of their skirts and the tightness of their shirts, and none of the bar’s ads and promotions make even veiled references to female anatomy.

“We’re not a breastaurant,” he said. But Wynne has frank discussions with his waitresses about their uniforms and their bodies.

“Let them show cleavage — they can use it to make money,” he said. “Why dodge the subject? That’s exactly what it does. But by no means is it required.”

Wynne said the extra exposed skin can mean a 20 percent jump in tips for a girl who’s got the figure, but that she’s got to have the personality to go with it. “It’s not only wearing the low-cut T-shirt,” he said. “It’s how you handle people’s egos.”

Elsewhere on President Clinton Avenue, Suzon Awbrey — a former bartender herself, now co-owner of Sticky Fingerz Rock ’n’ Roll Chicken Shack and Rumba/Revolution — provides uniform T-shirts and tank tops for her restaurants’ wait staff, but lets them dress themselves from the waist down. The upside is, all body types can be comfortable; the downside is that waitresses occasionally push the limits of what Awbrey considers appropriate, even in a club environment.

“I have had to step in and draw the line a time or two,” she said. “… I don’t need to see your hiney cheek when you bend over. Legs are great, hineys not so much.”

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