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by Shirley Pierce

I am personally mounting a coast-to-coast campaign to create a national holiday to celebrate - the blazer. It's the one item in every woman's wardrobe that can make or break her day.

Blazers rock and here's proof. Catholic nuns, although not usually known for their fashion sense, almost always pick blazers for student attire. When corporations want to enhance their image, what do they have their personnel wear? And when stewardesses give their first class passengers that "come hither" look, nine times out of ten, what are they wearing? You guessed it.

Like women, blazers come in all shapes and sizes. And like women, they work best when you know their strengths and steer clear of their weaknesses.

So here's how you can make blazers work for you.

TAILORED BLAZERS -- Tailored blazers are best when you want to give that unquestionable, totally together look. As long as the colors are tasteful, you can wear them anywhere you want to dress-to-impress - a corporate job interview or meeting with prospective in-laws. If you wear a blazer with a matching skirt, that's a great business look. If you wear it over matching pants, it's a look that goes from business to upscale pleasure. You can also give a sharp new twist to a casual look by pairing a blazer with jeans or leather pants. Then there's the double-breasted variety. (Is the term double-breasted redundant?) This style is a good choice if you want to kick the tailored-look up even more. But be careful. When it comes to body shape, single breasted and double-breasted blazers are not created equal. (See the Beware section below).

UNSTRUCTURED BLAZERS -- For a "together" look that's a little more casual, try an unstructured blazer. It has a looser cut with no defined waist and may or may not have details like shoulder pads or lapels. The fabrics are more varied and have a freer feel. To maximize my dressing options, I also include cardigan-type sweaters, jackets and "big blouses" in this category. When worn with a scarf or jewelry and skirt or pants in matching tones, a sweater or jacket can give you a sharp ensemble. Since this style is more relaxed, it is therefore more versatile. It can carry you through several occasions on the same day. For instance, an unstructured blazer can take you straight from the boardroom at work to your daughter's soccer game.

SHAPE SHIFTERS - Women have used blazers to hide things for years. Come on, how many times have you worn a blazer to hide the safety pin that's holding your waistband together because you gained a few pounds. Yes, the blazer can hide pounds. (It's always been Hollywood's answer to pregnant actresses.) But there are more clever ways to use them and here are just a few. If you have no waist and you want to give yourself one, just wear a belted outfit and then put a blazer over it. To elongate your torso, try a duster length blazer. (More on these miracle workers below.) And here's another Hollywood trick - Leading men who are a bit short in stature are usually dressed in waist-length jackets. Why? Because, visually, regular length jackets tend to cut the torso in half. Remember that trick, if you're also height challenged. If you want to add bulk to your frame (some women do), a double-breasted blazer, will do wonders.

DUSTER LENGTH - I truly believe that this style can heal the sick and raise the dead. It can make you look taller, thinner and classier all at the same time. It works for all body types and ages. Prince wore tailored dusters to give his frame height. The Golden Girls wore dusters in flowing fabrics to enhance their glamour and grace. When worn with tonally matching pants, it's a look that can't be beat. You'll want one of these in every color.

FABRICS - If you want to be practical, blazers are best in solid colors or very, very subtle patterns like herringbone. If you fall in love with a wild pattern in the store, you may find that it's not very versatile. A bad case of buyer's remorse may soon be yours. Also stick with non-crushable fabrics. The heavy winter-weights do well -- wools, velvets etc. But be careful with some of the summer-weights - seersucker, silks, linens and some cottons. They can pucker, wrinkle and droop quickly and spend more time at the dry cleaners than you're happy with.

THE GREAT UNITER -- Madeline Albright and Colin Powell may know their way around the Middle East but a blazer can unite the disparate factions in your closet. Pants and skirts that have been buried for years can be resurrected when paired with the right top and blazer. I've found the same goes for dresses that have been collecting dust. Just throw a blazer over it and you've got a whole new look. Blazers also make shopping easier. If you buy your separates in tones to match your blazers, you'll have an ever-changing string of outfits in any number of combinations. A word of warning - not all necklines are created equal. Experiment with the tops that you wear underneath - v-neck, crew or turtle neck - to find the one that works best. For example, "tie" blouses might be at war with unstructured blazers and bulky sweaters with big turtlenecks rarely work with any blazer at all.

BEWARE - Like with everything in life, blazers have their dark side depending on your body shape. (See Body Shapes in our book Dress Me Now.) Any kind of detail in the wrong places can add pounds or highlight parts of your body that you would prefer to take a backseat. If you're big on the bottom, beware pockets or any eye-catching detail near the hem. If you're big on top, be careful of double-breasted blazers or single-breasted ones with high pockets, piping, wide lapels or big shoulder pads. Big shoulders went out with Joan Crawford in Dynasty anyway. They'll probably be back in tomorrow but for now, leave the wide shoulders to the wide receivers.

EASY CARE - The bad news is that few blazers are wash and wear. The good news is that since you're always wearing one over a sweater or blouse, you can wear it a few times and put off that trip to your friendly neighborhood dry cleaners. If, thanks to your child or your lunch, you get a "between-cleaning" stain, just whisk it away with a spot remover and keep on going.

THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING - As long as I have been dressing, which has been a long time. (I have pieces that are older than Britney Spears and Jennifer Love-Hewitt put together). I have never had a blazer wear out on me. If I felt it had out lived its usefulness, I donated it to charity or to the nearest friend. One particular friend has a blazer that I gave her when Reagan was in office. I saw her wearing it the other day and it still looks great.

INNER BEAUTY - The Dress Me Now philosophy is that a woman's inner beauty needs just as much attention as her outer appearance. A great blazer is custom made for this belief. The moment you slip one on, it has a phenomenal effect on how you feel. You stand taller. You feel in charge and in control. If you feel good, you will look good. Guaranteed.

And to prove that I practice what I preach, I have over two dozen blazers in my closet. If you add the sweaters, jackets and big blouses that I wear like blazers the total goes off the scale. I know. I need professional help. Do you think Betty Ford is listening?


Janet Behmer and Shirley Pierce are the authors of the book that's changing the way women think about clothes and themselves -- Dress Me Now: How to Make Your Wardrobe Behave. http://www.dressmenow.com

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