Cover Story

Pursuing the working woman

Barbara Amiel June 25 1979
Cover Story

Pursuing the working woman

Barbara Amiel June 25 1979

Pursuing the working woman

Cover Story

Barbara Amiel

"Excuse me," said the research analyst as he pushed a microphone forward, "but are you a working woman?” Groaned 25-year-old careerist Pat Grundleger: “Oh, not again! You’re the third lot this month. Any more of this and I won’t have time to work.”

The confrontation took place on a Toronto street around lunchtime when coveys of female secretaries, bank tellers, lawyers and even taxi drivers are tripping the light fantastic in the new combination of work and home. At noon many working women do triple time trying to fit in personal shopping, family chores and, occasionally, a little lunch. That is, when they’re not being interviewed, tabulated and almost dismembered as the full impact of the female factor in the labor force begins to hit retailers, advertisers and merchandisers.

Government planners are into the act too, busily trying to expand the job market to cope with the flood of working women. But on a more everyday level the clout of the working woman’s salary is causing a good deal of rethinking in the boardrooms of the realm. What status-of-women committees and guidelines on sexual stereotyping in advertising could never do— force-feed a society with a new image of women—women can now do for themselves. In a free-enterprise economy the dollar barks louder than anyone’s words. Since women are earning and spending more than ever, their habits, preferences, likes and dislikes are high stakes for big business. Pat Grundleger is divorced, earns about $12,000 a year and spends almost every penny of it. She is typical of the childless younger working woman on her way not to a mere job but to a career, in Grundleger’s case, as an Yves St. Laurent fashion buyer.

In 1978, Statistics Canada listed nearly four million women working, or 38 per cent of the total labor force. Of those, 47.8 per cent were married. And while for many such women equality in the working world has meant taking on the minuses of a man’s role as well as the pluses—jobs she dislikes but must do to make ends meet or keep up the mortgage payments—for a growing number of younger women, work is both a means of support and a clear run at getting some of the good things in life— everything from the luxury of fine art to safaris in Kenya. “We just sold a $1,000 Eskimo soapstone sculpture to a young woman,” reports Toronto’s Innuit Gallery. “She’d been eyeing it for six months.” What the gallery didn’t know was that the woman in question, a newspaper reporter, had taken on an extra job during her three-week vacation to finance the purchase.

Retailers and fashion designers are most immediately affected by the phenomenon of the working woman. The rag trade, for example, has finally realized what seemed obvious to women themselves for years: women are not single personalities. They may wish to be demure in the day, sexy in the evening. They may be wanton in the boardroom if it suits their strategy and straitlaced in the bedroom if the role appeals to them. Women are no longer obliged to make ideological or social statements with their clothes. “I used to have to wear jeans if I wanted the fellows on campus to take me seriously,” says 29-year-old psychologist Gayle Jones, of Vancouver. “But now I can wear dresses and classical sportswear, the things I like when I like, and no one questions whether I’ve ‘sold out’ or still support prison reform. Clothes aren’t the signals they used to be anymore.” It boils down to a coming-of-age. Women don’t have to dress the part of the housewife, the playgirl, the executive or the revolutionary to be taken seriously in any one of those roles. Meanwhile, this new freedom has filtered down through the designers’ workshops, giving women a choice this summer and fall of fashion looks ranging from structured retro, space-age galactic, updated military or sexy slit-to-the-waist. And because the dreadful period of signature clothes and status-symbol dressing is passing (helped by the demise of the Canadian dollar), ingenuity and individuality in dressing have returned. Fashion has become the truly egalitarian pop art form of the decade. A creative dresser can design a look for herself on $75 that is as fashionable as the woman with $750 to throw around.

But who are all these women with $75 to $750 to spend on an outfit, and where will they spend it? In a boutique? A department store? The discount chains? Market analysts are pursuing the working woman with Galahadian zeal. A recently completed study by Toronto’s Retail Marketing Associates analysed working women (there are some 600,000) of the greater metropolitan area. The report is clearly aimed at helping stores understand this potent new customer. The data amassed even included her physical characteristics: she is five-feet-four, has a 50-50 chance of wearing glasses, weighs about 132 pounds and shows a thrifty preference for buying at least 25 per cent of her wardrobe on sale. “The data probably holds true for most urban areas across Canada,” says RMA President Len Kubas, “but it’s very difficult to pin these women down. The most difficult thing is defining what constitutes discretionary or disposable income and what is money that is absolutely needed to keep the household together. From what we can see, households with two working members are more likely to have two cars, more likely to have gone abroad for a holiday and probably somewhere by plane last year. But, you see, then you have to add in the cultural variables like women from ethnic families where the work ethic is very strong and the women are working in order to purchase a house. A number of ethnic families aim all their energies at home buying and they end up paying off mortgages at an incredible rate. But they won’t fit into your neat two-car picture.”

Nor will they fit into Kubas’ data, which indicates that the housewife spends an annual average of $593 on personal purchases (clothes, cosmetics) while the working woman spends $824. Or that the working woman prefers smaller boutiques or specialty shops. And there is the rub. Facing a drop in their share of the retail dollar (down in 1978 about $350 million from previous years), the big department stores are getting into the hustle for the new darling of the retail trade: the lady eligible for unemployment insurance but with no need to draw it.

Nothing illustrates the gruelling intensity of the pursuit of this new target customer better than the opening last April of the $6-million marble, steel and glass palace of Toronto’s new Holt Renfrew branch. Within days of the opening, shoppers were dodging a new hazard—lined up in squads outside Holts, impervious to rain, sleet and expletives undeleted. Armed with clipboards, determined young ladies thrust themselves into the path of passing pedestrians, yielding right-of-way only upon acceptance of an application for a Holt Renfrew charge account.

Inside the shop the approach was even more blatant. Shoppers intent on reaching the main escalators had to run a gauntlet of oh-so-cheery ladies who greeted with pleasantries such as “where do you work, and could we have your employer’s phone number?” The results reflected their ardor. “We’ve opened up over 4,000 new accounts in two weeks,” glows an enthusiastic Benjamin DeWinter, the 36-year-old vicepresident and general manager of the new store. “We’re letting people know that Holts is not just for the couturier set. We’ve ignored the working girl for too long.”

The hustle graphically illustrated the new direction of Holt’s merchandising strategy. For nearly 90 years since the Canadian chain opened, it has been Canada’s mecca for the carriage trade. Its dress salons, presided over by the acknowledged Canadian doyen of high chic (read “expensive”), Montreal’s Caroline Wiener, have been the places for one’s haute couture Dior or André Laug. Little understated nothings at several thousand dollars an entrance. “But,” explains a store executive, “you can’t open a store of 100,000 square feet on that customer.” These days the store is aiming for the two-job family with a combined income of $27,500. That means, he explains, that the wife may well be earning in the $12,000 to $15,000 bracket. Consequently, on the third floor of the new store, the Miss Renfrew shop carries $85 two-piece synthetic suits that are a good try at the $750 silk designer outfits in the main-floor boutiques or the $300 French ready-to-wear in the second-floor departments. “That’s the way we’ve got to go,” says DeWinter. “Canadian manufacturers learning to knock off the expensive designer looks. Made-in-Canada makes sense because our tariffs, duties and drastically devalued dollar means prices on imported clothes are prohibitive.”

As competition toughens up, everyone is getting into the act to provide more reasons to come shopping, though some credit analysts (and a number of husbands) might feel that is the last thing the debt-heavy Canadian economy needs. Zeller’s has launched a slick new lifestyle TV advertising campaign featuring its own credit card and trendy new clothes priced at $24.97 urging women to “play it bold, or play it safe but play it right”—and not a kitchen or mop in a single frame of the commercial. Even the pastel-and-purity Breek shampoo girl has finally metamorphosed into an active career type— though it has taken her long enough.

The concept of the store as a community centre is also gaining ground. “I see box-lunch fashion shows for secretaries,” says an apparently serious DeWinter in the middle of his gleaming mirrored emporium, surrounded by Valentino and Fendi boutiques and 27 different kinds of pâté in the gourmet shop. Down the road at the Bay, placards advertise the current evening lecture series entitled Onward and Upward for the “career-minded women.” The department stores have cottonedon to the retail profits of consciousnessraising.

But in the end, the sales-per-squarefoot worries of the fashion business from St. John’s to Victoria come down to how well the buyers can read the fashion trends and predict the politics of fashion. After seasons of the bulky layered look, fashion has decreed raised hemlines, pared-down shapes, narrow skirts and body-revealing clothes. Trousers are tapered often to plain tight, with a return of the familiar capri pants. Skirts are slit to nether regions long-concealed and waists are emphasized with the nipped-in cinch belt of the 1950s. Strapless dresses and tube tops (this year called “the bustier”) are giving the bosom a comeback as well as the underwear manufacturers. In fact, as women become more liberated in their lifestyles, the fashion designers seem bent on putting more structure into their clothing. Shoulder pads, whaleboned tops and seamed stockings to be straightened, tugged at and held up by garter belts on top of staggeringly high-stiletto-heeled mules are trickling into the stores.

“This year we’re stocking up heavily on strapless bras ranging from lightweight wisps to the boned-to-the-waist number,” says retailer June Taylor of Toronto’s Bra Bar. “I’m 53 and women my age don’t want to go back into control underwear, but the young girls seem willing to try it out. And these tight new trousers are going to need foundations with a leg in them to smooth out lumpy thighs—or cellulite.” For some Canadian lingerie designers the trend to the severely tailored suit with the straight skirt and padded shoulders is an excuse for risqué underwear. “I’ve been pushing lace-and-flirt underwear for years,” says lingerie designer Barbara Semrick. “When you look that structured on the outside, you want something thrilling, alluring and decadent underneath.”

Toronto’s high-fashion store Creeds went wooing the working girl about eight years ago with a special Miss Creed department, far removed from its traditional Cartier-and-Chloé clientele. The shop now features “affordable fashion” like skinny-as-a-rail, tight cotton pants at $45 a pair and the “diaper dress” from one of Canada’s hottest young designers, Wayne Clark. “It’s slit up both sides almost to the waist and joined between the legs,” explains buyer Jone Weltman. “The young girls love it for evening. But we’re staying away from the space look and the exaggerated shoulders. No one understands it. I don’t think that’s what today’s woman wants.” Says Eaton’s fashion sales manager Gae Marco: “The customers are having the shoulder pads removed and the extreme slits sewn up. But, still, the younger working girls are getting more daring. In the day they’ll wear soft and feminine clothes, but practical—except for those five-inch heels they’re teetering on. At night it’s garter belts, seamed stockings, little appliqué tattoos stuck on one breast or a buttock and tiny hats tipped over one eye. It all depends on the mood and where they live.”

Monica Elliot, 26, an assistant sales manager in a Vancouver boutique, spends close to $4,000 of her annual $13,000 income on clothes. “We’re more laid-back in style out here than back East,” she says. “I dress for my different moods. Sporty and tailored in the day and feminine at night.” In Ottawa, senior civil servant Mairuth Sarsfield, Montreal-born of African ancestry, mixes her extensive Third World wardrobe with the textures of Canadian designer Auckie Sanft. “I get a sensuous pleasure out of textures,” she says, “and buying clothes is not a pressure but a pleasure.”

Except for those few unfortunate creatures for whom walking within 20 blocks of a fashion shop is a daunting experience. “Paying kleptomaniacs” is how one beleaguered group of spouses described their working mates’ twicemonthly migrations to the shopping centre of town. A Toronto dental hygienist, who readily admits to suffering from the Holt-Renfrew-Creed sickness known as the Bloor Street Blues, lamented last week as she looked at her overdrawn charge statement: “What difference does it make if I’m barred from Holt Renfrew’s? I’ll just dash across the road to Creeds.”