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By Design

On the Sidelines, They Score Fashion Points

February 22, 1996|BARBIE LUDOVISE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The workplace is hot, muggy, even a little stinky. The job involves pacing, shouting, squatting, and jumping up and down.

So why, pray tell, are women's basketball coaches wearing silk suits and designer pumps on court?

Because big-time college athletics, they say, is no place for dressing down.

"Most coaches I know are conscious of their dress," says Vivian Stringer, coach at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "When you talk about 'dress for success,' that indicates something special is about to take place. You pay respect to the event by the way you present yourself."

That fashion consciousness, coaches say, is also due in part to an increasing interest in women's basketball--and women's sports in general. They've been slowly gaining on the men in media exposure, including television, and in some parts of the country, the local turnout is better for women's games than men's.

Women's basketball is particularly big at the University of Washington, where head coach Chris Gobrecht, 40, has led the Huskies to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament nine times in the past 10 years. She believes in dressing for a game as a CEO would for a stockholders' meeting.

"I think it's so important to make the statement that we take this seriously," Gobrecht says. "To bring across the attitude that this is big time, that it's special to the fans and the players.

"I don't know if I could put the nylons on and go to work every day, but at game time it's the one time you get to get really dressed up. It's . . . show time."

For Gobrecht, that means choosing among skirt and jacket combinations, most in the $300 to $700 range, though a few of her outfits cost $1,000-plus.

"There's no question I've ruined many a good suit hugging sweaty bodies after games," she says. But "I don't think my wardrobe is off the chart or any more unusual than any businesswoman's."

Stringer, of Rutgers, agrees. Wearing nice clothes--she buys hers at Lord & Taylor--boosts self-confidence, she says. That's why, in 23 years of coaching, a team dress code has always been enforced. Jolette Law, who played for Stringer at the University of Iowa and now is her assistant coach, says Stringer's players are expected to wear skirts or dresses and hosiery before and after games and while traveling.

"She says in order to feel good, you've got to look good," says Law.

Debbie Ryan, head coach at the University of Virginia, prefers a more casual look. She shops exclusively at Talbots in Charlottesville. So, apparently, do many of her fans. Last year, after she wore a navy sweater with multicolored stars on game day, the store was deluged with requests for "the sweater Debbie Ryan wears."

Wake Forest head coach Karen Freeman shops for silk or silk blends at Ann Taylor. "I wear things that are comfortable to coach in, but not overly feminine or froufrou," says Freeman, who prefers dressy pants to skirts.

"I'm a pacer. I like to walk, squat down, get in the huddle," she says. "So a skirt, for me, would be a disaster."

Disaster? Try coaching in a wrap skirt, as Gobrecht once did in a nationally televised game. The skirt came untied and she didn't notice until it was almost too late.

"The trainer ran up and said, 'You better sit down,' " Gobrecht says. "There was only one button between the world and my nylons.

"That outfit has been retired. I mean, never again."

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