You can't judge a book by its cover, the adage goes. Or can you?
Consultants in the image industry argue that you can indeed. This worldwide field of fashion consultants, designers and etiquette instructors has grown to 100 firms from 37 in 1978, according to the Image Industry Council International, a trade group. All told, the industry represents more than $130 million in revenues.
Image consultants work with lawyers, medical doctors, corporate executives and politicians, helping them spiff up their appearance and polish their persona.
They teach clients how to improve their speaking habits and stop irritating mannerisms that put people off. They tell them how to dress for success, and they will even go out and handpick new wardrobes for them to clinch a fashionable but businesslike look.
''First impressions do count,'' said Marily Mondejar, executive director of the image council, a San Francisco-based group. ''People listen to what their eyes tell them. They've been programmed to do that by television.''
''When they meet you, people will make a decision about you in the first five seconds based on the colors you're wearing, your hairstyle, clothes, jewelry and body language,'' Mondejar said.
An increasingly competitive job market and corporate mergers have sparked increased interest in the industry as companies try to hone and enhance their images with employees and the public.
Image consultants tend to be women entrepreneurs, some who work out of their homes and others who run multimillion-dollar firms.
Philippine-born Mondejar, 40, learned the importance of a businesslike appearance years ago as a young sales representative working for Time-Life books in Thailand. A Philippine co-worker convinced her to wear native costumes to a business reception for the opening of a new office in Bangkok.
The guests, however, were Thais and Americans, who were puzzled by her fluffy-sleeved, bright-colored garb.
''No one talked to me. I felt like an outsider,'' Mondejar recalled. She was determined not to be embarrassed by her clothing again.
Later, she moved to San Francisco and began holding seminars for bank employees on how to use their appearance as a sales tool. Individuals began coming to her for advice, and she began counseling clients on corporate protocol and on how to spruce up their offices to reflect their customer-service philosophies.
Now the bulk of her business consists of coaching doctors, attorneys and other professionals -- who are defendants in malpractice suits -- on how to enhance their credibility on the witness stand.
''I tell them not to wear wild shirts or ties,'' she said. ''I like them to wear conservative suits in blue or gray and white shirts because they engender respect, like going to church.''
Her clients include Apple Computer Inc., Security Pacific Corp. and Hartford Insurance Co.
Other consultants specialize in personal shopping, logos, interior design or cosmetics. A budding area of interest is using color to harmonize clients' office decors or personal appearances.
Color analysis is probably one of the least understood -- and some might say most flaky -- aspects of image consulting. But the industry views it as a promising new frontier that will help personnel experts in analyzing employee personalities.
Color analysis categorizes people into seasonal groupings based on the color of their hair, eyes and complexions. Persons with light coloring are grouped as ''summers'' or ''springs'' while those with darker tones are considered to be ''autumn'' or ''winter'' personalities.
Winter personalities are aggressive while summers tend to be more compromising, Mondejar said.
For example, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a ''winter'' while President Bush is a ''summer,'' Mondejar said. Whether Bush can capitalize on his conciliatory nature to settle the Persian Gulf crisis could depend on how their seasonal personalities interact, she said.