Betty Ford was saying her goodbyes at a luncheon given in her honor Tuesday at Bloomingdale's and mentioned to Bloomies chairman Marvin Traub that she regretted not having time to stop in the shoe department to do shopping.
"Oh, let us send some shoes over to your hotel," offered Traub. "Not that I'm suggesting business is bad, but . . ."
Traub was obviously kidding. (And Mrs. Ford returned during the week to buy shoes.) But there's not too much to cheer about in the clothing business these days. Retailers are admitting-off the record-that business is tough ot "soft," the industry slang for "not good," and the heavy stock of markdowns in the stores confirms the trend.
Among the reasons are an unusually warm fall, lack of enthusiasm and confusion about new styles, and resistance to high prices. And, of course, greater competition than ever in the Washington area.
Not many customers felt like rushing out and buying a new winter coat this year with the weather almost spring-like. "Who the hell knew it was going to be 80 degrees some days in October," sighed an exasperated Washington department-store executive looking over a floor full of sale racks.
But the late arrival chilly weather (heightened by the fact that retailers count on a selling cycle that rarely coincides with the prime wearing season) is not the only reason for the poor sales. Many customers are either complaining about the sexy costume look of the clothes or-quite the opposite-that they are too predictable and dull.
"The new clothes just aren't appropriate for a working woman," says Mitzi Wertheim, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Slit skirts, for example. "I cannot sit in a meeting with my legs exposed above the knee."
"Some of the clothes are so sexy the other women frown at my wearing them," says a woman lawyer who asked that her name not be used. "And the men think you are coming on."
"There haven't been that many wonderful things to buy this fall," complains Jill Vollner, general counsel to the Army. "The range seems to be too costumey or too familiar," says Vollner. Her preference is for knit suits that are good for the office, or Ultrasuede dress- es that she can work in all day and then continue to wear out to dinner.
This season she added a workable new formula-two silk dresses that she often wears with scarves. These she finds appropriate for her job in the Pentagon. For evening, she wears the same dresses, tunic style, over blak silk pants.
"These's really very little around for the working woman, little that fits into a professional settig," insists Wertheim. "And yet it is the professional woman who has the money to spend on new clothes."
Werheim, like many other professional woman, needs clothes with a "crisp executive appearance,"-warm enough for a cold building, but which can be peeled down in an overheated room. "Whatever happened to dresses with jackets?" she asks.
A major problem is finding fabrics that survive well all day, that don't wrinkle, and that travel well, too.
Moreover, many women, even those who are tuned in and amendable to style changes, are a bit leary about making a quck shift to the new, slimmer styles. "I bought a big, blousey Kasper outfit last spring on sale for $200," says art historian Birute Vileisis. "A month later, I was pushing it to the back of the closet because it was already out of style."
She's now wary of the quick change away from the full-blown to a skinny look. "I'm might spend a lot of money on something I like and then say, soon after, 'My God, it's out already.'"
So far Vileisis has been happy with the purchases of Calvin Klein jeans ("They wear well, fit right and good. For $33 I now have a pair of narrow, straightleg pants") and a slim straight-skirt that she wears with her tweed Anne Klein and Arthur Richards jackets. "If I had a lot of money I certainly would buy one of the padded-shoulder jackets," she says, admitting that the narrow skirt really is the most essential element.
One Washington retailer says confusion about the new styles is turning off customers who might consider clothes as Christmas gifts: "They aren't quite sure what styles to buy," he says.
Jumping too quickly into style changes is just as much a problem for men. "I'm kind of testing the waters," says Department of Commerce foreign affairs officer Douglas McCaleb. "I don't want to spend $25 on a shirt with a narrower collar if it will be out by next year," he says.
Price tags generally haven't stopped male consumers like McCaleb, who finds no significant increase in the cost of suits and overcoats. That opinion is borne out by Bureau of Labor statistics. Their lates Consumer Price Index notes an increase in mens' and boys' apparel of 0.7 percent.
According to the same index, in the last year women's and girls' apparel has increased on 1.7 percent-compared to an increase in food of 10.8 percent.
But to many shoppers, prices are still too high. "I can't believe that an unlined wool skirt costs $55," says advertising account executive and copy supervisor Jean Merritt, who is high on all of the more feminine styles. "Really nice things are just outrageously priced," she adds. She's still building up a collection of basics, and buying things which will make a three-piece suit go a little farther this year.
"The only thing that I've seen this year that really turned me on was a black skirt for $200," says a Washington artist and illustrator. "When I am spending substantial, not a skirt on a hanger." (Then she adds, half smiling, "When the recession comes, I don't want all my money to be on my back.")
"Prices on women's clothes are now absolutely outrageous," says Vollner, who now buys almost all her clothes at discount stores. "You have to know quality and you have to know what you like, but prices have gotten to the point where it is worth the extra effort to save."
One major New York fashion retailer says, "It's really the first time ever that I have seen customers turned of by the prices on designer sportswear." He doesn't have a solution, and doesn't see where manufacturers can shave prices, with labot and fabric cost increases. "And retailers can't eleminate any of the costs of doing business that I know of."
Meanwhile, retailers are getting aggressive eith sales and customers are relishing them. "It's killing me not to buy Christmas presents on sale," says sociologist Barbara Heller. The only thing she has bought from a traditional retailer at non-sale price this year was a pair of black leather jeans for $80 from Woodies.
Jane Wilner-an avid comparison shopper-is finding things on sale she never saw in the Onia Rykiel T-shirt at Neiman-Marcus for $18. And she's beating the high prices, she says, by finding designer fabrics in New York, particularly at Poli's, at less than Washington prices. So far she's got some silk charmeuse in plum-colored silk foulard, which she was turned into a blouse and dress. "With the new styles I don't even have to make a button hole."
Vileisis beat high cost ( $120) of a Ralph Lauren sweater by finding a picture and knitting it hereself.
Heller, who has found some good buys at discounters, regrets not being able to return to the store and finds it really suits her needs.
But her biggest objection to the current clothes is that she keeps her house at 65 degrees, and finds the skimpy silks and the scant styles inappropriate for cold weather.
"Tell me," she appeals to a friend "do Beautiful People have gooseflesh?" CAPTION: Drawing, "I can't afford'up to', let alone 'from.'", by Smilby: Copyright (c) , 1965, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.