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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, right, are both known for wearing pantsuits.
updated 9/20/2011 11:13:10 AM ET 2011-09-20T15:13:10

When it comes to office fashion, is it better to skirt around the issue?

According to a new study at the U.K.’s University of Hertfordshire, pants on women aren’t as favored in the office as skirts. While previous research reportedly suggested women should dress more like men, a new poll reveals “skirts give a better first impression.”

(Could it be this season’s popular midi-length style?)

In the study, 300 participants (males and females aged from 14 to 67) were asked  to provide snap judgments of images featuring women in various office outfits — skirts and pantsuits made in the same exact fabric and color — with the faces blurred. They then gave feedback based on five factors: confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary and flexibility. In just three seconds, they were able to determine they far preferred the more feminine options.

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“Women generally have a wider choice of dress style for work than men, but still have to maintain an identity that balances professionalism with attractiveness and the skirt suit may achieve that balance without appearing provocative,” wrote professor Karen Pine, who co-led the study. “First impressions are formed rapidly and are often highly accurate.”

Meredith Lepore, editor of women’s career site TheGrindstone.com, agrees: “First impressions are everything, and if a woman in a skirt is perceived to be more confident and trustworthy, then you are going to have to work that much harder if your pantsuit doesn't convey those things automatically.”

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While Lepore says there isn’t a “huge difference” between the two styles, there is still a difference. Whereas women once thought a more masculine outfit might help them be taken more seriously, wearing a skirt might just signal that she’s confident not to have to rely on slacks.

For business, Lepore looks to IMF director Christine Lagarde, who wears bright outfits with classic, personal touches like a French scarf or jewelry, or Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who maintains feminine yet not-overly fashionable looks that are still authoritative and powerful.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t rock the Hillary Clinton look, says Lepore. “I think you can work past a snap judgment, but it is hard.”

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Photos: 5 fall trends you'll wear into the spring

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  1. 5 fall trends you'll wear into the spring

    By Bobbie Thomas

    Although most of us have yet to wear new favorites for this fall, the Spring 2012 shows just wrapped up here at New York Fashion week. And while Heidi Klum’s catch phrase “One minute you are in, and the next you are out!” may come to mind, there’s a glam silver lining. I’ve taken note of the looks we’ll be seeing again in the new year, so you can invest wisely now:

    Be bold
    The colorblocking trend that's all over stores this year continues to be a statement-maker for spring, with bold stripes and vibrant color on the runways at BCBG Max Azria, Tommy Hilfiger and others. The punchy pinks, bright corals, and neon-like yellows that turned up the volume on the runways could easily be worn this winter with black, browns, and caramel. Then come next year, lighten them up with white and beige.

    Neon Lace Mini, $82.33, Asos.com (AP, asos) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Go long

    Midi-length skirts, dresses and airy maxis flowed down the runways of Derek Lam, DKNY, Jason Wu and many more with hemlines of every kind – asymmetrical, scoop, handkerchief and slits have all been seen at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. So the longer lengths you’ve seen all summer and in stores this fall will be wise investments. Keep warm by pairing these ladylike styles with boots and textured tights and keep cool come spring by pairing with wedges or a simple flat.

    Box Pleated Hi Low, $58, Needsupply.com (Getty Images/Need Supply Co.) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Love leather

    Forget the clunky coats of decades past – recent runways have shown sleek leather dresses and cute, cropped jackets. A slim pencil skirt in black or rust leather is also great buy; it can complement a soft sweater or tie neck blouse for the office and can be worn with a dainty tee or top for a fresh, seasonless style.

    Leather Front Tee, $100, Topshop.com (Getty Images/TOPSHOP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Prints and patterns

    The fall runways were full of mixed motifs. Navajo met geometric, animal print paired up with stripes, graphics even met with polka dots. The clash of designs were seen again, and lots of digital prints were shown. Designers such as Prabal Gurung, Cynthia Rowley, and Alexander Wang paraded "look-at-me"-printed prints down the catwalk. Consider what’s already in your closet or pick up some bold pieces, so you can start experimenting now to perfect your favorite combos.

    Snakeskin Print Blazer, $79.99, Zara.com (Getty Images/ZARA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Tribal motifs

    Tribal motifs popped up on fall runways and again in the Spring 2012 collections. The earthy ethnic looks are a great year round way to mix in a bit of bohemian chic. For just a hint, pick up a statement necklace or handbag, pair with black for a little edge, or go for head-to-toe with a dress.

    Flutter Sleeve Printed Chiffon Trim Handkerchief Hem, $34.99, Macys.com (Getty Images/Macy's) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. AP, asos
    Above: Slideshow (5) 5 fall trends you'll wear into the spring
  2. Image: Jeremy Scott - Runway - Spring 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week
    Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images
    Slideshow (36) Fun, bizarre style at New York Fashion Week

Video: Stylish office outfits


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