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How much is too much to spend on clothes?

She walks into Armani, the temple of the sleek latter-day L.A. woman, and buys seven outfits. That will hold her for four months. Last week, she strode into the Harari boutique on Melrose Avenue, known for its beautiful print silk dresses and funky jackets, and scooped up three suits, a shirt and a jacket. The transaction took her 1{ hours and cost $4,500.

"I always spend in one fell swoop $2,500 to $4,500," says Beth Cannon, a personal manager in the entertainment industry. "What clothes do is, they make you feel good."

Cannon, 37, estimates her annual clothing tab at $30,000. She also makes a mid-six-figure salary, dashes from business meetings to political dinners and shares the expenses of a house and a 20-month-old son (she spends $5,000 on him) with her husband.

"I don't do anything with guilt," Cannon says, then amends: "I just eat with guilt."

Couture is dying, excess is incorrect, and Wal-Mart is thriving. Americans spent $586 per household on women's apparel in 1992, according to the U.S. Labor Department, down from $607 in 1991.

"Austerity" may be the byword of the '90s, but not in some women's closets. These shoppers don't flinch when admitting that they spend four or five figures a year on clothes, whether they can afford it or not. And others confess that they might spend more if only they knew what to buy. For most everyone, it seems, new clothes (preferably on sale) are still one powerful feel-good thing.

"I love the smell of new clothes. I love the way they feel. I love to be wearing something new," says hairdresser Nicole Kramer, 28, a cellulite-free former actor.

She juggles her estimated $500 a month in clothing expenditures among a passel of credit cards, from Barneys New York to Bullock's, and admits that she outshops her income. "If I didn't shop, I could probably have a savings account," she says with a laugh.

This level of shopping, whether financially painful or painless, is the province of the privileged and the professional, of course. These are women who do business on the fast track, who want to convey a certain image _ and clothes are part of that.

"You want to keep up with the fashions because you're selling the way you look," says Kramer, who wears short skirts, leggings and jodhpurs to the Amato salon in Beverly Hills where she cuts hair.

But work is sometimes just an excuse to clothe the soul. After all, Cannon wears her exquisite clothes only to thrice-weekly meetings and events. In her office, "I dress every day the same way," she says. "Black leggings and a top and sneakers."

Women who spend a lot know how costly style can be, so they're skeptical of anyone who weighs in too low. Told that one young professional woman spends only about $300 a year on clothes, another woman scoffed: "Oh, she's lying."

Still, some professional women do allocate less money for clothes in a year than they would pay for a pair of in-season Manolo Blahniks.

"I feel like I don't have taste," says 34-year-old Alicia Wollerton, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Providencia Elementary School in Burbank. A former actor, Wollerton traces her last spending binge to a 1990 L.A. theatrical production.

"I was in Tamara with all these actors who had such a unique style," she says. "I thought, "I'm going to do that'." But her shopping spree at Bullock's was less than successful. She felt awkward in her new clothes: "I'm just a sweat pants kind of girl." She now spends a mere $300 a year on comfortable pants and tops, and fishes $20 shoes from Sacha of London outlets and $10 Birkenstock knockoffs from discount stores.

Other women, unable to justify large expenditures, have forced themselves to scale back.

When Marj Baker was a senior publicist at Lorimar seven years ago, she spent $200 to $300 a month on clothes. Now that she's an independent entertainment publicist with a home office, she can't rationalize the expense. "And it breaks my heart," says Baker, 44, laughing. Her uniform of jeans, T-shirts ("shoes are optional") and other casual wears adds up to about $1,000 a year.

"Every once in a while you have to splurge," she says, confessing to buying a jacket and slacks, a vest and two cotton tanks for $270 at Robinsons-May last year. "That was a fabulous sale."

Some buyers suffer at least momentary remorse: "Every time I ever have anything in my car, I feel terribly guilty," says Kramer of the post-shopping drive home. "I think I've made a terrible mistake, but never terrible enough to return the clothes."

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