The place setting is one of H.D. Anderson’s specialties. She knows exactly what every conceivable component on a place mat is for, from the soupspoon to the cold salmon fork. She knows the way to project an appropriate image while eating sorbet. She tells her clients to think of a dinner plate as if it were the face of a clock, and to place different pieces of silverware at different times on the clock face, depending on the piece and what message you want to communicate. Butter knife at 3:15, or shrimp fork at 4:20, may mean you’re finished–or just pausing for conversation. Who knows? It costs money to find out. The wrong piece placed at the wrong time on the clock face may convey to others that the diner is not a CEO but a mail boy or a lower-middle manager.

“The doing-your-own-thing 80s-philosophy people are in trouble,” says H.D. “Today you must stay abreast of corporate savvy. I read all the business publications, and I teach people skills so they never have to question themselves. A handshake! There’s so many things to know about a handshake. Don’t shake like a fish. Don’t cover a handshake with your other hand. That’s paternalism. I’m constantly being informed. I spend a lot of time keeping abreast of the trends.”

H.D. sits on the couch for an hour and a half talking about herself, and never touches the black coffee she’s asked the hostess for.

“I didn’t want to spoil my lipstick,” she says. “You understand. But I asked for it because you were having something.”

H.D. is an expert at knowing the right thing to do. And say. And wear. H.D. is a professional image consultant, a newish career category whose practitioners combine the skills of Tish Baldridge, a good shrink, and a top-notch saleslady at Saks.

“Self-esteem is so important,” says H.D. “You’re valuable. Time is valuable. But how can you value yourself if you’re doing nonsense?”

Apparently there are a lot of bumbling goofballs out there doing nonsense but landing high-powered, visible positions nevertheless. The kind of people who wake up one day and find they have a need for someone to tell them exactly what to wear, how to eat, how to speak, and what to say to the boss’s wife or husband.

For a fee, H.D. plays the part of Henry Higgins.

“I want to be a client’s alter ego,” says H.D. She works out of her Chestnut Street apartment, often calling on a bevy of support personnel on a per diem basis to help determine clients’ facial shapes, best colors, and the best specialty shop for them. Stuff like that.

“My client and I have to be able to talk in unison, or we won’t accomplish goals,” says H.D. “‘Share with me your desires,’ I tell clients. ‘Tell me where you want to go.’ I have to have that information to assist you.

“Nineties people want structure. They want to know how to act.”

H.D. works on a retainer that depends on a person’s budget. “I can do barely nothing–or I can do as much as you can afford,” she says.

Wardrobe defines one’s position, H.D. maintains. “For example,” she says, “if you have an office with a window, you are supposed to dress differently than your secretary. Basic dress codes differ in different parts of the country and by position, and a boss should never go too far beneath that.

“I can put a costume, or costumes, for you in place–from one of the stores that matches your budget. We can get jackets, skirts, shoes that are best for you. Then you never have to give your clothes a thought. I pull together a wardrobe, and I tell people how to carry and present themselves. I evaluate their manners. I get everything together based on how much money they’re prepared to spend. It’s all a matter of how much they’re willing to invest.”

H.D. says everyone needs a “base costume” that can be worn at a moment’s notice no matter where you get invited. “It’s essential–and it should always be ready, cleaned and pressed,” she says. “So if you have to be at the White House tonight, you’ll have everything ready. Earrings. Purse.” H.D. says that ideally everyone needs base costumes for business and for “real life.” “And they should never be mixed together.”

H.D., who has grown daughters, is single and thin; she’s had previous careers heading a real estate business and an international food company. “Don’t ask about husbands, children, or age,” she says. “Those things have no relevance to H.D. I’m only four-feet, eleven-and-three-quarters-inches tall, but everyone thinks I’m five-six or five-seven. I’m an illusion dresser, so everyone–even I–thinks I’m tall.”

Today, H.D. has her black hair pulled tightly back in a bun. She wears a dark short skirt and a plain top. She looks conservative but hip. “I often change my own image depending on who I’m meeting with,” she says. “I dress differently if my client is in the entertainment field than I would if my client were strictly corporate. Do you understand what I mean?”

H.D. says she is a one-person support system. “One client I have didn’t want to show her body. She was wearing big, loose tent dresses that were all wrong for her. She felt because she had been pregnant many times that her body was not attractive. But she really needed clothes that showed off her body. For her image. The body was really very nice. So she established a bonding with me. I took her to places. I made her strip down to her bra and panties and I showed her that her body was fine. I really feel good about my work. She was a very important, beautiful woman, and I told her to let the rest of the world know that.”

H.D. says that when she began image consulting a few years ago, it was not a common occupation. “But I knew things, like the first 30 seconds you meet someone determines a first impression, and I could explain that to people. I could explain how and why wardrobe is important. I had no idea other people were actually doing this and that it had a name. This business is not only artistic, it’s hard-nosed. And I get my clients by word of mouth.

“Of course, I have to screen clients. Not a little, but a lot.

“Today, I base my business on English philosophy. My recorder has a British accent. The British know when to say what. They don’t open their mouths and let everything come out of it.”

H.D. says some image consultants have a cruel streak but that she’s a “velvet glove” type. “I’m not brutal,” she says. “I’m more nurturing, with a personal approach. I’m not interested in mass production.”

Though H.D. says “aware men” seek her out, 75 percent of her clients are women: insurance agents, authors, medical directors. H.D. found that one foreign woman with many skills was trying too hard to be all-American. “I encouraged her to maintain her base, and only upgrade herself to what is acceptable in the marketplace,” says H.D. “I mean, it’s like the people from the Middle East who are here doing business. Someone has informed them how to act. And it is the same the other way around.”

Another woman sought help in changing her “smoking, drinking, loud image” to one more consistent with the company she worked for. “It was a real tug-of-war for her,” says H.D. “I said, ‘As long as you have skills, why project the wrong image?’

“I never advocate extremes in appearance. I say buy the best black suit you can afford and two wonderful silk off-white blouses–keep one always fresh–and stay away from hoop earrings. And get the best watch you can afford. I teach techniques to remember names, too. These are the basic needs to survive in the world. Good manners are with you always.

“And if you don’t have any more money, I’ll be happy to refer you to some reference books to enhance your foundation. Or maybe you’d like to make an appointment only occasionally to reinforce your comfort level–like a checkup at the doctor’s office. Seasons change. Needs change. And you could move up in the firm. Once I have a client, I like to think we’re together forever.”