"An overpraised season," Samuel Butler scoffed, his pen aimed at both youth and spring.
Of course, he wasn't surrounded by the latest crop of flirtatious crinolines, coquettish bustiers, dreamy soft skirts and seductive safari wear. No one is scoffing at them, least of all retailers who find the current spate of high-spirited femininity is fueling sales.
As the hard edge rolls off clothing, Southern California women are buying the new fashion statements, everything from short, poufy evening dresses to soft, drapey pantsuits. The early best sellers, polled from five major stores, reveal, among other things, that women are taking to the hemline extremes--knee skimming and ankle grazing. Petticoats are all over the place. Shoulders are the new bare assets, and a waistline is a girl's second-best friend. (Diamonds, you may recall, are her first.)
Leather is the new lightweight champion. Polka dots and stripes abound. Pink, khaki, butterscotch, icy yellow, mint and blue are the irresistible shades. Novel interpretations of sandals, espadrilles and ballet slippers are important foot notes. The reptile look marches forward from fall, and everything in the world is happening to denim.
Designers are "torturing it, dyeing it, trampling it, embroidering it," Daria Retian, vice president in charge of creative services for Neiman-Marcus, says.
At Neiman's in Beverly Hills, the denim of choice is by Palmer & Palmer. Best sellers include a broad-shoulder patchwork jacket over a full skirt, softened in texture and covered with a faded scroll pattern.
Customers are getting away from pants and experimenting with skirts, both long and short, Retian says. They're trying out layers of cotton for the "pseudo-prairie look," or layers of lace and tulle for evening glamour.
They're adding lizard and ostrich to their belt collections and showing a preference for fitted, bare-shouldered tops that can be tucked in or worn out and belted.
Among fast-moving "interesting petticoats," Retian says, are the multilayered variety with a top layer that works as a skirt.
At I. Magnin's in Beverly Hills, store manager Karen Ohringer reports similar customer favorites: "We can't keep crinolines in stock. We haven't asked women to wear them in years. Now we're saying you can wear two or three."
The more adventurous customers, she adds, are buying them to wear on the street over bodysuits and tights.
In other departments, the "civilized safari" look has caught on. Khaki versions are being paired with reptile accessories, including sandals. Denim or chambray is worn with petticoats (of course), lace bustiers and designer ballerina slippers.
One of the hottest-selling dresses in the store is Cathy Hardwick's short, strapless tulle-and-black-jersey for evening. But while customers are "really responding to shorter lengths," Ohringer says, "we're not saying everything in everyone's closet has to be short."
At Bullock's, stripes are selling fast--both Adrienne Vittadini's cotton knit separates, accented by bright, bold numbers, and Ellen Tracy's multipurpose, softly tailored pantsuit.
Designers, such as Donna Karan, who has turned out "safari with a twist," are credited by fashion director Sylvia Percelay with injecting a freshness into the season.
"The whole feminine look is being embraced. Women are uninhibited, unafraid about that kind of choice," she says, adding that the important accessories are "anything that underscores the romantic, feminine trend: lace bows, lace gloves, lace jabots, lace pocket handkerchiefs. Little touches that will enhance the look."
The season's new-found femininity is also working its way into many professional wardrobes.
"Maybe it won't be a petticoat with a suit, if you're an attorney," Percelay explains, "but women are looking for softer shoulders and blouses with lace edges. There are new options and they're willing to try them."
"It's a refreshing change," LeeAnn Roskelley, fashion coordinator for Nordstrom, agrees. "There's more femininity without being sweet."
Women are showing a preference for what Roskelley calls a modern romantic look. Sometimes it's a short, "flippy" skirt teamed with a tailored jacket, or it's Valentino's nostalgic polka dot, peplum dress.
Then there is the whimsical, best represented by form-fitting dresses, skirts and jackets made of rubber. "They're meant to be taken with a sense of humor," Roskelley says of the private-label merchandise. "They're very tongue in cheek. And they're definitely warm. You probably could lose weight in them."
At the Broadway, fashion director Lee Hogan Cass includes in the season's best sellers: "new items that look good with what people already own." Among these are frosted denim jackets, Carole Little's multi-snapped knit shirts with Henley necklines and anything that's slightly faded, including florals and geometrics.
What's passe, Cass says, "is anything that's sloppy." And her list of fitted apparel appealing to customers ranges from off-the-shoulder knit tops to dresses with narrow or full skirts and tightly cinched waists.
For women who enjoyed hiding in the oversize clothing of past seasons, Cass holds out plenty of hope: "They can let their clothes swing. There's the trapeze look from a number of designers. And what is more concealing than a big, full skirt?"
As for all the show of skin for spring, she is equally reassuring.
"The shoulders are among the last things to go, so there are a lot of women over 35 or 45 who are going to wear bare shoulders."