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FASHION : Dressing Backward Is a Trend That's Going to Press Forward : Current fads include garments with the seams protruding, producing the popular inside-out look.

January 13, 1994|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One function of clothing is to express protest. This was first discovered by the Chinese many years ago, when they successfully brought looser underwear to the masses by staging the Boxer Rebellion.

But the trend was not fully developed until modern times, when almost everyone under 30 got into the act.

Defiant dressing may be overt--such as wearing slogans so rude that people cross the street to avoid the wearer--or passive, including our topic for today: reversed attire.

Sociologists are no doubt tracking this trend and will one day publish their conclusions. But, the fashion-conscious have long seen the signs.

Many Americans have a longing to wear their clothing backward.

This first surfaced in the '50s, when teen-age girls braved stern dress codes to slip on their cardigan sweaters with the buttons down the back. Never mind the pain of pearl buttons pressed against school desk chairs--it was worth it. Youth was making a fashion statement, ahead of its time.

The urge showed up again not long ago. A wave of reversed baseball caps appeared on thousands of people who have never worn a catcher's mask, and wouldn't know one if it fell on them. Young males began the gesture, but were joined by their sisters and mothers, the less bold of whom turned the caps sideways.

Eventually, the movement faded; but the craving to turn accessories around lived on. Women, bent on asserting their autonomy, took to wearing their necklaces backward.

This is a subtle ploy as protests go, and has failed to shock most of the population. So, the quest for deviant dressing continues.

Now, the human form being what it is, there are few items of clothing that can be worn backward without interfering with bodily functions. But youth invented another means of breaking tradition: They turned their clothes inside out. Campuses were filled with young people looking as though they had dressed rapidly in dark closets.

But designers had learned to prowl around youth hangouts such as libraries and nightclubs and pick up clues. Soon, this seam-forward look was in the stores, ready-made.

What's more, it won't go away. Current fashions have dozens of outfits with seams protruding like badly sutured scars, some in patchwork squares of stitching extending all over the garment.

And this look is spreading locally.

"We had a whole rack of 'inside-out' sweaters; it sold out very fast," said Claudia Zeledon at The Broadway in Ventura recently.

In Simi Valley, Karen Hicks, manager at Splash Fashions, also said the style is popular.

"I think it's in because of the times--it has that recycled look," was her opinion.

So far, we cannot predict how far this impulse will go. We can only assume that it will stop short of formal and boudoir wear; but, who knows. Designers themselves are not without their rebellions.

Nor, it seems, are those to whom the nation looks for fashion leadership. Recently photographed wearing her pearl choker clasp-forward was: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

One would have thought if anyone were satisfied with her role in the status quo, it would be America's First Lady. Apparently, not so.

In her case, we're glad that when discontent reached the point of protest, reversed attire was there to fill the need. The White House is no place for blunt remarks on T-shirts.

Kathleen Williams writes the weekly fashion column for Ventura County Life. Write to her at 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura 93003 or send faxes to 658-5576.

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