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FASHION : Style Equals Attitude, but Not for Columnist : It's best for a writer on the latest thing not to be caught wearing her oldest blouse.

August 17, 1995|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I became a fashion columnist I sought the advice of experts in the field so I wouldn't humiliate myself, have to leave town or change my name to Tania. From Edna Woolman Chase I learned that "fashion can be bought; style one must possess." Profound, but not as homespun as Tammy Faye Baker, who said, "You don't have to be dowdy to be a Christian." Or as practical as the late Gilda Radner, who confessed, "I base most of my fashion taste on what doesn't itch."

With these words ringing in my ears, I set off to learn about fashion and discovered interesting tidbits along the way. For example, at the Thousand Oaks Center for the Performing Arts, I discovered people dressed up, down and everywhere in between at a recent performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak dance troupe.

Black was the dominant color, but one ingenue had on a denim vest over a pink tutu, and she was just part of the audience. Lots of guys wore tuxedos, some with flashy cummerbunds and those collarless shirts that are killing the tie market. Floor-length gowns competed with micro-mini skirts, and judging by the crackling sound emanating from men's swiveling heads, the minis won the popularity vote. But the major lesson to be learned was that anything goes and style seems to equal attitude. If you think you look great, chances are you do.

The white-shoes-in-winter debate never seems to go away. Miss Manners says, "From Memorial Day to Labor Day, you may wear white shoes. Not before, not after. As a command, the white shoe edict should be clear and simple enough. Do not violate it." She probably made her kids eat lumpy oatmeal every morning, winter and summer, too. Anyway, because I love to look down at my feet and see white, I don't kowtow to Miss Manners and notice other people don't either, unless they grew up east of the Mississippi. But those folks still wear gloves to funerals, so forget them.

What about that unspoken edict that plus-sized women shouldn't wear slacks? Try to get women, any sized women, out of long pants and you're likely to get arrested. Well, at least you'll get a royal tongue-lashing. And with all those wonderful over-blouses that practically reach the knees and cover lots of Big Macs, you can look great even in stirrups--if they're still around.

Blue jeans are another problem about to be solved. Unless you happen to be a perfect size something or other, it's hard to get a good fit. Now, Levis is experimenting with made-to-order jeans. They're test-marketing their product in three Eastern states and plan to expand. But if you can't wait and have an altruistic bent, consider prison-made jeans. A penal institution in Oregon makes blue-jean pants and jackets for sale. The profits for these products, called Prison Blues, go to pay back crime victims and supplement prison expenses.

All of these up-to-the minute observations on fashion, however, pale in comparison to what I've learned about writing a fashion column. The best part is never having to explain why you are hanging out at the malls. It's research. Also, buying new clothes is simply keeping up the image. But there is a down side.

You can't just dash out of the house in any old thing because your worst critics are usually lying in wait. They leap out from behind the banana section at the supermarket with an "aha!" look as you cover your spaghetti-stained blouse with a National Enquirer. Or you bump into them at the local video store, where, wearing your bunny slippers, you're returning something R-rated.

Most painful of all is having to endure incredulous looks when people find out you're a fashion columnist. Like the one I got from my mildly acerbic alteration lady when I brought her some pants to hem. As I recall, she said, "You're a what?" as she held my polyester pants between thumb and forefinger in case they were contagious.

So, as you can see, I've learned a lot. Now nothing I wear itches.

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