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By Leaps and Gowns : Seeking a Fiance Today? Dressing for Success May Never Be More Critical


The ladies propose, and, if not accepted, claim a silk gown.

--Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable


Legend has it that once every four years, on Feb. 29, a woman can propose marriage to a man without creating a scandal or spoiling her good name.

It's a tradition that dates to 1228. On that leap year, the Scottish parliament decreed that a woman could indeed pop the question--and woe to the man who refused. He paid a hefty fine, unless "he can make it appear that he is betrothed to another woman," according to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.

Today, such traditions seem dated. For a woman to ask a man to marry him no longer requires an act of parliament. The days when a scandalous wedding proposal could send all of society into a tizzy are largely over.

Still, a lot of people are trying to promote togetherness. At Tutto Mare in Fashion Island Newport Beach today, there's a glass of champagne waiting for any woman who pops the question. If he says yes, the couple will have their picture taken. If they get married and return to the restaurant, they will receive a free dinner.

For couples married Feb. 29, the Sutton Place Hotel in Newport Beach is offering a bottle of wine and a leap year cake at its Cafe Fleuri.

For anyone planning an engagement dinner or romantic rendezvous, the really big question besides "Will he say yes?" is "What will I wear?"

Both parties want to look romantic and sexy on the night of their engagement. This is not, after all, a business dinner. If either man or woman wears a suit, overly tailored suits and boxy jackets won't do. Thick padded shoulders aren't even up for discussion.

"For men, I think the answer is linen," says Laura Downing, owner of the Laura Downing Boutique for men and women in Laguna Beach. "Linens are very romantic on men--whether it's a linen shirt or a taupe-colored linen suit."

Men should aim for a softer look, opting for neutral hues in natural fabrics. Laura Downing has a putty-colored linen blazer by Axis ($195) that strikes the right note between dressy and relaxed.

"It's not black, and it's not structured," Downing says.

Another relaxed look for men: a blazer made of dark taupe-colored silk ($210) paired with a black silk pant ($135). The relaxed blazers can be worn with linen or cotton banded-collar shirts, eliminating the need for a tie.

For the woman who might be proposing on bended knee, there's a much greater choice of romantic attire.

Laura Downing offers a collection of romantic dresses by Los Angeles designer Elizabeth Marcel that are inspired by the 1920s-40s, with tight, capped-sleeve knit bodices that drop below the waist and filmy chiffon skirts with fishtail backs ($195-$275).

There's also vintage-style camisoles, shorts, palazzos and dresses by Livingston Williams adorned with eyelet lace in old-fashioned hues such as pale olive, taupe and cocoa ($98 for palazzos, $160 for dresses).

While dresses made of sheer, flowing fabrics are perfect for a romantic evening, would-be fiancees should avoid the kind of tent dresses with tiny floral prints, high waists and miles of fabric that were all the rage several years ago.

"Men hate those!" says Trudie Sloan, co-owner of Sloan & Katcef Inc., a women's boutique in Laguna Niguel.

"Granny dresses are history. The new romantic looks have to have costuming. Before, they were pretty plain."

The new crop of romantic dresses is sleeker, with such details as dropped waists, ruffles and puckers. They're made of flowing materials such as finely pleated rayon.

Designer Marrika Nakk of Los Angeles creates rayon dresses with ruffled sleeves, frilly necklines, scalloped hems and other soft touches. Her skirts also flow with the body; the Isadora has eight panels of softly crinkled rayon cut on the bias, with a scalloped hem (about $120-$168 at Sloan & Katcef).

"You can put it with a corset top and a lace slip," Sloan says. "It's perfect for dancing."

Women who want that angelic, bridal look on their engagement night often head to the White House--not the one on Pennsylvania Avenue, but the store in MainPlace/Santa Ana that carries only white or off-white clothing.

"White is very fresh, very pure and very virginal," says Courtney Diroll, West Coast district manager of the White House. "It makes you think of the first time you saw 'Great Gatsby.' "

Among the period pieces at the White House that recall old-fashioned, Gatsby-ish romances: a rayon crepe cream-colored dress with a lace inset in front and flounce around the bottom by Pamela Brown ($189), and a short, fitted embroidered dress in stark white ($159) with matching embroidered vest ($98) by Johnny Was.

Modern Romance, a boutique in Fashion Island Newport Beach that specializes in romantic attire for women, carries camisoles that are both sexy and sweet. Made of ivory or white lace, they have necklines adorned with tiny pink satin rosettes ($79).

One does not need to wait until leap year to don such romantic looks. Says Theresa Johnson, co-owner of Modern Romance:

"Romance is never going to go out. It's timeless."

In the Eyes of the Beloved

* Nearly two-thirds of women believe in love at first sight.

* More than eight out of 10 women feel they can tell if someone loves them by the look in a person's eye.

* Almost eight out of 10 women remember the eye color of their first love.

* More than half of women see passion/romance and sensitivity when they look into the eyes of the man they love.

Source: Wesley-Jessen Corp. FreshLook Survey

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