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Fresh Angles

Party dresses are big for spring, along with diagonal lines, sheer layers, jagged hems, cropped pants. Boundaries between fancy and casual blur.


It is said that the economy of a small town with no industry depends upon the residents taking in each other's laundry. A deluge of feminine, frilly dresses just shown in Milan, Paris and New York could prompt the social equivalent of that cooperative system.

The only way a woman could possibly wear enough of the romantic party dresses that will be in the stores next spring would be if her friends throw parties. Then she'll host a bash and invite the friends who invited her. And so on, and so on, until all the ruffled chiffon and lace floral-print dresses have been taken out for an airing.

It's curious that sweet, girlie dresses were the dominant trend on the horizon. How many summer wedding invitations do most women receive? Maybe designers didn't think about how garments would function at all, but just created them in a rarefied atmosphere dedicated to pure aesthetics. Yet women adventurous enough to make their own rules might supply surprising answers on how to wear dresses that look as much like lingerie as clothes.

Miuccia Prada, an early proponent of the romantic look, introduced sheer, diaphanous dresses in her fall collection. Several of her employees wore those same bare, diamond-printed slip dresses a few weeks ago at the early morning Prada show in Milan. They had covered them up with cardigans.

What such pairing of seemingly dressy and sporty elements suggests is a blurring of categories. The woman with enough confidence to say, "It works because I say it does" wears a chiffon dress with handkerchief hem whenever she pleases, or puts a tailored jacket over a filmy skirt. That's what happened a few seasons ago when T-shirts popped up under flowing slip dresses that might have been considered for evening only.

Other looks that appeared repeatedly on the runway:

Transparency: Fragile, often flowered dresses were sheer, sheerer, see-through, but so were some harder-edged styles. Even seams and underwear had nowhere to hide, and the construction of a garment became part of its design. Betsey Johnson colored her lace bras and panties Popsicle orange. Other designers put the models in big, dark briefs, the kind only a boarding school nerd would be forced to wear by a mean mother. One way to create a little camouflage was to layer sheer upon sheer--a short, opaque skirt under a long, sheer one or a tube top over a one-shoulder top.

Asymmetry: They aren't kidding about this angle thing. Necklines and hems followed diagonal lines, and dresses and tops bared a single shoulder.

Cropped pants: The newest styles were cut off just above or below the knee. Call them pedal pushers, capris or clamdiggers, just stop them way north of the ankle. Chanel and Ralph Lauren brought back jodhpurs under long riding jackets, lacing or buttoning them tightly at the ankles.

Uneven and longer hems: Hemlines, often bordered in lace, dipped like a swallow's tail or zigzagged like the edges of a handkerchief. Miniskirts were for only very sporty situations. Straight, tight skirts that stopped just below the knee were often slit high on the side.

The disappearing jacket: A few designers produced sleek suits, including Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani. But the lean pantsuits that Tom Ford of Gucci made the emblem of fall were scarce. As stylish as they still are, trousers and matching jackets may be hard to find. Sweaters and sheer shirts acted as jacket substitutes.

The fabric revolution: Jersey was the material of the season, but matte jersey has been joined by synthetic stretch jerseys. Stretch has been added to poplin, wool and a variety of blends. At their best, the stretchy fabrics, often worn in layers, cling seductively and retain their shape. Knits look terrific too, and crocheted knits can reveal as much as transparent chiffon. Knit camisoles will be a challenge for women who feel uncomfortable braless, and the camisole dress was a pretty variation on the slip dress.

Shoes: The square-toed, chunky-heeled shoes now in the stores are very comfortable. Sexy? Any man will tell you, "No." Sexy shoes will return with the crocuses. They were high-heeled, ankle-strapped, multicolored and sometimes teetered on high wedges.

Real clothes?: Stores will stock the most eye-catching styles but will also scour the marketplace for more conservative clothes. A number of designers' secondary lines offered wearable, well-priced garments. Ralph Lauren's Ralph label has some of the best pantsuits around, as well as some nouveau preppy dresses in stretch seersucker. Ellen Tracy continued to give women the safe pantsuits they want (jazzing them up with knit camisoles) and Isaac Mizrahi's IS**C colors classic sportswear with the brightest Crayolas in the box.

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