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A Thousand Shades of Weather-Beaten Khaki

November 14, 1996|BETTY GOODWIN

The Movie: "The English Patient"

The Setup: A severely ill patient, Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), once a dashing Hungarian map maker, reflects on time spent in the North African desert, where he fell in love before the outbreak of World War II.

The Costume Designer: Ann Roth, whose credits include "Sabrina" (with Bernie Pollack), "The Birdcage," "Working Girl," "Biloxi Blues" and "Postcards From the Edge."

Trend Watch: The forthcoming "Evita" promises to be the season's big merchandising movie, but the handsome, functional working gear seen here--what we now recognize as safari clothing--just might influence more fashion collections. (Ralph Lauren's spring collection, shown in New York late last month, drew inspiration from Africa.)

The Look: Relying on such sources as the British Royal Geographic Society archives, including photos of a map-making expedition believed to have included de Almasy, Roth learned that, on safari, the men occasionally dressed in suits and the women in furs. But here, she takes the rugged road. Soft desert hues turn up on both genders in the form of sensual skins (short zip-up jackets), weather-beaten khaki shorts and trousers, and heavy lace-up boots. Yards of muslin used by Bedouins to protect their heads were adopted by the Europeans as a defense against the sun.

Triumph: British newlywed Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) emerges in a jaunty working wardrobe of jodhpurs, ski-style pants with side-button cuffs (one of Roth's inventions), crisp white blouses and, by the fireside, a wrap of red ikat-weave plaid for a touch of the exotic. For dress-up in Cairo, she appears in mostly whites, including a silk chiffon gown and a sheer, puff-sleeved embroidered dress (made from a tablecloth Roth bought from a Pennsylvania antique dealer). Roth's biggest influences, she says, were photographs taken by Lee Miller on her Egyptian foray in the '30s and a book on prewar British debutantes titled "1939: The Last Season of Peace."

You Should Know: World War II buffs will find that the various British uniforms--including examples from the Australian, Indian, South African and Scottish regiments (kilts and khaki shirts)--are either originals or line-for-line copies from Nathans, which first made them.

Trivia: The Royal Canadian nurse Hana's two civilian dresses, one pink floral and the other blue, were inspired by the colors of a Piero della Francesca fresco highlighted in a church scene.

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