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Page 2 / Fashion | SENSE OF STYLE

High There

June 04, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

Change is the lifeblood of fashion. So the most important question, asked at the beginning of each new season, is: "What's new?" What's different; what styles will distinguish the summer of 1998 from last year and the year before?

A local television station asked me that a few months ago, when they wanted to compile a list of "Must-Haves for Spring" for a segment on an afternoon news show. (In my book, a "must have" is water or affection. As passionate as I am about clothes, I shudder to think that any item of clothing could be considered necessary to existence.) Nevertheless, cropped pants headed my list, retitled "What's New for Spring."

Short pants had appeared a year ago, when

Donna Karan offered khakis cut off just above the knee under her DKNY label and Ralph Lauren cropped the legs of narrow

trousers at the top of the calf and paired them with matching jackets. When spring collections were shown last October, abbreviated pants were all over the runways of Milan, Paris and New York, and Los Angeles designers loved the look too.

The shorter pants, called clamdiggers, pedal pushers or capris, seemed fresher than the parade of lacy slipdresses, beaded camisoles or sleeveless sheaths that, despite differences in details, were awfully similar to what already hung in stylish women's closets.

But when I told the TV news producer about them, she said, "Oh, gee. Can't you substitute something else? I don't think those are going to look good on very many people."

I was face to face with a raging case of fashion phobia. The more I encountered it, the more I became fascinated with its symptoms. Every time someone asked, "What's new for spring?" I'd talk about cropped pants and watch for a reaction. I wish I could say my research yielded an epidemiological understanding of fashion phobia. I only know that while at one time it seemed as though women could be classified as Bettys and Veronicas, or those who liked "Thelma & Louise" and those who thought it was dumb as dust, now there were two new categories: women who couldn't wait to jump into capris and those who reacted to a desire to embrace innovation just as others cope with an urge to exercise--they figured they'd lie down till the feeling passed.

I suspected that resistance to the new reflected more than the judgment that the world would be grateful if certain calves remained covered up. Of course, not every style is for everybody. Or for every body. But if women weren't open to new ideas now and then, we'd all be walking around in June Cleaver's perky shirtwaists or Marcia Brady's bell-bottoms. I was shocked by how many women leapt to the assumption that cropped pants wouldn't flatter them. Were their more adventurous friends descended from pioneers, or breast- instead of bottle-fed? For every woman who whined about being too short for clamdiggers or having been cursed with fat ankles, there was another clever shopper who figured out that the cheapest ticket to looking current was a pair of black capri pants.

"We started getting the capris in in January," said Molly Isaksen, manager of the Ron Herman boutique in Brentwood. "There's always a trendy group of customers who go for what's newest, no matter what it is. But besides them, we've had a huge demand for the cropped pants, from 12-year-olds to 50-year-olds."

Those who can contain their fashion phobia long enough to get into a dressing room will discover that subtle differences in cropped pants can make one pair a loser and another a keeper. Some are meant to be worn tight, others look better baggy. "There are so many different styles that any person with any kind of figure for fashion could find a pair that would look good on them," Isaksen said. "You don't have to be tall with skinny legs. If you try on a pair that hits you in the wrong place, we probably have another style that will hit you right. There are so many lengths that it's easy to find a pair that works."

The acceptance of cropped pants in L.A. reflects how much more casual dress is here. By March, women with inborn immunity to fashion phobia were spied at supermarkets and ballgames, concerts and malls, having found their own way to wear clamdiggers with platform sandals and tank tops. Pedal pushers aren't appropriate to wear to the office, but with a sleeveless, boatneck top and mules, they can be perfect for cocktails. They look best with open shoes, any kind of sandal, slide or mule. Sneakers and ballet slippers work too. Pumps and loafers don't. Tops cut short and close to the body look better than anything blousy and oversized.

I'm afraid that the minor outbreak of fashion phobia that greeted capris is nothing compared to the plague that might surface in September. Because the answer to the question "What's new for fall?" is . . . long skirts.

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