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First Resort

Once Upon a Time, Seaside Spas Were a Whirl of Carefree Colors and Seductive Fabrics. That Glamour is Back Just in Time.

February 25, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | Mary McNamara is a staff writer in The Times' Southern California Livingsection

Women in movies never seem to have any luggage. They arrive at their luxurious resorts-by-the-sea in convertibles just large enough to hold their size 4 selves and Cary Grant. Even their perfectly wind-whipped scarves don't actually fit in the car, but flutter behind, like clouds trailing the sinking sun. Certainly there is no room for any bag larger than a train case full of the requisite cosmetics.

So there they are, these beautiful women, in Miami Beach or Monte Carlo, the French Riviera or Laguna, with no luggage to speak of. And yet there are clothes. Heaps of clothes, armfuls of clothes--and not just any clothes, but fabulous resort clothes. Flirty short sets and linen trousers, wasp-waisted skirts that flare and sway like inverted morning glories, madras clam diggers, daring hot pants to be worn with sheer prints bloused over bandeau bikini tops.

And the dresses. By day, the sherbet neons of New Orleans--tangerine, fuchsia, pistachio, electric baby blue and lavender--all swirled and spotted and dabbed on dressy sleeveless A-lines with side slits and back slits and necklines down to the waistline. Or poufy silk skirts with long-sleeve crop tops, black and white in zigzags and stripes--Sabrina as played by Audrey Hepburn or Julia Ormond.

Night falls full-length and formal for intimate dinners or parties, where couples find each other leaning against a patio pillar, a balcony rail. There are gold cigarette lighters and smoldering glances, much persuasion but few promises in an orgy of enormous jewelry and gold lame, of silk and chiffon, with silver sandals to die for, or heels that could kill.

But where do the clothes come from? Marilyn's mob-entrancing gowns in "Some Like It Hot" were certainly not pulled out of her ukulele case. Even Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis had far more lovely dresses than their few suitcases could hold. Perhaps they bought the clothes at the resort and abandoned them when they left. Because these are not clothes that fit into everyday life. The point of these clothes is vacation, holiday, adventure. They are symbols of a certain carefree life that one might aspire to if one were rich enough, or wily enough, to arrive at a beach resort with no luggage.

Whether on screen or in a real desert, resorts are mirages come to life, where everything--the service, the pampering, the scenery, the golf course--is over-the-top, illusory. The perfect flavor for the styles arriving in the wake of the dot-com boom-bust. Splashing color across the runways and the closets of the hiperati, the latest looks are Pucci-on-the-beach. Miami Beach. The Lilly Pulitzer prints, the silver-strapped sandals, the white leather bathing suits--these do not evoke a lifestyle that requires clothing with SPF ratings or wicking potential. Instead, they conjure the intoxicating mix of sex, sand and money--of image versus reality.

Those who mingle with the money where the water meets the land are not necessarily who they seem to be, and they are not necessarily safe. The scam David Mamet spun out in "The Spanish Prisoner" only could have begun on a monied beach. And who can forget Hyman Roth's birthday party on that open-air terrace in "Godfather II"?

With their outrageous hemlines and cut-out shoulders and dizzying fabrics, these are retro-poser clothes, paeans to the beauty of a good scam, the tension of watching to see how far a masquerade can go. Cocktails and love affairs, poolside business deals and con men, with the odd golf game or tennis match thrown in.

There's a hint of camp in the new styles as well--the sheer floral blouses tied at the waist over bathing suits or hot pants is very Fontainebleau. And it's certainly politically appropriate; those Florida ladies need some cheering up, after all. If their votes didn't count, then their strappy sandals certainly should.

Some might argue that this is the logical next step after the resurrection of the '70s, and there is a psychedelic echo in the patterns and the hues. But these are not styles of a time. Rather, they're of an attitude. These are clothes with the same roots and aspirations as ever-reaching bougainvillea, as the ubiquitous palm. They are born of the affluent watering holes of Europe, Florida, Southern California. The places people go when they want to be free, or when they've run out of other places to hide.

The clothes we wear in such places are dress-up clothes. They're nonsensical, whimsical, satirical, fun. They are clothes of escape, of revelry, of excess. They are costumes or disguises, distractions or advertisements. They don't play in Terre Haute or Billings.

They are what we wear when we're standing on the edge of the world.

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