NEW YORK Many evening clothes have changed less in the past century than almost any article of apparel except perhaps men's cravats. A woman who would have been appropriately dressed for a turn-of-the-century salon would probably not cause heads to turn at a major charity ball today. While the rigidity and the number of the underpinnings have been reduced over the years, the outward effect has remained pretty much the same.
Now, at long last, change seems to be under way radical change. For the newest evening dresses are short shorter than many were in the 1960s, much shorter than they were in the 1920s. Fingertip length is now the norm.
Instead of gripping the body, they tend to float around it. Many styles are just big poufs that can make the right woman look like a flower on a long stalk. Certainly they emphasize the leggy look.
At the recent spring and summer fashion showings, the models showing these short, fluffy styles seemed to have unending legs.
While some of the easy, short dresses were in fabrics as prosaic as cotton pique or checked gingham, many were totally festive, ranging from metallic brocades to combinations of prints to rustling taffeta and luminous satin.
BEven Calvin Klein's minimalist crepe shifts fit the body with such elegance that they looked totally appropriate for black-tie evenings.
Geoffrey Beene managed to put together flowers, bits of rickrack and dots in such a way that they acquired a look of grandeur despite their midthigh lengths.
It is possible, of course, to go too far.
When a grown woman ends up looking like a toddler, this is too far. But a look in a full-length mirror can usually head off this disaster in the fitting room. Sometimes just lengthening the hem a smidgen can make the difference between youthful attractiveness and a baby look.
The traditional evening dress controls the body. The wires and stays inserted to hold the shape of the standard dress, usually to shape hourglass curves, are not as restrictive as Scarlett O'Hara's and are not likely to cause a fainting spell. But they do discourage vigorous movement, as do floor-length skirts.
The short, floaty dresses do nothing of the sort. Many hardly touch the body; none pull at it. Some come with petticoats. A few have matching panties, obligatory when models swirl about on a raised runway but not absolutely necessery in real life. Still, it is a nice touch and may add a feeling of security.