YOU COULD GET by with last year's little black dress. Shorten the skirt a little, add a pair of sparkling shoulder-dusting earrings and you could easily get another season's wear out of it.
But if you're ready for something new, you'll find a diverse selection of festive fashions this season -- from demure winter pales to flashy fuchsia sequins.
"This year things are brighter, and there's more color," says Ginny Rupp, fashion director for Woodward & Lothrop.
Among the most popular silhouettes for this holiday season are sleek, simple dresses or short, snug skirts.
"Last year, everybody wanted trousers," recalls Linda Scherr, co-owner of Rococo, "but now they want a short skirt." Nancy Chistolini, vice president of fashion merchandising for Hecht's, estimates that the variety in dresses hasn't been this diverse "in at least three years. You can find black velvet dresses with full skirts, black velvet in sheaths and velvet in coatdresses."
In her estimation, "the most important shape is the sheath or wedge and then the coatdress. These aren't basic black dresses that you already have in your wardrobes. These have cutout details, gold trim and stone buttons with color, maybe red crystal. Some coatdresses have buttons that are so wonderful, they could be earrings."
Generally, these dresses will have a shorter hemline.
"Last year, skirts more often covered the knee, but this year they'll be above," Ms. Rupp says.
Jacket dressing is another significant change from last year, says Ann Taylor spokeswoman Geri Savidge. "The idea of jacket dressing was something new for fall, and it's continuing right through into spring."
The longer sweater is another silhouette that distinguishes this holiday season from last, says Shirley Hooper, manager of Octavia. "We have some gorgeous sweaters decorated with different metallic threads and sequins and some winter white ones with pearl trim. Pants are still in the picture under long sweaters -- stirrup pants or crepe pants for more formal occasions."
While trousers may not be as popular as they once were, stirrup pants are a different matter, says Ms. Scherr. "I can't remember when I've had to reorder anything so many times." Jumpsuits are another option more readily available this season. "Jumpsuits have always been there for casual wear, but now I'm seeing them really dressy for the first time," says Ms. Scherr. Whether it's a velvet jumpsuit, coatdress, snug skirt or stirrup pant, black remains the most popular choice for evening, although many women are beginning to experiment with colorful party clothes.
"We're still 90 percent black for night," says Ms. Scherr. "The place I'm bringing in color is in velvet -- in bright purples and emerald green -- at prices under $200, where it's not a major expenditure. When my customers are spending more than $450 on a dress, they're sticking with black."
The black on the market this season is splashier than in recent years. Sparkle, texture and shine have been added.
"Black with gold is probably No. 1," estimates Ms. Chistolini. However popular black might be, Ms. Rupp believes sophisticated use of color can quickly update a wardrobe.
"You'll see the color most in sportswear, such as blouses and sweaters," she says.
Ms. Rupp suggests that the most modern way to wear the brights is contrasted with black, such as a brightly colored sweater over a black stirrup or stretch pant. In contrast to black, winter whites and pales tend to be grouped under the category of "color," in the fashion industry. These are also showing new popularity, but are not
worn in the same fashion as brights.
"The winter whites and pales should be worn in more of a head-to-toe look," says Ms. Rupp.
One advantage white holiday clothing offers over black is its surprising versatility, says Ms. Chistolini. "Black with gold is a very dressy look that's for after 5, but white can
be worn for an open house from 2 to 5 in the afternoon to a party after 5.
"We have all-white dinner suits, a white wool dress from Gillian with sheer sleeves, and Evan-Picone has some beautiful white sweaters, white jackets, white skirts and white trousers. Some can even be worn to work if you have something to go to right after," she says.
Even if you're not in the market for a completely new outfit for the holidays, there are plenty of options for updating your existing party wardrobe on a smaller scale.
Last year's black coatdress can look like this year's by substituting the old matte black buttons with some stunning new gold or crystal buttons.
Favorite old winter white trousers can get new life when paired with the addition of a winter white sweater embellished with pearls or a simple white jacket layered over an elegant white tank.
The possibilities for mixing last year's black crepe separates are just as many. Ann Taylor's black sequin jacket can add sparkle to existing slip dresses, basic black skirts or pants. And a sequin or metallic skirt or tank top from this year's holiday collections can be mixed into your existing evening separates to yield endless new possibilities.