Fashion follies

Anna Quindlen

September 19, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

AT THE beginning of each new season, fashion designers provide a great service for the women of America. They make them laugh.

They do not rely simply on their prices. Each season they supplement sticker shock with some new concept that is sure to amuse anyone leading a reality-based life.

Several years ago they made evening dresses with big puffy skirts thatrose below your chin like taffeta goiters when you sat down, and this spring a few of them had a bad attack of fuchsia and chartreuse, apparently unaware that women do not want to look like toucans.

Then there are sad retailing stories that no one is buying clothes. That's because the emperors are designing them.

For fall they've outdone themselves. "This season you can be sure there will be a zippered leather jacket and a tartan pleated skirt in your fashion future," the fashion column said Tuesday.

I'm sure.

When I realized that the fashion future was going to be Terminator chic with parochial school overtones, I had to remind myself that fashion is not about clothes.

I was going to say it is about the way we see ourselves, but !! that's not true either. It's about the way people with perfumes named after them see themselves.

Calvin Klein, for example, has paid a great deal of money for a little magazine that came packaged with Vanity Fair. It consists of photographs that have something to do with rock concerts, something to do with motorcycles (I feel a theme developing here), something to do with naked men, and a good deal to do with sex.

It is said to be an advertisement for jeans and must have something to do with how Calvin Klein sees himself, sort of like a surreal high school yearbook for a grown man.

Designer motorcycle jackets might mean designers see women as strong, adventurous people who take no nonsense. Or they might mean that designers see us as a lean, mean coven of

empowered witches roaring in to try to mow down men.

Or they might signal a massive identity crisis, a backlash from the gimme-gimme 1980s. Chanel has made some of its suits this season in denim, and the couture house filled the windows of Bergdorf Goodman with Harley-Davidsons and mannequins wearing biker boots, megabucks organza and what someone at the store describes as "authentic Marlon Brando motorcycle caps." The message is clear: Declasse! Danger! Divine!

The kindest possible thing you can say about this is that it is an affectation. The motorcycle jackets may have one saving grace, and that is that it is difficult to imagine someone approaching you on the street to hiss, "How many cows died to make that coat?"

Perhaps some designers are inspired by Madonna. But they must remember the difference between the business meetings of Madonna and the business meetings of the rest of us:

Woman named Madonna: I want $3 million.

Male authority figure: Fine.

As opposed to:

Woman named something else: Your Honor, I'd like to approach the bench.

Male authority figure: Why?

Woman: I represent the defendant, Your Honor.

Male authority figure: In that ridiculous motorcycle jacket, I thought you were the defendant.

The thing to remember is that high fashion has little to do with what women wear and a lot to do with what retailers mark down later. Occasionally they get it right. Many of us would like to shake hands with the designer of the elasticized waist or the person who resurrected flat shoes.

Some mistakes were our own. There were those suits with the neck thing like a dead pocket handkerchief that almost killed feminism.

There remains a gender gap between men's clothes, which have been the same since the pharaohs shopped Brooks Brothers, and women's clothes, which date even as they hang on store racks.

Some men therefore find women's clothes confusing, except for short skirts and anything strapless, which they find completely understandable.

Here is all anyone needs to know about this fall: Leather motorcycle jackets and plaid pleated skirts. On models. And on the racks that say "Sale Priced" in January.

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