WHAT'S THIS? THE '40s are now in style? How can that be? Only a few months ago, psychedelic leggings, Mondrian prints, vinyl miniskirts of the '60s were spread across the fashion magazines.
Can fashion be that fickle?
Well, miniskirts are definitely not history, yet. Major fashion retailers have come out in strong support of short hemlines for the spring -- despite whatever long lengths designers may want to show on the runways.
But for the fashion avant garde, who've been playing with frosted lips and beehives for at least a half dozen years, the movie star glamour of the '40s offers something new. The dramatic red mouth of Joan Crawford, the boldly arched brow of Katharine Hepburn and the well-coiffed hair of Lauren Bacall are a fresh departure.
"The '60s are getting a little demode," says Valerie Steele, fashion historian at F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology).
"But it's not that designers are suddenly saying, 'People are tired of the '60s, let's do the '40s.' It's nothing that coherent. Fashion moves in complicated, multi-cycles."
Right now fashion is showing clear inspirations from the '40s '50s, '60s as well as the '70s. The most adventurous fashion types, however, are looking to the '40s and '70s as unexplored territory.
While both decades have much in common, including newly popular items such as platform shoes, it's the '40s that are filtering more immediately into the mainstream. Snoods and seamed stockings can be found in nearly every accessory store, retro peplums turned up on Ralph Lauren's suits and dresses for fall, and movie star hairdos are in demand at cutting edge hair salons.
Popular culture is reinforcing fashion's interest in the decade with movies such as the thriller "Dead Again," which showcased the glamorous fashions of the era, and the new ABC period drama "Homefront."
The idea of recapturing the dramatic beauty of Hollywood movie stars happens to be especially appealing for evenings out this fall when money is a concern for so many.
"With the recession still going on, and women not being able to spend much on new clothes, they can still buy new makeup and feel new and fashionable," says Ms. Steele.
A dramatic new hairstyle also offers a relatively inexpensive transformation. Area salons report great increases in the numbers of women looking for a coiffure, instead of just a cut. Hair is being twisted, pleated, rolled and curled in styles reminiscent of the '40s, with a smattering of '60s beehives.
"The whole idea of hairdressing is back," says Jordan Ferraro, a Baltimore resident who owns the Allure salon in Arlington, Va. "Nobody is leaving with just a blow-dried look anymore.
"Women are welcoming the return of glamour. Hair is one of the most immediate things you can do for instant gratification. It takes a very small amount of time and money."
He was recently called upon to produce a '40s coiffure for vintage wedding. The bride's dress had the square, peaked shoulders typical of the era, as well as the V-point sleeves, the sweetheart neck, V-point waist, and slim, tapered skirt with train.
Her hairstyle combined a couple of different ideas from the decade -- Betty Grable curls on the forehead with a Joan Crawford roll around the back of the head.
"The whole point of the retromovement is to take just elements of what made it fabulous," he says. Exact duplication is not the point. "We're taking elements from the '40s and updating them and making it applicable to the times we're in and the time women are willing to spend on their hair."
Generally, he says, today's rolls and curls "are not as tight. Every hair is not in place the way it was. Women are tossing their hair up in a more devil-may-care way."
Suitable makeup to set off such a 'do requires an emphasis on well-maintained eyebrows with a strong arch; pale, powdered foundation; and well-defined lips dramatically painted red with a hint of a Cupid's bow.
"Brows are more refined than in the '80s," says Mr. Ferraro. Thmodern way to achieve this definition is not with a pencil, he says, but with eye shadow applied with an angled brush.
To get that dewy look that all the movie stars had, he suggestsusing a glossy eye shadow, discreet dabs of petroleum jelly on eyelash tips and one of the newer powder-based lip glosses that offer more staying power than glosses from the past.
The influence of the '40s may be turning up most obviously in hair and beauty styles, but in coming months, its influence in clothing is likely to grow.
"From what I've been seeing coming out of Europe and the fabri reports for fall 1992, there will be more of the '40s going forward, especially in spring," says Carolyn Moss, associate fashion director for Macy's.
"There's a very ladylike feeling with little collars and belts, pleated skirts tight at the waist and some extension to the shoulders, with cap sleeves. We're seeing lots of small prints, tiny flowers, like millefleurs, on burgundy, navy or brown background. They're lightweight fabrics with movement. You can just see them with rolled hair and a big picture hat."
Fans of the sleek and streamlined need not despair, however. Miniskirts and Lycra promise to continue.
"The '40s aren't going to be the only look," says Ms. Moss. "It's just another option."