CHICAGO. — Chicago -- Slip dresses. The Madonna look of lingerie as clothes. Construction worker undershirts worn with bouffant tulle skirts. Crinolines pouffing out ruffles on short-short skirts. Skirts slit open front, back and side to show teddies. Sarong skirts cut thigh-high and worn with suit jackets.
It would be easy to laugh off the parades of bizarre spring and summer clothes that have filled the Paris high-fashion runways in recent days as just silly eccentricities intended to catch the publicity camera.
But the ripple effect their designers have on the clothes the rest of us will be able to buy next year -- and indirectly on the recovery of slumping retail sales -- is a serious matter indeed.
The most recent fashion indicators continue to be depressing.
For years now, fashion designers have given women the choice between Barbie and dowdy. The fashion press -- which often seems to function as an unpaid claque for big-name in-groups in Paris and Milan -- applauds uncritically. And executives from American retail stores buy the hype with little thought about what their customers want or the shape they are in.
Few businesses are as out of touch with those who should be buying their wares as those who sell women's clothes.
In the words made famous in the fallout of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, they just don't get it.
Or, less likely, they are part of the reaction against women's progress lamented so vigorously by Susan Faludi in her new book, ''Backlash,'' and are trying to shove women out of egalitarian careers and back into second place. Witness the great effort to make women look like immature, sexy little girls.
Few American women lead lives for which they need what one Paris designer called his new ''strip-tease clothes,'' with skirts that can be whipped off to reveal ''sexy'' short-short shorts. Few lead lives that would make transparent pants appropriate. Or want a see-through blouse to go with a business suit. And any female construction worker who went to work wearing one of the new construction worker tops would get whistled off the job whatever the laws against sexual harassment.
Most women want their lingerie kept in its place, not substituting for a suit or dress, no matter what the look has done for Madonna. Most want their ruffles and crinolines in ''Scarlett,'' not accentuating their own hips. And most assume ''nudity'' is the look clothes are supposed to cover, not create.
Psychologists who study body imaging report that 85 percent of women are unhappy with at least one aspect of their appearance; in particular, they are dissatisfied with the way their thighs, hips and abdomen look.
A research sampling of college women showed that even among them, 33 percent had strong negative feelings about their thighs, 22 percent about their hips, 18 percent about their buttocks and 13 percent about their legs.
So why is the fashion industry insisting women wear clothes that call attention to the physical features they dislike most and would prefer to camouflage if they could?
Current fashions have driven customers away from retail cash registers by the millions in recent years. For every slender young woman who looks perky and precious in a thigh-high skirt with black, 19th-century-orphan tights there are 10 who don't. The majority of women are older than 25, aren't built like Barbie, live in a cold climate, need to bend over occasionally, must often sit down in public or simply don't want their thighs to be the most obvious thing about them.
So millions of women who would like to feel fashionable and could afford to buy new clothes are wearing the leftovers in their closets. Or they are sewing for themselves if they can. Or they are shopping from the catalogs whose buyers remember what most women look like and the kind of lifestyles for which they need wearing apparel.
But retailers can no longer afford to write off so many customers with their wear-what-we-dictate attitudes. The retail industry is so seriously ailing that it is threatened with a major down-sizing, retail executives worried at a recent conference in Dallas.
There are many complicated reasons for the stores' financial ills, of course. But one way to start turning the situation around would be to stop pushing clothes just for Barbies and making other women feel like Raggedy Anns.
Actually, there were a few more longer skirts in the Paris and Milan showings this fall. But longer usually meant ankle or mid-calf length. And often the fabric was so transparent it was barely visible. Most of what American buyers reportedly ordered was still short and short-short.
''We've spent an awfully long time getting the consumer used to short skirts,'' the chairman of a major retail chain told Women's Wear Daily during the Paris showings. ''I hope it's going to continue that way.''
Commenting on the new couture fashions, designer Karl Lagerfeld is quoted by Women's Wear Daily as saying, ''They [the stores] have to make an effort to find the right people to sell it.''
How much easier it would be if some of that effort were spent finding the right clothes instead.
Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.