Retro look goes from Depression to depressing '70s FASHION WITH A PAST

March 16, 1995|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,Sun Fashion Editor

The retro loop as presented by designers and stylists this spring is enough to scare a modern women from going along for the ride. Fashion time-travel can be fun; it can also induce queasiness.

If women try to copy what they see on the runways and in the fashion magazines this season, they'll end up looking like Bonnie Parker on the lam, Bette Davis in tight control, Rita Hayworth in tropical heat, the Andrews Sisters in harmony, Laura Petrie in a tizzy or one of the Brady Bunch. Talk about mixed messages.

Fashion is skimming across the decades from the '30s to the '70s, without respect for accuracy, just borrowing some ideas from film and TV versions of the way we were.

Women who have been there, and done some of that, have an advantage. Check any boomer's yearbook and ask about the agony of maintaining a perfect Marlo Thomas flip hairdo or an Angela Davis 'fro.

Why all the renewed interest in the old? Boredom mostly. Designers and consumers have been in a slack minimalist period, so the idea of getting pulled together in a '40s-style suit with all its spiffy trappings makes for a change. The '40s, with an accent on the waist and fit, dominate the retro craze. With an emphasis on the cinched middle, the bosom, by default, is also thrust into prominence.

No more hiding under an over-sized jacket. No more slouching.

The very posture of clothes is changing now because today's retro looks are built on high heels. Women who know will tell you it is physically impossible to slouch in stilettos. Teeter, yes. Pitter-patter, yes. Lope along, no. That's the down side.

The positive side of retro styling is the lift that old elements bring to a spring wardrobe. A look at some ideas from decades past makes dressing up an interesting prospect again.

The Thirties

The decade was defined by the Great Depression and the burgeoning of movie houses and films where America could escape for an hour.

Designers have translated sensible '30s style as polka-dot and flower-sprig dresses, cut to mid-calf and on the bias, with some flutter to the sleeve just like Great-Aunt Pearl's one good Sunday-go-to-meeting frock. Look for touches of lace and tucking, which women then added on their home Singers.

The glamorous '30s are interpreted in early talkie versions of dressing -- as in dressing for dinner with a bloke named Reggie. The slinky slip satin vamp dress and platinum hair to match was the model for screen goddesses then and now. You'll be seeing various versions of it on Oscar night. Even old Busby Berkeley musicals are inspiration. Snug tap-panties are shown by designers as an optional suit bottom. Juniors will wear them at the beach.

The Forties

The war years changed the world and women's wardrobes. They worked shifts at the defense plant and manned the offices. They wore cover-alls and man-tailoring. Skirts went short and tight to ration material. Platform shoes in cork and wood were invented to save on leather. Movie stars did their bit in paramilitary tailoring at the Hollywood canteen and USO shows.

The Forties suit is the strongest retro influence this season. It's shaped to the waist with seaming or a belt. The skirt is longer, but tighter, so as not to lose its feminine edge. Now, however, it may be crafted in stretch satin or polished silk.

The Fifties

Television happened. Harriet Nelson wore crisp cotton shirtwaists around the house. Loretta Young swept into America's living rooms in yards of chiffon. Bodices were fitted, skirts full and flared. Schoolgirls wore crinolines and circle skirts. Marilyn Monroe wore a halter dress that made news.

Today's spin on the '50s has Peter Pan collars, 3/4 bracelet-length sleeves and halter dresses. The twin-set shell plus cardigan, cut snug and very fitted is being recycled by many designers.

The Sixties

Jackie personified style and elegance. Polished, in fitted sheaths with matching coat or jacket, she was every woman's role model. Designers continue to pay her homage. The matching ensemble with cropped jacket is being shown for spring at many price points. The big sunglasses are the signature touch.

The Seventies

It was the decade that nearly killed fashion -- more polyester, shiny disco shirts, hip-huggers, acid-prints. Bits of the '70s are creeping back into fashion at the designer level.

Can you spell Qiana? Those shimmery disco shirts are staying alive in luxurious silk incarnations.


Retro dressing can go overblown or understated. Some women can pull off the '40s thing in platforms, saucy veiled hat and figure-molding suit without looking like they're about to break out in a chorus of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."

Most women want the look in more subtle form. Here are some ways to go. Remember, we're talking modernized retro, not about dressing from the archives.

* Look for a suit or dress with definite waist. That could put you back anywhere from the '30s to the '60s. Dress that with a thin, narrow belt, bare stockings and high heels. It won't scream trendy but will definitely look current.

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