How designers repeat the future Fashion: A 'modern' look has always been an industry obsession. The look is high-tech and sleek as the millennium approaches.

February 08, 1996|By Jackie White | Jackie White,KANSAS CITY STAR

Computers concoct new quirky color palettes. Laboratories create holographic fabrics. Clothes have a shine that can be seen from down the road. Women wear black nail polish. Embellishments are few. Sleek is in. And belts are made from recycled bottle tops.

Is this what's modern in today's fashion? Perhaps.

Webster's New World Dictionary defines modern as "of or having to do with the latest styles, methods or ideas, up to date." Edging up to the millennium, the fashion world's continuing quest for a modern way of dressing has picked up a bit of speed.

Donna Karan launches a single go-everywhere jersey tubular skirt and calls it modern. Pundits write books about how to assemble a simple wardrobe and declare it the modern way.

But there is a flip side. In recent years many fashion people preferred to prance around in the past rather than to explore the new and futuristic. Consider recent trends in clothing and you have to wonder: Can hip hugger pants be modern? What about bustles, trains, corset jackets, Wonderbras, crotch-high skirts and stiletto heels?

In a world where space shuttles are now routine and the Internet connects continents, should we be dressing more like Star Trekkers? Maybe not. But what passes for contemporary clothing today is frequently more an homage to history.

"Those designers that are usually successful go into the past in some way" observes Laurel Wilson, an associate professor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Indeed, it's an old issue. For most of the early part of the century, style setters were involved in the pursuit of modern.

Early modern

Early on, the French couturier Paul Poiret helped to release women from the heavy corseting of the 19th century, notes Caroline Rennolds Milbank, a New York fashion historian. In the 1920s Coco Chanel took jersey from the seaside to couture and gave women more freedom of movement. Hemlines inched up. And a "Thoroughly Modern Millie" emerged.

But it was in the 1960s that the final chains for women were clipped. A "good affordable pantyhose" arrived and women were allowed to wear the miniskirts and tent dresses. "Everything modern has had to do with women getting rid of underwear," Ms. Milbank says, "being able to go without bras and girdles, to move freely."

The 1960s were what she calls the "last gasp" for modern. In that post-World War II era, the world seemed like a "prosperous happy place. And the biggest part of the population was young."

America was starting to obsess about space exploration. France's Andre Courreges triggered a revolutionary new direction with pristine pastel A-line dresses and white vinyl boots. Women wore op art and geometric prints with cut-out holes and matching tights. Lucite, plastic and sharp-edged haircuts were the rage.

Rudi Gernreich, father of the topless swimsuit, proposed unisex robes as street uniforms. Synthetics were in the front ranks. And it seemed for a time that space suits were indeed the future.

But before long, the zeal for the new diminished as the Vietnam war heated up and changed the mood. Baby boomers moved into serious jobs and the country started to age.

Jeigh Singleton, the director of fashion design at Washington University in St. Louis, says the 1960s look was scary, too cold. "The mind set was just not there," he says. "So to make us feel more secure, retro started."

Diana Vreeland's costume retrospective opened at the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum, reinforcing the passion for warm fuzzy clothes from the past.

Over the years modern resurfaced in some form. Halston's simple bias-cut clothes emerged in the 1970s with a decided modern feel. And Donna Karan's adaptation of body suits and layering signaled a new mentality in the '80s.

No one in today's fashion arena has been more focused on the pursuit of modern than designer Geoffrey Beene. In the recent book "Geoffrey Beene," (Abrams) author Brenda Cullerton writes that his "work is driven by an unrelenting, forgiving, abiding optimism that we associate with modernism." He has supported weightless high-tech packable fabrics and shapes that move with the fluidity of dancers.

Cutting edge

And today the French team of Marithe and Francois Girbaud, best known for stone-washed jeans, are working with such innovations as wrinkle-and stain-resistant polyester and a laser cutting process that precludes traditional sewing techniques.

What else is modern?

Donna Karan says modern is breaking away from old assumptions and "redefining" clothing, based on needs, relays Patti Cohen, Karan's vice president. It's "not just seeing a suit as a suit," says Ms. Cohen. "It's a jacket and a dress. It's looking at everything in a different way."

Richard Martin, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute in New York, sees modern in today's sleek unembellished styles. It's the "simplification of all elements and the elimination of anything that might be called superfluous," he says.

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