Fashion right now is a dress parade

Style: The return to femininity has revived the dress as an essential part of a woman's wardrobe.

June 04, 2000|By Mary Gottschalk | Mary Gottschalk,Knight Ridder/Tribune

It's dress season.

Dresses are never out of style, but summer and warm weather make dresses all the more appealing.

For some women, it's the idea of putting on one garment, rather than matching a top to pants or a skirt. Throw a dress on and go.

For others, it's the femininity factor -- particularly high this year with floral prints, touches of embroidery, bias cuts and handkerchief hemlines.

For many, it's the comfort factor. A flowing dress or even a straight-cut sheath doesn't bind around the waist and can camouflage winter weight. Additionally, longer lengths allow women to skip pantyhose if they wish.

"The dress has definitely returned to fashion," says June Rau, a fashion director for Nordstrom. "It's a key item for spring and summer 2000, and there are many dress offerings for fall 2000.

"Part of the reason is there is a huge return to femininity in fashion, and what is easier than a summer dress? A dress is a feminine item, and it also adds color and probably a print or pattern, which are all key to the season."

Designers, manufacturers and retailers are increasingly recognizing the appeal of dresses.

Leon Max, who has changed his Max Studio label to Maxstudio.com, has increased his dress category threefold this year, while Elie Tahari is putting more emphasis on dresses this season, playing down the suits for which his label is known.

Dresses are making a major fashion statement, particularly in California. Women's Wear Daily reports that West Coast stores are increasing dress offerings 10 percent to 20 percent over a year ago.

At Nordstrom, Rau says, "We have a larger offering at our stores, and the customers are responding to it."

This summer, pink is especially popular, from pale to hot shades, but almost every other color is on the racks as well.

One reason for the popularity of summer dresses is variety. There is no dominant silhouette or length. Shapes range from sleeveless sheaths and slip dresses with thin straps to figure-skimming bias cuts and dresses that are generously full, often with ties in the back.

The sheaths and slip dresses tend toward shorter lengths, while fuller cuts fall anywhere between the bottom of the knee and the ankle.

Rau says key looks for summer include shirtdresses and dresses with sheer overlays.

For women who want to maximize their dress investment, she suggests making "a dress adaptable to the workplace by topping it with a knee-length jacket or coat. It doesn't have to be matched, but you do want to coordinate it. It makes for a great day-into-evening dress."

As an example, she suggests adding a jacket to a sleeveless dress for the office and then removing the jacket and switching to high-heel sandals for evening.

Since dresses are a key part in many fall designer collections, Rau points out that ones bought now should be good for the next few seasons.

Most women consider summer dresses perennials and often wear favorites for years. In "Chic Simple Women's Wardrobe," authors Kim Johnson Gross and Jeff Stone wax eloquent about the joys of summer dresses, writing "the easy coolness of a summer dress is irresistible."

Their advice?

"Look for lightweight fabrics that drape well and breathe. Color? Summer is full of it -- take your pick. Pattern? Stripes, dots, flowers -- anything goes, as long as it's relaxed, loose and pretty."

Dressing the part

Here are some trends in summer dresses.

The most popular styles include sheaths, slip dresses and shirtdresses.

Lengths range from high on the thigh to skimming the ankle.

Fabrics are lightweight -- cottons, linens, silks, sheer overlays.

Details are important this season. Look for ruffles, beading and embroidery.

Patterns -- whether a wild tropical print or a sweet gingham -- have their place.

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