Fashion in a time of war

Style: Function and simplicity seem to be replacing glitz and glam. High heels seem frivolous, and black is back.

November 11, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

Before Sept. 11, Ellicott City paralegal Betty Miller didn't put deep thought into the way she shopped and what she wore.

But these days, Miller often browses racks of clothes, consciously reminding herself that somber times call for simple, understated looks. And when dressing in the morning, Miller has made sure to weed out footwear that once was a staple of her daily work wardrobe -- high-heeled shoes.

"You have to be able to move quickly," Miller, 57, explained matter-of-factly. "We've had a lot of fire drills since Sept. 11."

In this time of war, with anthrax fears and possible terrorist attacks heavy on the minds of Americans every day, the fashion sensibilities of many people like Miller have begun to center on functionality and simplicity. Just months ago, flashy looks, logos, glitz and glam dominated runways, magazine spreads and stores big and small.

Now, however, fashion as we knew it this summer is gauche.

"There is a definite sensibility factor as a result of how we're living," said Tom Julian, a New York-based fashion-trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide. "Our clothing scenario is all about protection. It's all about accessibility, reliability and grounded comfort."

Fashion observers are noticing more minimalist styles, looser fits and a predominance of black.

Ironically, the spring 2002 collections of many fashion houses -- which had been conceptualized before Sept. 11--- feature many elements of this nouveau simplicity. Designers from Ralph Lauren to Oscar de la Renta are pushing flowy peasant blouses and dresses for next year. And, Donna Karan, Narciso Rodriguez and Helmut Lang are among several who have unveiled crisp looks for the season with unfussy silhouettes and a dominance of white and black.

"There is a need to feel safe and less conspicuous," said Gina Tovar, Nordstrom's East Coast fashion director. "And that trickles down into our own personal image. The way we feel plays a big part in the way we present ourselves, how we dress.

"For a long time now, we'd been seeing a lot of color, a lot of overt color," she added. "But black is making a pretty strong comeback. For a while, it was looking a little less current, but now you're seeing it head to toe."

And military chic and camouflage looks, fashion trends that began in spring and dominated many fall collections, now suddenly seem inappropriate, with some retailers even pulling such items from their stores after the terrorist attacks.

"No one's wearing camouflage unless you're part of the national guard," said Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine. "The meaning of clothes has changed. Before, people thought [camouflage] made them urban warriors. It seemed playful then because it didn't have any deeper meaning. Nothing could be more ridiculous today. I think it comes across as disrespectful now, and no one wants to be disrespectful."

Wells said the overall shift in people's attitudes toward fashion partly stems from feelings of guilt.

"People don't want to look ostentatious," Wells said. "Their emotions are playing into every decision, and they don't want to look expensive, as if they're being frivolous when these terrible things are going on."

This certainly is a sentiment that Miller had as she half-heartedly rifled through a rack of blouses at Nordstrom in Columbia on a recent weekday. She had gone to pay her store credit-card bill that morning and said she normally would linger to try on clothes.

Since Sept. 11, however, she's gravitated toward shopping based on pure need.

"With everything that's going on, people being laid off from their jobs, it's just not as upbeat any more," Miller said. "We have a different outlook on life now. We have to appreciate each other and not be so materialistic."

Miller has become the typical American shopper today, choosing to buy only necessary items. Julian said he can identify with the new mentality. He recently went through a phase of true survival chic when he was locked out of his Manhattan apartment, which is three blocks from where the World Trade Center used to stand, for six weeks.

"I lived with one suit, one pair of jeans, one pair of pants, one white shirt, one black shirt, one dress shirt. And I was just trying to exist, just trying to function, just trying to move on," he said. "Sure, you want to be properly put together, but you're not going to think, 'Oh, the weather's changing, I need a new turtleneck' any more," he added. "The word 'fashion' doesn't seem to be front and center when you think of the consumer's mindset today. It's not a priority; it's not a requirement; it's not satisfying those basic emotional needs of water, financial security and domesticity."

But Wells said women historically have turned to fashion and beauty as a way to maintain a semblance of sanity and normalcy in times of war. In a letter to readers in the November issue of the magazine, she noted that during World War II, makeup magnate Helena Rubenstein asked President Roosevelt how she could help.

"Roosevelt told her the story of a woman in London who, as she was carted out of her bombed building by stretcher, asked for her lipstick," Wells wrote. " 'Your war effort is to keep up the morale of our women,' FDR told Rubinstein. Keeping up appearances is not only an act of defiance, it is a declaration of hope."

Wells wrote the letter as a reminder to women that it's OK to sometimes want to look good in these days when national leaders are calling for people to go about their business as normal.

"Keeping up appearances has a whole new powerful meaning," Wells said. "It's become a source of pride -- national and personal pride. When I went to Paris for the fashion shows, I was so happy to see many designers offering women choices. And I thought, 'We are so lucky to be able to express ourselves, to express our femininity.' And I was proud to be in the business."

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