Bloomingdale's

For the first time, Bloomingdale's is using plus-size mannequins to showcase a collection. "Hairspray" boutiques are also opening in Chicago and Los Angeles. (Sun photo by David Hobby)

NEW YORK - Divine would be so proud.

There, inside the fashion mecca that is Bloomingdale's; there, inside an exclusive designer boutique, a black T-shirt screams the name of the late, great transvestite legend in lipstick-pink letters.

And it's selling like mad.

Irony piles on irony when one considers the shop devoted to all things Hairspray. Bad taste suddenly has become good taste, and Divine, a fashion plate.

Who knew?

Kal Ruttenstein, for one. The senior vice president of fashion merchandising says the retail giant has had great success with tie-ins to Broadway plays and movies, such as Rent. His instinct that a Hair- spray boutique would be similarly lucrative was confirmed when he attended a preliminary meeting last year for potential investors that included the performance of a few songs. "It sounded so weird and wonderful that I got excited about doing something of our own," he said.

Hairspray is based on the weird and wonderful 1988 John Waters film that's set in Baltimore. In the movie, Divine portrays Edna Turnblad, the mountain-sized mother of the spunky, chunky teen heroine, Tracy, who integrates a local TV dance program while being anointed Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962. On stage, Edna is played by another member of cross-dressing royalty, Harvey Fierstein, and he gives new meaning to the term "queen-sized."

Hairspray boutiques also are opening in the Bloomingdale's in Garden City, N.J.; Miami; Chicago and Los Angeles. However, the two Bloomie's stores closest to Baltimore (at White Flint mall in Kensington and Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia) are not carrying the line, at least not immediately.

Initially, Ruttenstein wanted to ensure that the collection would be distributed geographically, but he said that the two Washington-area stores may carry Hairspray fashions in the future. For now, though, Baltimoreans will have to travel for a Hairspray shopping experience.

If they do, they'll find more than just a few T-shirts on a rack saying "Have a nice spray." The windows around Bloomingdale's flagship store at 1000 Third Ave. depict scenes from the musical, from the Corny Collins television dance program to the crowning of Miss Baltimore Crabs. (Of course, the one requisite element for any Hairspray fashion exhibit are beehives so towering they are structural marvels. The 'dos, which took two weeks to create, are especially funny because they adorn modern mannequins that always look like they're snarling. Think of the Sugar Plum Fairy with an attitude.)

Downstairs from the 3rd-floor boutique, shoppers can buy MAC cosmetics in Day-Glo shades tied into the clothing line, and to complete the experience, they can head across the street to Dylan's Candy Bar, 1011 Third Ave., and pick up some of the sugary Necco Wafers that inspired the set, and that are painted onto the Bloomingdale's floor.

And there's no reason to stop there. Shoppers can go ahead and indulge in that hot fudge sundae; it won't hurt the fashion profile. For the first time in its history, Bloomingdale's is using plus-sized mannequins to model clothing sized 1X to 3X. "This show celebrates large women with large hair who lead large lives," Ruttenstein said. "So we knew that we would have to have plus-sized models." (There are smaller sizes as well.)

While early sales have been promising, it remains to be seen if the unabashedly gaudy Hairspray palette will catch on in minimalist New York. With a sigh, Ruttenstein confirms that a visitor's perception of Big Apple fashion is true: New Yorkers will wear any color, so long as it's black. And while the hues and styles in the store have been toned down considerably from their stage incarnations - the only feather boas seen in Bloomingdale's are in the display windows - the vibrant reds and pinks in the collection may be a bit of a shock to the chromatically challenged.

"This season, with the anniversary of Sept. 11, everyone else is designing in very dark colors," Ruttenstein said. "So we decided to use brights whenever possible."

There are circle skirts and slacks in a cigarette plaid that recall schoolgirl attire, and an off-the-shoulder stretch top with horizontal stripes that's reminiscent of Tracy's jailhouse garb. Elegant cocktail dresses inspired by scenes in the show featuring the Dynamites (a trio similar to the Supremes) are simultaneously sensual and sweet. Knee-length cocktail dresses in black and red taffeta outline the waist with velvet ribbon. A pastel tulle petticoat peaks out beneath a stiff and shiny black skirt. For the very young, there are knee-length, see-through petticoats meant to be worn over a pair of jeans.

While items in the collection - which range from $24 to $275 - bear such labels as Necessary Objects and often seem designed for the newly sprouted, their middle-aged mothers will find cashmere twin-sets in baby blue and blush that are so soft that it's tempting to snuggle up in a pile and go to sleep.

And that brings up an important point. While many of the fabrics are understated and luxurious, Ruttenstein was careful to keep his collection authentic. Peruse the fabric content labels and you will stumble across this designation: "polyester."

Divine would be so proud.