SHIRT TALES Long, loose tops fit a variety of shapes


At last, high fashion for the less-than-perfect figure. As warm weather merchandise begins to fill the store windows, you'll still see plenty of impossibly snug miniskirts, low-cut bustiers and Lycra-stretch tops, but you'll also see something new -- easy-fitting tunics and a return of the Big Shirt, that loosely cut top with tails meant to be left untucked.

"These are clothes that a size 4 can wear and a size 14," says Jan Maslin, owner of Trillium, a Greenspring Station specialty shop that has found great success with the oversized shirts.

At Chezelle, a Cross Keys boutique for full-figured women up to size 26, the many variations of the Big Shirt are given prominent display in the front windows.

These new shirts tend to be more colorful and feminine than the androgynous Big Shirts popular in the early '80s.

Today, designers combine shades like fuchsia with orange and yellow or turquoise with apple green. The array of prints ranges from graphic black-and-white op art designs to bold florals and patchwork melanges. Fabrics are sheer chiffons and sensuous washed silks.

Instead of the casual dolman sleeves of old, the sleeves are more structured and set-in, creating a dressier appearance suitable for more than weekend wear.

The best way to ensure that your new spring top looks updated rather than sloppy or retro, is to pair it with a sleek workout-inspired bottom like stirrup pants, leggings or -- for the more adventuresome -- bike shorts.

The widespread popularity of the miniskirt this season also gives the big shirt and tunic top a fresh and versatile silhouette. A long top hanging out over a long skirt might look dreary in the fitness-conscious '90s, but a short skirt and matching tights can look as sleek as leggings, yet also be appropriate for the office.

"The look this spring is usually just a couple of inches of skirt showing below the top," says Ms. Maslin.

Loosely cut shirts are also turning up this season as easy jackets for the office and knotted at the midriff for the beach.

The current influence of the late '50s and early '60s on fashion designers explains in part the return of tunics and loose-fitting tops, but there's also another very practical reason for their return -- the immense popularity of snug-fitting workout wear.

The widespread appearance of leggings, in particular, has made neccessary the addition of tunics, untucked shirts and oversized sweaters and jackets to camouflage the flaws of those who don't work out as much as Jane Fonda, but want to give the illusion that they do.

Such tops also lend a little modesty and versatility to the &L; perfectly toned.

"No matter how you're built, even if you have a body like a goddess, you're not going to go shopping at the Giant in leggings and a crop top. It's not a comfortable look," says Barbara Janoff, buyer for the Body and Sole specialty shop.

Just a year ago, customers might have done their grocery shopping in baggy pants that tapered at the ankle and a cropped or tucked-top, but Ms. Janoff says, "We stopped selling those over the winter -- you can only buy so much of it. It doesn't mean that in a few years people won't be wearing baggy again, but leggings and fitted pants have really taken off."

Until a couple of years ago, leggings only came in one length and a few colors. Today they can be found in a multitude of lengths, and prints from floral to tie-dye. They've also become more popular, says Ms. Janoff, "because they're not as tight as they once were and they're much easier for heavier women to wear."

For further fitness appeal, the most creative dressers layer the loose Big Shirts over bandeaux or tanks and leave the shirt buttons unfastened.

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