A houndstooth-check mummy suit with matching purse at Jean-Paul Gaultier's show got people giggling, and a sequined bodysuit as thin as skin raised some eyebrows at Gianni Versace. But it took a fishnet top with gardenia pasties, at Chanel no less, to make members of the world's most fashion savvy audience admit they were mildly shocked.
Once again this spring, European designers -- and even a few in New York -- spun their most fantastic ideas down the runway. Again, fashion editors and retailers laughed at the weirdness and zeroed in on the news. But when word flashed back to the real world, indignant women everywhere demanded to know: Am I really supposed to wear that?
Most of the time the answer is no. The clothes that make the splashy magazine layouts, the television spots and even the daily newspapers tend to be the grabbers, the head-spinners and shockers. Not the wearable things.
And that is where the confusion begins. The average reader doesn't understand that runway is different from reality. For the most part, the fashion press doesn't do much to help, and designers, many of whom view their wildest creations as art, don't much care.
"When fashion presents itself, it's about theater," said Grace Mirabella, editor of Mirabella magazine, referring to runway shows. "But the story can get mixed up in the telling. You have to make a separation, and many in the world of fashion don't."
In an effort to keep things straight, Mirabella magazine covers runway shows in its clearly marked news section, printed on grainy, non-glossy stock. In contrast, clothes for real life are presented in glossy-page layouts.
"It's fun to look at," Rose Marie Bravo, CEO of I. Magnin, said of the wild runway get-ups that make it into print. "But there's a down side to it. Readers see one extreme outfit, not the entire 120 in the show. They might not realize they actually could wear something by that designer."
Mr. Gaultier's highly publicized mummy suit, for example, got all the publicity. Some very wearable stretch unitards, jackets and vests with fitted hoods that had the same body-wrap effect were ignored.
The result is enough to make at least some industry-watchers condemn the whole system. "Fashion shows are media stunts," scoffed Alan Millstein, New York publisher of the Fashion Network Report newsletter, for manufacturers and retailers.
But most people in the business contend there is a method to the madness. And it becomes increasingly apparent to those who watch fashion shows for a living. They learn how to read the runway, to separate inventions from gimmicks and affectations.
"I'm not ashamed of clothes made just for the sake of fashion,said Christian Lacroix, who launched his career 10 years ago with coquettish evening dresses not seen since Marie Antoinette left the Louvre. His toned-down collection for fall '91 glimmers with simple, black silk dresses. But there are enough gold embroidered capes and the like to keep his flamboyant image intact.
"It is not so far from art," Lacroix said, defending the mosfanciful of Paris fashions. "It is so American, not to understand something that has no practical purpose."