WELL-SUITED Designers use pantsuits to skirt hemline issue


Fashion is not always frivolous -- one of the newest trends right now is the practical and economical pantsuit.

Yes, the pantsuit, that fashion staple of the '70s, is back.

It's been gaining prominence over the last few months and promises to be even more widespread in the spring.

While pantsuits certainly do keep one warm during the winter and add diversity to the wardrobe, much of their appeal right now lies in their novelty, says Laurie Salladin, buyer for the Charles Street store Femme.

"They give the fashion forward a chance to try something new," )) she says. "There have always been women who like pants and have worn them, but the idea of a pantsuit is new."

One reason designers are promoting pantsuits, she says, is because "they're looking for a strong statement to make and there's no definitive statement they can make about skirts. Skirts are short; skirts are long; they're full; or they're narrow."

Historically, such confusion has been settled in a similar manner. "Whenever there's a hemline controversy, people seem to latch on to pantsuits," says Valerie Steele, a professor at F.I.T. (the Fashion Institute of Technology), recalling how pantsuits first became popular in the workplace following the mini/midi muddle of the early '70s.

Today's pantsuits are quite unlike their predecessors, says Ms. Salladin. "These are more feminine and not as severe." The ones she has bought "are in crepe and very drapey."

The newer pantsuits "have a much easier fit and the jacket is a little longer," says Elaine Suls, a buyer at John Sims.

Charlotte Fischer, owner of the Red Garter, predicts that even women who don't usually wear pants will try the pantsuit this season because "jackets can hide a multitude of sins. They're also good for a person who travels a lot. You just add a black gabardine skirt and an extra blouse or sweater and you're set for a week."

The choices this season range from menswear-inspired wool suits in chalk stripes to soft, feminine silks. The buyers at Femme have opted for pantsuits in understated shades like taupe and celadon, while the Red Garter is having success with brilliant hues.

"I've sold a ton of it in royal blue and hot pink," Ms. Fischer says. Her best-selling silhouette, she says, is the "Armani look -- it's double-breasted with ample trousers, cuffed and slightly modified to the body, but not big and bold. I've sold it in a light, JTC cool wool and in gabardine."

For the holiday season, she's bought the same suit in red and in purple, both with black velvet trim on the jacket a la Chanel.

While the pantsuit may be something new to try, no one is predicting it will usurp the miniskirt.

Local retailers report that sales of miniskirts are on the increase this fall.

"Suddenly this year we're selling more than ever to a wider range of women," says Ms. Salladin. "A skirt to the knee is not considered out of line anymore, even in the conservative workplaces."

In those same settings, however, even the most conservative pantsuit would be considered inappropriate.

Jill Cohen, news anchor on WBAL-AM (1100), says she would never consider wearing pants to work.

Ms. Cohen, who's quoted in October's Glamour magazine in an article on appropriate office attire, says she wears jeans and corduroys on her days off, but not in the workplace. "I really believe pants are not as professional because they call more attention to the female form."

Fashion historian Ms. Steele predicts that pantsuits, along with other '70s inspirations such as platform shoes, will continue to gain popularity, but not at the expense of the mini. "The miniskirt has a strong niche," she says. "I wouldn't see it disappearing for at least another year."

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