SKIRTS THE ISSUE Spring collections serve as testing ground for longer styles


New York -- In testing longer skirts for the spring season, designers managed to avoid a possible disaster. Their approach was low-keyed, and calf-length skirts made up no more than 10 percent of most collections.

Twenty years ago, when the mini abruptly gave ground to the midi or calf-length skirt, the uproar was ferocious. Women refused to give up the freedom that above-the-knee skirts provided. They said the longer skirts were dowdy and old-looking. The protests were far stronger in the United States than in Europe, where women have traditionally been far more in thrall to fashion than Americans. In the short run, women made their point by avoiding skirts of any length.

Thus, the pants era was ushered in, dominating fashion for a few years. Gradually, however, clothes became more formal, midi-skirts won acceptance and the avant-garde slipped into ankle lengths.

Now, short skirts have had a five-year run, and many designers believe it is time for a change. But they are not rushing blindly into the new regime; they are proceeding with extreme caution.

Spring is not the best time for a big change in fashion, most designers believe, especially in a shaky economic period when customers are not in a mood to buy. So the spring collections were treated as a test ground to determine what kind of long skirts were viable. Some designers ignored the chance -- they kept everything short.

Still, there is a feeling that a change is due. And the majority of collections did offer a variety of longer styles.

Some designers tried a middle ground, offering long, full skirts that buttoned over shorts or minis.

Others emphasized seductiveness by splitting long, slender skirts up the side, front or even back to show plenty of leg, as high as the thigh.

Another approach is the uneven hemline that slants from above the knees to below them, the degree of dip varying with the style. Designers feel this, too, has a provocative look.

Some of the most successful styles, however, do not pursue the seductive angle. They simply make full skirts that end around mid-calf, that look easy to move in and do not clutch the body. When they are successful, they look comfortable, relaxed and LTC beyond reproach.

While their steps are tentative now, designers will pursue the grail of a length change more aggressively in their fall collections. Who can resist the argument that long skirts will keep you warm? Still, the mini will not disappear. Designers will do their best to keep a balance.

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