NEW YORK -- Maybe the 50th anniversary of the film classic "Casablanca" had something to do with it. Or, maybe, it's because the sober-minded, recession-humbled American '90s have more than a little in common with the up-against-it, war-straitened circumstances of a half-century ago. For fall 1992, New York designers are playing the '40s again and the general reaction is, well, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
For day, it's all about men's wear the way Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn wore it, only a little more shapely and a lot leaner. Long, tightly-fitted jackets over cuffed pants or slim, mid-calf length skirts dominated the runways in tweeds, checks, plaids and leathers, but especially in charcoal gray pinstripes.
Animal prints, as in Europe, also roared through the collections here from hats to shoes and everything in-between, with leopard in the lead.
Sweater twin sets are back, so are cropped Eisenhower jackets, velvet-collared riding jackets and platform shoes. The men's style vest, whether in fabric, knit, leather or dandyish tapestries and brocades, is one of season's top accessories, along with berets, fedoras and waist-cinching, cummerbund-style belts.
By night, the big look is retro glamour -- not glitz -- in the sultry, slinky, Rita Hayward style. This means long, clingy, silk jersey or crepe siren dresses that romance the bosom and caress the hips. Tuxedo-inspired pantsuits with satin lapels or velvet dresses with black-tie details are also strong.
Retailers were "bewitched" by the directness with which the trends were delivered and their accessibility to the customer.
"The fashions are salable, pared-down and understandable," said Burton Tansky, chairman of Bergdorf Goodman.
"There are some real clothes out there, as well as fun clothes," said Joan Kaner, senior vice-president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus.
What "real" means, in this case, are clothes you don't need a road map to figure out how to wear or to travel with a rock band to have somewhere to wear them.
In fact, perhaps influenced by the austerity of the economy, the overall emphasis is on simplicity and discreet luxury, nothing showy. So much so, in fact, that Isaac Mizrahi showed soberly elegant black velvet evening coats with fantastically bright, mosaic beaded linings. They were, in a collection called "Hidden Riches," a sign of the fashion times.
Using the fashion-conscious crowds at the shows as a kind of trend barometer, it was also easy to see which looks are being picked up fastest.
At the shows, the audience was a jungle of leopard-spotted bags, scarves, headbands, shirts, raincoats and ties. Men's wear-style jackets, shirts, ties and cuffed pants were everywhere. And even platform shoes began to show up.
But ominously few rushed to embrace the longer skirts.
And how to deal with the new longer skirts -- many of which didn't look so great even on the models, most of whom are almost six feet tall, without platforms -- is what "bothered and bewildered" retailers.
There's no question that longer lengths will be joining short looks on store racks this fall. And there's no question that most retailers consider this a headache.
"I think we'll have length options and that will make it difficult," said Ellin Saltzman, senior vice president and corporate fashion director at R.H. Macy & Co.
In terms of customer reaction, the longer lengths present a minefield. In some areas, such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles, short skirts have been standard for almost four years, so long is new.
Elsewhere, where longer lengths proved more tenacious, short skirts only recently began to catch on.
Retailers know they must have both. "We're finished with fashion dictates. It's really a question of lifestyle," said Ms. Kaner of Neiman Marcus.
This leaves retailers, who like to make a clear fashion statement, with the problem of sending a mixed message.
Moreover, while retail reaction to the longer looks varied, the feeling seemed to grow more negative as the collections proceeded.
"I think the long looks terrific and we'll buy it," Ms. Kaner said. "But, of course it's not the only option," she added quickly, noting that 75 percent of her store's skirts will still be "in the vicinity of the knee."
"Thank goodness for options," was all that Bergdorf's Mr. Tansky would say on the subject.
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale's, was more blunt. "These skirts are runway dreams: they're too tight, too long and unbalanced. We'll buy a long skirt with movement, ease and femininity, but when it looks peculiar, we won't buy it."
As far as Bloomingdale's is concerned, he said, "Short -- as in above the knee -- will be the dominant length."
And Marjorie Deane, publisher of Tobe Report, a New York-based fashion advisory service, condemned the longer skirts as "the worst thing that could happen now. It will put us right back in the fashion doldrums."
Only time will tell.
Another sign of a new reality at work on the fashion scene is the fast shuffle going on in the showcase front rows of shows, where the VIP guest lists clearly have shifted from "Who's Who" to Who's Hot.
The idea may be to cultivate a younger, hipper image. Or, it could be an effort by designers to subtly disassociate themselves from the politically incorrect aura of the "idle rich."