LOOKING BACK WITH LONGING Nostalgic fashions revive tailoring of the 1940s


New York--Never underestimate the power of nostalgia. Particularly in anxious times. Especially when it comes to fashion.

With the 21st century virtually nanoseconds away, a futuristic date by which one might reasonably have expected to look like Jane Jetson, New York designers are looking back to stars such as Katharine Hepburn and Rita Hayworth for the kind of tight, tailored glamour that gave the war-weary '40s their edgy flair.

Some European designers dipped into the same era for their fall collections, but the Americans dove in with retro relish. Runway after runway staged saucy revivals of such period pieces as strong-shouldered, menswear-style pantsuits in somber-toned tweeds, pinstripes and plaids; narrow, midcalf skirts with leg-flashing slits; slinky evening dresses and the campy elegance of leopard prints and trims.

Having made their point, designers sharpened it with such touches as oversized fedoras, leopard berets and belts, dandyish watch fobs, walking sticks, bowlers and platform shoes just about everywhere.

The timing of this '40s frolic might seem peculiar if you overlook the fact that the America of a half-century ago, with its war-taught experience of shortage and sacrifice and its anxiety not to be thought frivolous in serious times, strikes certain parallels with the belt-tightening tenor of the '90s.

For better or worse, fashion is a mirror. But no one is quite sure how women will respond to its latest, longer-length reflection.

If they like the George Sand-ish contrast of a woman in men's clothing, they can live their fantasy with Ralph Lauren, whose long, tight skirts, cuffed pants and precise vests and jackets, complete with Eton-collar shirts, wide ties and wing-tip shoes, exude the sort of hard-edged tailoring cut on Savile Row.

Calvin Klein's collection was made of softer stuff: vests layered over jackets over cashmere sweaters; narrow coatdresses over cuffed pants; creamy twin-sets; long, side-slit skirts and slouchy suits of the sort Ms. Hepburn might have liked. And Donna Karan took the lean line and molded it to the body with sexy, stretch tweed jackets that belted over midcalf skirts slit to the thigh.

Designers such as Isaac Mizrahi had fun with the trend, whipping up jackets of Donegal tweed lace and long, strapless wool plaid dresses sliced high up the back.

At Perry Ellis, Marc Jacobs put a lively rock and roll spin on the season, tossing brocade vests under navy suits pinstriped in silver and a leopard-print blouse and black leather vest over tight, black leather jeans.

After charcoal gray pinstripes, in fact, leather emerged as the season's favorite "fabric." Ms. Karan showed her midcalf body skirts in black leather zipped from hem to waist. Louis Dell'Olio favored chocolate brown leather suits at Anne Klein, while Michael Kors paired cinnamon suede vests and jackets with bronze and black-checked chiffon pants.

The leather look sometimes also took on a kinky, S&M; component, glimpsed from the rings on the dog collars at Perry Ellis to the bondage-inspired "harness belts" that strapped the torsos on Mr. Kors' and other runways.

It may be, as some believe, an attempt at sex-as-theater as a response to sexually dangerous times. Or it may be just the spice of shock in a time of familiar retro chic.

Past and present, fall fashion reflects it all, as time goes by.

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