For a weekend pick-me-up, Robin Yasinow used to treat herself to a vest from the Bead. Now when she yearns for something new, she goes to Pier 1 imports and buys place mats.

"We went to the mall a couple weeks ago. Why? To look at refrigerators at the BG&E; store. Usually if [my husband] Jeff and I were in the mall together, he'd say, 'I want your opinion on this sweater.' Or I'd say, 'Tell me what you think of this suit.' . . . Now I fall asleep clutching the Ethan Allen catalog," says Ms. Yasinow, 26, who lives in Anneslie.

For many Americans, sofas, tables and chairs have become objects of greater desire than suits, trousers and coats. Bolstered by a desire to turn their homes into luxurious retreats and a disdain for the frock-filled world of fashion, people are devoting more time and energy to their homes.

Although more is spent on clothing, the home furnishings industry is growing at a faster rate than the fashion industry these days. Last year, almost $212 million was spent on home decor, nearly 9 percent more than in 1992, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. The roughly $237 million spent on fashion in 1993 accounted for only a 4 percent increase from the previous year.

Many people believe cutting-edge clothing and high-priced designer labels are holdovers of the '80s. It's more contemporary to turn inward -- or burrow, as some trend-watchers have said -- and create a comfortable refuge from the work, school and stress-filled world.

"People have gotten over fast cars and spending $500 for a sweater. Their closets are full. They're maturing. And they're turning to home," says Kris Kolar, divisional vice president of home fashion and interior design for Woodward & Lothrop.

Patrick McCarthy, executive editor of Women's Wear Daily and W, says high prices and lackluster styles have caused people to focus more on their couches than closets.

"Fashion hasn't been particularly exciting for the last five years," he says. "We haven't had one trend that's made everyone want to go out and buy clothes. . . . People also have gotten a little upset with the price of fashions. They've started seeing dresses that cost as much as a nice piece of furniture. A lot of them are choosing the furniture."

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, credits the baby boomers -- many middle-aged now -- with fostering this environment.

"Everyone talks about comfort. That's because we have an aging population that's seeking to be comfortable. . . . People are sitting around the tube in the front room. Kitchens are expanding, and the bedroom is very important. What we're seeing is more emphasis on the private part of the home and a shrinking on the public part -- the dining room and living room," says Dr. Fisher, who has participated in home vs. fashion seminars, including one called "The Psychology of the Home: Why Am I Thinking About Sofas More Than Skirts?"

Magazines are reflecting the change. At W, Mr. McCarthy has increased coverage of decorating and introduced WH, a twice-annual magazine on home design. And 60-year-old Bride's magazine changed its name to Bride's & Your New Home several years ago.

"That was done for one simple reason," says editor-in-chief Barbara Tober. "Everyone knows we have fashion because we have a bridal dress on the cover. But not everyone realized we talk about decorating and entertainment. . . . And over the last 10 years, we've increased that coverage by 50 percent."

The shift is reflected in the kinds of question the magazine fields today. While in the past, brides often asked about clothing and etiquette, they now write or call about home finance, window treatments and silver.

JoAnne Cooper simply doesn't have time to comb stores looking for clothes and renovate the 90-year-old home in Tuxedo Park that she and her husband, Joe Wingard, own.

"I just don't concern myself with my wardrobe right now," says Ms. Cooper, 35, a graphic designer. "I buy what I need and try to get away with that for the season. I can't do it all. And the house comes first."

Similarly, since moving into a renovated Cape Cod, Ms. Yasinow has made exactly two clothing purchases: a pair of gloves and a scarf. But she and her husband, Jeff Pressman, have spent thousands on an armoire, dining room table and rugs.

"I have found myself thinking, 'I'd like a new coat.' Then I think, 'But there's that great lamp at Pottery Barn I really like,' " says Ms. Yasinow, an account executive with Cameron Barry Marketing Communications in Baltimore.

Eager to cash in on the trend, many fashion designers have leapt at the chance to build on their fortunes by entering home furnishings. And it often enhances the image of the business to have names like Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren and Gianni Versace creating sheets, china, wallpaper or draperies.

But while Mr. Lauren has probably been the most successful fashion designer to bridge the two worlds, many others have found home furnishings a tough industry to crack, says Ms. Kolar.

"Very seldom do they make it," she says. "There's usually a lot of disappointment in the product."

Mr. McCarthy believes the reason is that home furnishings are less faddish than fashion.

"Designers can tend to be too trendy," he says. "That may work extremely well for clothes. They're disposable. When it comes to home, people are not as trend-conscious. They want to buy things that will last, last, last."

But even though home furnishings currently may be garnering more attention than fashion, he believes that dressing well is hardly doomed.

"It's a cycle," he says. "In the '50s, the parents of baby boomers were buying homes and saving for curtains. Not a lot of money was being spent on clothes then."

No matter where we are in the cycle, though, Dr. Fisher believes humankind will always have fashion.

"It's an immediate way of signaling who you are, your association with a social class," she says.

These days, Ms. Cooper doesn't want to know what her clothes say about her. Courtesy of time spent stripping, spackling and finishing walls, she has an entire "home-improvement wardrobe" sneakers, sweats, jeans and shirts with holes, stains and paint over them.

"On the weekends I hope no one comes to the door," she says. "I look like a paint rag."


Furniture or Fashion?

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