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Lady vs. the Vamp


We have entered the season of Conservative Chic. It is also the Year of the Dress, the New Femininity, the Essential Suit -- as headlined in the fashion trade press.

Clothes now are refined, but interesting, exactly the qualities that define a lady. The lady has recaptured her place as arbiter of style and designers are courting her. They've been out of practice.

For the past five years, fashion took the costume road -- we had slutty biker babes, monk tunics, Wall Street raider suits, bondage leather gowns, trashy baby doll dresses, prairie home companion prints, and the ultimate indignity, grunge. Real women had nothing to wear, nothing to buy. Retail sales plunged.

This season, designer collections and mainstream lines are again "wearable" -- an adjective that usually sends chills through the fashionable set. The trendies, however, are taking to refinement like downtowners to cappuccino. They've been bored, too. They inspired the in-your-face street styles with all their scary trappings -- androgynous boots and coiffures and clothes of little taste and too much flesh. When designers translated those looks for women of fashion, the rebels lost their edge.

For a change, fashion had no place elso to go but civilized and handsome.

Poise has replaced attitude and dressing has returned to the ladylike decades when the goddesses of style such as Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were America's role models.

Little shifts with matching jackets, clean and simple cocktail sheaths, coat costumes and discreet accessories.

The luncheon suit has replaced the power suit.

Although the lady look has been called Conservative Chic, it is a decade of design removed from the Nancy Reagan fussy style of too many buttons and too much trim.

These clothes have a distinct '90s spin. They are more-body conscious than the originals and have been edited down to better performance.

Smaller in the shoulder

It's a clean season, with the richness in fine dressmaker details rather than glitz. Whether long or cropped, jackets tend to be curvy with accents of concealed zippers, self buttons, sculpted cuffs and softer collars.

Jacket shapes vary -- short, long, tailored or boxy -- but they are cut smaller in the shoulder and narrower in the sleeve.

Bracelet-length sleeves are new and gloves are the important new accessory.

The suit hit of the season could very well be an A-line or sheath dress with a close-shouldered jacket or coat in matching fabric. Fabrics have a softer surface with a return to peppery tweeds, boucles and crepe finishes.

Plaids, gray flannel and camel hair also have made a comeback, and they define that classic American mode in sports and outerwear.

The dresses of the moment are sleeveless -- just like Jackie's -- and they have the advantage of working for day with a jacket or with pearls at night.

Vintage vamps

These are not, however, your grandmother's clothes. Modern fabric technology gives today's designs comfort and movement. Dresses have built-in stretch, suits have lost their stiff old-fashioned interlinings, and synthetics have matured into respectable fabrics.

Along with the retro ladies, however, vintage vamps make a comeback and '60s Mod and '60s Mom share space in the glossy mags.

The mod appeal of booted and jump-suited Mrs. Peel can't be denied.

September fashion magazines, traditionally the weightiest of the year, are giving Mod style a flashy ride while the stores give their space to the ladies.

Time will tell.

On the Cover

Designed for the lady: Oscar de La Renta, the darling of the ritzy set, cuts a sophisticated suit in a windowpane plaid.

Designed for the vamp: Todd Oldham, who dresses the glamour clique, shows a suit with sexy underpinnings.

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