So many dresses, so little time. That's Marsha Jews' dilemma as she tears into boxes of ball gowns sent to her from Neiman Marcus. In one, she finds a zebra-striped sequined sheath ("not bad"), a purple brocade tea-length number ("ug-lee!") and a wine- colored lace-and-taffeta ball gown (more on that later).
"I like being a lady. I love dressing up," says the president of Career Communications Group Inc. in Baltimore. These days Marsha Jews isn't alone. When it comes to dress-up, people are, indeed, dressing up. Evening wear is going all out, a la the '80s, again.
Opulence is back big-time, offering more party-dress variety than women have seen through most of the minimalist '90s. Ball gowns are boffo, with big poufy taffeta skirts and even built-in crinolines. For those who prefer a sleeker style, the column dress in a stretch fabric makes for a glamorous option.
Then there are the extras: sequined appliques, beading, ethnic influences from India and Africa. To finish the look? A luxury wrap in pashmina or fur.
A booming economy is contributing to the elegant atmosphere, but Joan Kaner, fashion director for Neiman-Marcus, believes that formal dressing is also a reaction to our increasingly casual lifestyle.
"Staying home as much as we are means when we go out, we really want to get dressed up," she says. "Years ago, when you went to the theater, you dressed."
Nowadays, dressing for the theater means wearing a clean T-shirt.
So, Kaner says, "When you have the opportunity [to dress up], you pull out all the stoppers."
That's particularly true for an aging population of baby boomers, says Gail Kandel, owner of Vasarri, a Pikesville boutique.
"Women, particularly in the 40-to-70 age bracket, are buying something that flatters them, ... more embellishment, ornamentation. Not gaudy, just drop-dead gorgeous," she says.
All of which suits Marsha Jews just fine.
"I love that opulent look," says Jews, 47. "In recent years, it's been slim pickings. But this year, I'm seeing a lot more ball gowns, more of a variety. It's more fun, and it feels really good."
Just in time, because the gown Jews is searching for must be perfect. She and her husband Bill, chief executive officer of CareFirst, are co-chairing what's considered both the kickoff to the fall gala season and one of the fanciest parties in town: the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gala. (One of the area's hottest -- and at $600 a pop, one of the most expensive -- events, the BSO gala on September 25 is already sold out.)
"I have to determine my attitude. ... What do I want to look like? Real sexy? Real elegant?" she says.
Jews is leaning toward an Amsale taffeta ball gown Neiman's sent her. She loves the full skirt and the fitted bodice. Her only concern is the color: eggplant.
Kaner says, "Color is very big, ... from brights to icy pastels and metallics. I think many women who in the past have worn only black may be seduced by color."
The hottest color of all? Red. Which is exactly what Marsha would like her dress to be. Not to worry, three crimson-colored ball gowns are in the mail.
The season's other "in" shape, the long column, is a hit with Baltimore television personality Rhea Feikin, 64. The "MPT On Location" host, who also describes herself as having "classic" tastes, is wearing a navy silk jersey gown from Ruth Shaw for her station's big do on October 16. But she chose the Zrihen & Chun outfit as much for its comfort as its style.
"I cannot stand pulling up, hoisting and adjusting [throughout an evening]," says Feikin. "I like long things. Then I don't have to wear heels and I don't tower over people."
But Feikin gets a kick out of displaying her best assets. "I do like [long dresses] with slits, because I don't mind showing off my legs," she says.
The column look takes on a trendier touch with Debbie Swartz, 37, who runs Mano Swartz Furs with husband Richard, out of Octavia in Cross Keys.
But Swartz doesn't like to think of her style as trendy.
"I like to think of [my style] as classic with an edge," she says.
Her edge this year comes from beaded fringe on her William B. stretch knit skirt. For the BSO gala, she plans to mix that with a crystal-tinged Easel knit top, both of which she found at Nordstrom.
Her approach -- formal separates -- is another major fashion trend this year.
"I do separates for almost everything," she says. "I like to find a really unique piece that can mix in."
No event would be complete for this furrier without the requisite fuzzy coat in this year's hottest fur, chinchilla.
However, when it comes to coverings, nothing is hotter on the formal fashion scene these days than a wrap made of pashmina, an ultra-light, ultra-soft woven cashmere-and-silk blend.
Suzi Cordish, 43, is hooked on pashminas. She finds they provide the perfect comfort level for going from cold to warm, or vice versa. And they're fun.
As board president of Maryland Art Place, she says, "I like to wear dresses that are fun to dance in. And I love [my husband], David, saying, 'Oh you look so pretty.' "
Yet she also has practical concerns. "I will never see the powder room [the night of MAP's party], so I want to wear something I won't be fussing with," she says.
For MAP's "artful dress" code, the prez is pairing a princess-style silk gingham dress in baby blue and white (she's also ordered it in gray) with a light-pink pashmina. Cordish found both at Cashmere Nantucket while on vacation.
With so much "in" this fall, what's "out" in formal fashion?
That fashion standard, the short little black dress.
"The plain little black dress that used to go anywhere is looking a little passe," says Vasarri's Kandel.
"I think probably our slowest [selling formal dresses] are in all solid black. I'm hearing customers say, 'I own so much black, what else is there?'
Dressing to the (Ninety) nines
* Long. Floor or tea length. Give your short cocktail dresses a year off.
* Ball gown. The big pouf is back.
* The column. Sleek, sexy, with a touch of stretch.
* Color. Jewel tones, icy pastels, metallics. Almost anything goes but black.
* Separates. One of the freshest looks is a ball skirt with cashmere twin set.
* Form-fitting tops. Again, something with a little stretch.
* Strapless. It's fresher than a tank or spaghetti strap.
* Three-quarter length sleeves. Ending just below the elbow instead of on the upper arm.
* Ornamentation. Beading, appliques, embroidery.
* Go bare. Go very bare.
* Ethnic accessories. Look for India-inspired mirrors or African beading on handbags and jewelry.
* Sexy shoes. A pointy toe with stiletto heel. Keep the clunkers for casual.
-- Sloane Brown