WHEN MICHELLE RISDON SLID INTO THE FLOWERY, FLOUNCY skirt she purchased last spring, she experienced a surge of fashion moxie.
"I looked at myself in the mirror and thought -- 'I look like Carrie,' " said the 26-year-old teacher, referring to Carrie Bradshaw, the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker on the hit HBO series Sex and the City.
"Carrie made getting dressed look like fun," Risdon added. "She made me look in my closet and instead of saying 'Ugh, what am I going to wear today?' I thought 'Ooh, what do I get to wear today?' "
Tonight, HBO airs the final new episode of Sex and the City, the half-hour comedy chronicling the lives of four single women living in New York. As the show comes to a close, this much is clear: In just six seasons, Sex and the City single-handedly transformed the fashion zeitgeist.
At the time of the show's launch in 1999, style seemed particularly uninspired. The fashion cognoscenti -- from magazine editors to designers -- tried to tell women that fashion was fun. But by dictating the trends, they failed to connect with those women for whom fashion was something to be feared, and their message missed the mainstream.
Then came a Sunday night series about a fearlessly fashionable group of friends, and with it a refreshing new take on the art of dressing.
"The show was about beauty for beauty's sake -- about being free of the notion that trying to look pretty and feminine is something to be ashamed of," said Anne Slowey, fashion news director for Elle magazine. "The women on the show took the notion that fashion was elitist and threw it out the window."
Those women, for those who missed them, are Carrie, Charlotte York-Goldenblatt (Kristin Davis), Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) and Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) -- brazenly confident characters who reminded women -- from the career-minded to the stay-at-home moms -- that perhaps, despite its frivolities, fashion is fun.
"The show has given women the confidence to wear what they want, and to feel good in it," said Patricia Field, the red-haired, raspy-voiced costume designer for Sex and the City, who recently launched her own collection of clothes. "I think women learned to adapt the styles in their own way, depending on what they felt comfortable in and how it fit into their lives."
Elle's Slowey agreed: "The most important message the show drove home was that women should not feel ashamed about their love for fashion. It's one part of our culture that gives us pleasure and relief."
By the second season of Sex and the City, it was evident that women were watching the show not only for its candid (sometimes crass) plot lines, but also for its fashion.
Soon after trends appeared on the show, they trickled seamlessly down to the shelves of chain stores like Banana Republic and the Gap, and into the wardrobes of women across the country.
Sex and the City made household names out Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo, designers of the towering heels the characters wore with ease as they cradled babies or chased cabs. It made popular seemingly silly looks, like nameplate necklaces or saucer-sized cloth flowers, which women pinned to their lapels or attached to their wrists. It popularized the idea that outfits do not have to match -- that it's OK to wear a thrift-shop scarf with a designer blouse, or cargo pants with a pair of stiletto heels.
"Suddenly, everyone was talking about the clothes on the show, and I thought 'My God, this has exploded,' " said Field. "I started to see women who looked like Carrie everywhere -- with long, curly hair, wearing heels and flowers and name-plate necklaces."
Viewers like Risdon said the show, which she watched every Sunday night with her boyfriend, inspired her to take risks with her wardrobe.
"It put me in the mood for shopping," she said. "At first I'd look at some of the things Carrie wore and say 'I'd never wear that,' but then it would be in my closet -- maybe a few seasons later."
Risdon added that she never considered wearing pink before noticing how often Carrie wore the color on the show. Now, she's got a drawer filled with pink clothes.
At Red Garter, a boutique in Pikesville that carries designer labels including Dolce & Gabbana and Theory, owner Robyn Fischer said women often refer to Sex and the City while shopping.
"We're a little more conservative here [in Maryland], but the show still had an impact," she said. "It made it acceptable for women to dress in a way that's not matchy -- to mix up clothing."
Of course, as Fischer was quick to add, not all women feel comfortable wearing the more daring, body-conscious outfits that appeared on the show, like Samantha's slinky, low-cut dresses or Carrie's hot shorts. Yet there was something about the characters that made fashion -- no matter how outrageous -- seem accessible to women from Manhattan to Middle America.
"The show hit every woman in some way because they could relate with what was going on in the characters' lives," said Fischer.
Women identified with the characters on Sex and the City because their lives were not a series of laughs -- because they seemed real.
Although they attended star-studded parties, dated models and thought nothing of dropping $400 on a pair of shoes, their lives were fraught with a genuine dose of worry, fear and sadness. The women on the show worked. They lost loves. They juggled children and careers. They got sick.
Which is why, as the final episode approaches, viewers are already mourning its departure.
"I'm sad to see it go," said Risdon, who vows to watch old episodes on DVD. "I'll miss it for a lot of reasons, but mainly those hilarious times when the characters sat around a cafe and just talked. You had to listen. And, of course, you had to take note of what they were wearing."
Trends of 'Sex and the City'
Full, floral skirts, Pin-on flowers, stilettos and blue jeans, nameplate necklaces, mix-and-match
Dewy skin, rosy cheeks, smoky eyes, tousled hair
Who wears what
(Sarah Jessica Parker)
Style: Whimsical. Mix-and-match. Pairs haute couture with threadbare thrift. Never without an accessory -- from Fendi bags to pin-on flowers and nameplate necklaces.
Designers: Christian Dior, Calvin Klein, Chloe, Moschino
Charlotte York-Rosenblatt (Kristin Davis)
Style: Park Avenue Princess. Classic preppy. Girlish and innocent. Prefers sweater sets and traditional Burberry plaids to funky fashion. Dresses up with low-cut blouses and feminine, figure-flattering dresses.
Designers: Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Tocca, Burberry
Style: Bold and racy. Body-conscious suits and short, fitted dresses.
Designers: Richard Tyler, Michael Kors, Gucci
Style: Sensible and classic. Neatly tailored pantsuits by day, and by night, slip dresses and tiny tank tops.
Designers: Theory, Dana Buchman, Club Monaco