For some, the first sign of spring is a robin redbreast. For others, it's a strappy pair of Salvatore Ferragamo sandals.

If you fall in the strappy sandal category, we've got a seasonful of flirty fashions for you. Clothes this spring are more feminine than they've been in years, with defined-waist dresses, flowing skirts, sheer fabrics, flowery prints and looser trousers making news. The dominant silhouette is voluminous fabric below the waist paired with a small top. Jewels appear in unexpected places. Flowers can be found in the hair, on the shoulder, at the waist.

"The message from the runways was a pretty, soft, girly type of feminity," says Gregg Andrews, fashion director for Nordstrom's Eastern Region. There are still lingerie looks, but they are just as often sweet as sexy. Handkerchief hems, flounces and tiered ruffles give skirts a floaty sensibility.

You don't have to do anything as obvious as ruffles and bows to update your look this spring, although there's plenty of both out there. The stores are filled with grown-up styles that are both pretty and polished.

If you feel you can't wear the ultra-feminine look, you can at least introduce soft color into your wardrobe. Banish black from your purchases -- just for this season. Neutrals are nice, but won't look as new as something in a vibrant shade.

"The return to happy color is a major theme," says Tom Julian, fashion-trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide.

Citrus and tropical shades are key this spring, especially yellow, orange and green in every variation from soft mint to kelly bright. Pink is still important, whether it's pale rose, strawberry or fuchsia.

And if you're not quite ready to invest in a hot-pink suit?

"Add a hot-pink top to a navy or white suit," suggests Ray Mitchener, buyer and manager for Ruth Shaw in the Village of Cross Keys. Or get a pop of color with spring's newest accessories -- a pair of lime-green ballet flats or a bright-yellow clutch. Don't worry about matching. Last fall's tasteful ensemble look has gotten looser and more individual. Not only do you not have to coordinate your bag with your shoes, says Andrews, you don't even have to match your bag with a color in your outfit.

There are must-haves this spring but not a lot of must-nots. Express your own personality by creating unexpected juxtapositions. One of the new hipbone-length jackets, for instance, looks great with a silk chiffon skirt -- but just as good with your best pair of jeans.

"It's about having fun when you get dressed in the morning," says Andrews.

So have some fun. Buy a few pretty pieces to punch up your wardrobe. Here are the key trends to look for this spring, the best of the runways translated to the real world:

The return of the skirt. It can be a micro-mini with pleats. It can be knee-length. But a skirt looks best this spring when it's flippy, full or flowing. The key is extra fabric, from a '50s-inspired circle skirt to one that simply has a few ruffles. An A-line or dirndl skirt also works. Pair a full skirt with a lacy tank or a shrunken jacket.

The essential trench. When so much else was soft and flowing, trench coats were a surprising staple on designer runways here and in Europe -- but not your basic khaki cotton poplin. They were most often short and colorful, like Michael Smaldone's bright-yellow trench for Anne Klein. Tracy Reese showed silk twill trench coats with floaty chiffon frocks. Look for the new trench in surprising fabrics like spring suede. It may have feminine detailing or be printed with flowers.

Vintage vogue. You'll see two strong period influences this season, particularly on dresses, says Andrews. One is '20s flapper. These dresses are straight, often with a dropped waist, with a tiered skirt or asymmetrical hem. The materials are soft and sheer, sometimes subtly printed. The other is '50s Audrey Hepburn, a neat look that's fitted through the bodice and has a very full skirt. Other not-quite-period pieces include halter dresses and baby-doll styles.

Prints charming. Prints are back in a big way. And in a small way. There are lots of little florals, but there are also big vintage rose prints and tropical flowers. Dolce & Gabbana mixed and matched blooms; you can be just as bold if you like. Polka dots look fresh but retro, and there's still some op art around. As for accessories, one of the new print bags can add a wow factor to any outfit.

Boss tweed. You'll be seeing it in jackets and suits, but the word menswear won't enter your mind. That's because these tweeds come in pretty pastels and feminine shapes. Like the trench, this spring's tweed jackets, suits and coats are a fresh new twist on a classic.

Dress to kill. Of course the little black dress isn't dead, but there are so many more options for evening this spring, namely dresses in chiffon, tulle, organza, lace or satin with scarf hemlines or flounces, in every color of the rainbow. Don't forget to accessorize. This season's precious metal is gold, not silver.

This sporting life. It's not all flounces and frills. Designers from Dior to Narciso Rodriguez used stripes in ways that made their clothes look like Adidas knockoffs, and Ralph Lauren took inspiration from vintage tennis dresses and sweaters. This season's pleated micro-minis, in fact, look like the tennis skirts of a few years ago. Bold nautical stripes appear on tops and accessories. Sweatshirt-style tops and hoodies are important, and NASCAR and motorcycle jackets can also be found.

Shoe ins. One of the big fashion stories this spring is all the fabulous new shoes. Yes, there are strappy sandals, but there are also soft moccasins, ballet flats with satin ribbons, high-heeled spectators, round-toed pumps, wedges and platform shoes. Anything goes except chunky, heavy shoes. (This spring's wedges and platforms are more feminine than past versions.) That they come in wonderful colors almost goes without saying.

Try these on

Every season has its unique look, and spring 2004 is no exception. Your best buys are those pieces that feel fresh and new when you put them on but will still work for you when their season is past. Here are some suggestions:

* A flirty skirt

* An ultra-short or colored trench coat

* A shrunken jacket

* A pastel tweed piece

* A lacy tank

* Higher-waisted, wider-legged trousers

* A halter or strapless dress

* A floral print

* Something with satin ribbons

* Colored shoes to wear with a neutral outfit

* A pretty ballet flat

* A print clutch bag

* Something in a brighter color than you would have considered last year

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