Neutral season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you missed having a white Christmas last year, take heart -- a white spring is on its way. Fashion-wise, at least.

Where last spring was all about rich colors and luxury, this spring is simpler, crisper, cleaner. And white is a major theme -- from your A-line trench coat to your ruffled shirt -- as are cousins of the color, such as beige, ecru, bone and nude.

This spring is a white buttoned-up shirt instead of a jungle-patterned shrug. It's khaki-colored Bermuda shorts instead of tiered Bohemian skirts.

"The major trend is a cleaning-up," says George Sharp, vice president, design, for Ellen Tracy. "It's not quite the minimalism of the '90s. It's more refined. We've had season after season of all this embellishment, the ruffled gypsy skirts, the colors. It's nice to see a woman in a white shirt. I think it's as sexy as anything."

As is generally the case with women's fashion, sexiness is of major import. This season, however, comfort may trump sexy. In fact, even sexiness this season is much classier and more comfortable than in seasons past. Belly baring is out, higher waists are in. Mini skirts are a rarity; skimmers -- shorts that hit right at the knee -- are all the rage. Embellishments are still prevalent, but less flashy.

"Last year we had a lot of sequins and rhinestones on things," says Laura McDowell, fashion spokeswoman for T.J. Maxx. "This year, details like wood beads or shells will accent tunic tops, embroideries will accent skirts or blouses. There's less of the bling and the glitz from last year."

That anti-bling also explains the toned-down color palette that dominates this spring.

"It's much more muted than we've seen in past seasons," says Jenn DeBarge-Goonan, fashion expert for Marshalls. "Last spring, it was a lot of pinks and greens, very preppy. This year, it's more chocolates, creams and nudes, and a lot of whites."

Other popular neutral color choices: blacks, beiges, olives, eggshells. Black-and-white. Lots of navy paired with white.

If it all sounds too casual, embroidery, whipstitching and eyelet details add to the season's measure of sweet.

"The look is somewhat Victorian, with all these eyelet patterns or Swiss dots, or crochet in white," says Laurie Trott, fashion director for ELLEgirl magazine. "It was really big. It was everywhere [on the runways].

Designers as disparate as Anna Sui and Jill Stuart all showed eyelet or crochet and lace details on their models. Such variety is great for consumers because it means women with different styles can interpret the look however they want -- rocker style, girly-sweet or with just a subtle hint.

"Old Navy did a peasant blouse in cream cotton with a crochet neckline, so it's just enough of the trend to be on it and you don't have to invest a lot of money on it, but it's a great little piece," Trott says. "And you can wear it with a pair of skinny pants or dress it up at night with tight little leggings and heels."

Leggings? Really?

Surprisingly, the 1980s staple has come back, adding just one more way to cover your legs in this bottom-heavy season.

Skinny pants, leggings, wide-leg trousers, gauchos, capris, Bermuda shorts, boxy and cuffed or rolled-up short shorts. All are popular.

"It's almost pretty much anything goes, especially when it comes to pants," Sharp says. "That works for our customer because then you can buy a great jacket and you can really wear whatever bottom with it you want."

But that doesn't mean skirts are out. On the contrary, in fact. Skirts are just as important this spring as they were last spring.

Wear your skirts long or to the knee, in a comely bubble-shape. Wear them with a wide belt over your shirt. Wear a simple white sundress with wedges or ballet flats. With the exception of the miniskirt, which is getting little attention this season, the sky's the limit when it comes to skirts.

Although, if you were a fan of the bohemian look that has been so popular, move across the map to Bermuda instead.

"Skirts are still going to be flowing, including that longer version, but it's a less tiered, less bohemian look," McDowell says. "And they're also a little bit fuller."

"And while there still is a big emphasis on empire waistlines and higher waistlines, definitely that bohemian vibe that was going on last summer has disappeared for the most part," Trott says. "It's more about crisper forms and stronger fabrics."

Watching your waist

As far as accessories go, last spring saw a heavy emphasis on necklaces of all shapes and materials. This spring, the waistline, not the neckline, is the star of the show.

"Belts is where it's at," says DeBarge-Goonan. "The wider the better. Instead of putting it through the belt loops, you're actually putting it over the belt loops, or putting it over shirts. It helps that shirts are a little bit longer than in past seasons."

Careful, though. If you're fond of the season's high-fashion bubble shape -- meaning your skirt is rounded in through the middle and tucked under at the bottom, producing a circular shape -- steer clear of long, loose tops. Generally, a bubble bottom calls for a skinnier top. There's more leeway when the bubble-shape is in your shirt or blouse -- in fact, volume is a major theme for spring -- but remember: no matter how flexible fashion has become, Easter egg is not a good look on anyone.

The nautical look, however, could be a good look for most women, especially in all the ways it is available this season. Navy and white paired together is huge this spring. As are details such as sailor stripes, rope belts, gold accents.

The military look

If you're not a big fan of the Navy look, servicemen of all kinds are being paid homage to this season.

"The new military look is in," McDowell says. "It's not camouflage. It's nautical or khaki blazers or boxy jackets with the standout collars or the multi-button down the front that gives it the look of a military jacket," McDowell says.

When going out to shop for your new spring wardrobe, there's another Army to consider, Trott says: The Salvation Army.

"There are a lot of beautiful clothes out there but it can really add up," she says. "Sometimes the best solution is thinking outside the box and going to a Salvation Army or a Goodwill. You can be creative about it and you can find something that is really fashion-forward. And then you don't have to be married to it, but you can really play around, and then try something new next season."

Now that's what we call spring-forward thinking!

tanika.white@baltsun.com

TEN MUST-HAVES FOR SPRING

1 / / A little white dress

2 / / A crisp white shirt

3 / / Bermuda shorts (if they work for your figure)

4 / / Boxy, slouchy rolled or cuffed shorts (if not)

5 / / Skinny jeans or leggings

6 / / A bubble skirt

7 / / A long tunic or caftan

8 / / Wedge heels or platforms

9 / / A wide belt

10 / / Wooden embellishments or accessories

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