Summer fashion; Designer dressing on a minibudget

How would you like to buy a summer outfit for $36.98 and have it look like a

I did this with a midcalf, white cotton skirt tagged at $19.99 and a khaki, puffed-sleeve blouse at $16.99. Together, they could easily pass for a costly outfit by designer Perry Ellis.

I didn't go looking for investment fashions as I generally do. Summer is too short. In addition, most of these things can't be worn more than one season. They can lose their life -- especially the whites.

All the shopping was done at Woolworth's, Sears, K-Mart, Hit or Miss, and Chandlers. On a minibudget I came up with a miniwardrobe with multilooks.

Having succeeded with one outfit, I set out for a second. This would be just enough to supplement my other summer clothes. I nabbed a white nylon taffeta jacket for $7.97 in the men's department at K-Mart. Granted, a basic white blazer would have been more practical, but baseball jackets are ''in'' and I wanted something different.

The white cotton and polyester pants came from Sears. They were $14, and feature a traditional, straight leg. I thought about wide, cropped pants, but they're gimmicky and cost more.

The T-shirt came from Hit or Miss, a discount clothing chain across the country, and cost $11.99. It has an asymmetrical neckline and is covered with colorful coin dots (they're bigger than polka dots). It caught my eye because it looks like an Yves St. Laurent copy. Total cost of this outfit: $33.96.

Compared to the other prices, the shoes might seem expensive. But these white flat slings, $31 at Chandlers, are perfect for both outfits. And the $2 white pantyhose give everything an updated look. It's amazing what a big difference the right hose can make.

At Woolworth's I found a huge, white straw bag with grey canvas trim. It was Alice?'' (I snipped off the label.)

I cheated on jewelry, using my own white enamel earrings, bought years ago, and a big white plastic bracelet. Most women have a few pieces of chalk-white jewelry in their jewel boxes.

I don't wear hats, but almost every store featured some exciting straws. There were both naturals and brights, ranging from fedoras to wide-brimmed versions at $3 to $5. They're perfect for pool or patio.

There's no question that it takes time to shop for bargains. But it's worth it. Even a few new items can update a summer wardrobe without depleting a bank account.

To simplify your shopping, be aware of what designers and manufacturers are showing. This summer watch for:

* Romantic-looking white cotton dresses.

* Feminine, white cotton blouses.

* Midcalf skirts, ranging from linens to cottons.

* Short, swingy skirts (for the young).

* Big cotton tops.

* Oversized linen jackets to wear with everything.

* Pants that range from traditional to cropped-ankle length.

* Flat- to medium-heeled shoes.

* Large-brimmed straw hats and straw handbags.

* Belts in a wide variety of widths and styles.

* Colorful, chunky jewelry.

It helps to flip through fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper's, Mademoiselle, and Glamour. There's also Women's Wear Daily (WWD), a newspaper some consider the bible of the trade. Many libraries subscribe to these magazines and to WWD. You'll find these publications a great way to learn how to team colors and also how to use accessories.

Keep in mind that, when a new style is shown, it will take your eye a little time to adjust to the look.

As for colors, it's best not to get carried away with the brights. They have a way of looking gaudy in lower-priced items. White is the best bet because it's basic and looks good with accent colors.

Finally, it's important to note that these inexpensive fashions look more expensive when they're free of frills. Simplicity is the key word.

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