Fashion today:a sociologist's dilemma

The sociologist of the future, sifting through the archives, will be hard put to come up with a prototype that could be positively labeled: Woman, Western Hemisphere, circa 1985. Clothing, usually a reliable guidepost in these matters, will only cloud the picture and leave the scholar puzzling over which of the many costumes is truly representative. Would it be the long and purist Calvin Klein linen, the Stephen Sprouse mini in psychedelic colors, the Victorian-romantic Ralph Lauren, or the bucolic Laura Ashley floral print? Maybe a look at the fashions on an old VCR tape of ``Dallas'' or ``Dynasty'' would be enlightening. Then again, perhaps the anonymous business suit with the requisite floppy bow tie is the answer.

The main finding the sociologist would make is that instead of following a single rigidly prescribed rule (which they more or less did for centuries), women now dress every which way, in accordance with their aims and what they perceive as their roles in life. In times past, when women had less confidence, a Christian Dior design's influence was felt by women around the world. But the days when everyone would automatically shift from old look to new look were numbered during the 1960s fashion free-for-all. They came to an end shortly afterward when midi-skirts met a dismal fate.

Now dressing is infinitely more diversified. We have every look from punk to plutocrat. That should make fashion less codified, but it doesn't really. The future anthropologist is apt to conclude that although there are a lot more of them, styles are still systematized. Just as most women of earlier periods dressed in one easily definable fashion, so most women of the '80s dress according to one classifiable type or another.

It's easy to place the aspiring junior executive, until she breaks out of the mold of her man-tailored uniform when she's promoted and graduates to a Chanel. The upscale Yuppie in designer labels, the ``alternative'' dresser with spiky hair and thrift-shop chic, and the minimalist modern in her unadorned neutrals are admittedly harder to pigeonhole than the total Ivy preppie. But some characteristics, like the ruffle, the plunge neckline, and stilt-heeled sandals, are endemic to particular groups or segments of the country, and they hang on there, year-in, year-out, no matter what is happening in the haute circles of fashion.

Still, classification is bound to be heavy going. What will probably baffle the future scholar most in examining present-day fashions are the odd anachronisms. What are these psychedelic minis doing here when Courr`eges and Mary Quant were said to have invented them in the '60s? If these 1980s women were so liberated and smart, why are some of them disguised as sex symbols in these tight hipbands, and why do others hide themselves under yards of cumbersome folds of fabric?

These are some of the daunting questions to be pondered -- and best wishes to whoever tries to solve them for posterity.

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