Runway Funnies Nod to Comics

Many spring fashions are inspired by such characters as Olive Oyl, Orphan Annie

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

SEE you in the funny papers.

Back in the days when New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read the comic strips to his Sunday morning radio listeners, that was a way of saying so long or goodbye.

Today, it's part of a new fashion statement.

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The idea is to look to the funnies to look funny, to take your fashion inspiration from the heroes and heroines of comic strips, comic books, and animated cartoons. Olive Oyl's bulbous-toed shoes, Dr. Seuss's "Cat in the Hat" high hats, Little Orphan Annie's red wigs, Robert Crumb's "Keep on Trucking" cartoons - they're all ballooning into spring fashion.

What makes this new comic relief interesting to pop sociologists is that it's all part of a greater movement that incorporates the worlds of dance and interior design.

In "The Hard Nut," choreographer Mark Morris's quirky version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," (which opened December 11 in New York) fairies with frozen-yogurt hairdos do their grand jetes against cartoonish sets created by one of America's premiere comic book creator/illustrators, Charles Burns. His 1992 comic book, "Skin Deep,"(Penguin Books) might well have triggered the current no-eyebrow look, as his characters have truly pencil-thin, pencil-drawn brows.

In the fashionable homes of such avant- gardists as Paris designer Karl Lagerfeld, the fantasy furniture of Amsterdam's Borek Sipek is the fairy-tale look of the moment, with chairs that do plies and tables that wear bloomers.

On the TV scene, fans who watch Nickelodeon's "The Ren & Stimpy Show" have made the Chihuahua with the Peter Lorre accent and the tubby cat what Entertainment Weekly calls "the most subversive cartoon couple since Rocky met Bullwinkle."

And on Seventh Avenue, the newest clothes by some of New York's most famous young designers owe their origins to Walt Disney and Al Capp. The current look began with the oversized hightops and caricaturish combat boots first worn by such beloved American comic-strip characters as Popeye's pop-toed girlfriend Olive Oyl and Daisy Mae's boyfriend 'Lil Abner. This big-foot look was later fashioned by Jean-Paul Gaultier, who with Doc Martens has come to symbolize what New York designer Marc Jacobs of Perry El lis calls the symbol of the downtown bohemian.

Paris designer Theirry Mugler brought Disney to high fashion with his curvaceous, bodacious "Jessica Rabbit" clothes. And while Mickey Mouse may not be packing them in at Euro Disney, Mickey's ears made fashion history last year at Chanel when Mr. Lagerfeld's assistant, Victoire, wore them on the runway. Lagerfeld himself has proved to be a comic illustrator of remarkable talent with his witty drawings for the latest rendition of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes," published by the Atl antic Monthly Press.

This relationship between fashion and the funnies can also be seen in the award-winning cartoons of Gary Larson of Universal Press Syndicate, who sometimes uses designers as subjects.

In the spring clothes, which are about to be delivered to American stores, the new comic marvels are not just from Captain Marvel. Betsey Johnson, for example, sent some of her models out with Little Orphan Annie wigs. Marc Jacobs owes at least part of the award he'll receive Feb. 1 in New York for the most outstanding women's wear designer of 1992 - from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) - to characters from his favorite cartoonist, Robert Crumb.

Mr. Jacobs sees the comic books as one of today's most important fashion influences: "There's this whole underground thing about the comics," he says. "On lower Haight Street in San Francisco, all the techno kids are wearing `Cat in the Hat' hats. It's a pure way of dressing - a child's way of dressing. At the opposite end, the ladies who lunch are also looking like cartoons."

Jacobs says the kids represents what he calls "mannered messy," and the ladies "manicure caricatures." "One wears clothes that are too big. One wears clothes that are too tight." Both, he believes, are exaggerations - mannered exaggerations.

There's also a violent side to the comics in Jacobs's book, and it's this violence-cum-rebelliousness that makes the comic books so attractive to the young. "Good parents didn't let their kids read comic books. So children of `good parents' read them hidden between the pages of their school books. In the late 1960s, Robert Crumb's Squirrely the Squirrel was a violent character. But then so were Tom and Jerry. In The '80s, everyone looked like the Smurfs. Today even grunge groups like Pearl Jam have their

own comic books. This whole comic/cartoon thing is all an all-American idiom. It's part of our trash culture. Take a look at the catalog from the `High & Low' exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and you'll see museum-worthy examples."

Anna Sui, who will receive the CFDA's Perry Ellis award on Feb. 1 as the most promising new talent of 1992, sees this comic-book chic as part of her American roots.

She says she could - and does - watch "The Little Rascals" on video for hours and that the 1930s dresses of their schoolteacher, Miss Crabtree, inspired her bias-cut dresses for spring. In keeping with the animated cartoon impetus, she accessorized some of the dresses with combat boots.

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