Dressing In the Age Of Anything Goes

The old lament, "I have nothing to wear," is often uttered most loudly and falsely by those with bulging closets. Yet the complaint is becoming truer by the day for everyone as old rules of fashion fall away and new choices become possible. In an age of anything-goes attire, even those who once considered their wardrobes ample can feel sartorially challenged, fretting that nothing is quite right for a particular occasion.

Some of the problem can be traced to casual Friday, which requires a whole new way of dressing. Adding to the confusion is a vocabulary of fashion terms that attempt to define degrees of formality and informality. Consider these examples.

When organizers of a weekend seminar describe dinner attire, they call the style "dressy casual." What an oxymoron! Does that mean a pantsuit? A skirt and flats? Jeans with a strand of pearls? And is there an opposite term - "casual dressy"?

Similar vagueness characterizes a tour company's recommended dress for evenings: "smart casual." Pressed for a clearer explanation, a company representative goes vague. "We're very relaxed," she says, unable to translate "relaxed" into wardrobe terms.

Elsewhere, when an insurance company hosts a holiday party for employees, it requests "semi-formal" attire. But when guests show up, the prevailing look is informal. As one woman wryly observes afterwards, "Semi-formal now means no jeans or T-shirts."

Another invitation, this one to a winter wedding, also creates uncertainty. "Black tie optional," it reads, leaving guests to wonder, "How optional?"

The confusion becomes comic when a shopper, preparing for an August garden wedding in an upscale suburb of Chicago, asks a few well-dressed sales clerks for advice.

"Wear black - definitely black," says a salesman at Henri Bendel, naming the color once considered inappropriate for weddings. No wonder Miss Manners finds that there's now more black at weddings than at funerals.

"Wear a pantsuit," advises the well-polished owner of a pricey suburban boutique, adding that she never wears anything else.

"Wear a jacket and skirt," insists a manager at Bloomingdale's, who happens to be outfitted in Chanel. "You wouldn't wear a dress, would you?"

Getting dressed has never seemed harder. Even the experts can't agree.

Men face similar uncertainties, of course: A suit or a sport coat? A tie or an open collar? A white shirt or a colored one?

Yet the fashion burden, economically and emotionally, still falls most heavily on women, especially in professional situations. In recent years, as women have made career gains, many have sighed in relief as they have rejected the dark-suit-and-sensible-pumps formula dictated by John Molloy in "Dress for Success."

But their newfound fashion freedom may be premature, at least in some fields. When 96 women won Labor Party seats in the British Parliament this year, supporters lauded their victories. Yet when the women clustered around Prime Minister Tony Blair for photos, some observers registered another emotion: dismay.

One London columnist derided the "Day-Glo colors" of their jackets. Another harshly criticized them for resembling "a convention of successful Avon Ladies." The writers expressed nostalgia for the European fashion sense of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who favored classic lines and mostly monochromatic colors.

Only the most insecure shopper would want to return to the days when tyrannical fashion designers could make entire wardrobes outdated simply by decreeing radical changes in hemlines and waistlines. In any 1990s competition between individuality and conformity, individuality wins.

Still, in the midst of freedom, a little structure isn't a bad thing. Not to have anything as a guide can be hard on the psyche and even harder on the soles as shoppers trek from store to store searching for - what? Nowadays, we can only hope we'll know it when we see it.

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