From Black to Gray, From Short to Long, Fashion Marches On

It's that time of year. You flip the calendar to September and feel a rush of mixed emotions. Part of you longs to stop the clock - to bottle a month's worth of perfect summer days, then use them to prolong the warmth and light of the season. At the same time, you look forward to a fresh start - to new activities or classes, brilliant foliage, and even the delivery of an annual cord of wood for a winter's worth of cozy fires.

But then there's that other, more daunting September exercise, the wardrobe check, when a look in the closet leaves you singing the "I-have-nothing-to-wear-and-no-time-to-shop" blues. This autumn especially, as hemlines plunge and colors change, sartorial panic can be acute.

For much of the '90s, despite the everything's-coming-up-roses optimism created by a robust economy, black reigned supreme as the somber must-have color for urban wardrobes. Then last year, designers changed course, declaring that "brown is the new black" and filling stores with shades of chocolate and cinnamon and toffee. Now those same designers are proclaiming that "gray is the new black" or, as one clerk puts it, "gray is the new brown." Racks are crammed with such unromantic shades as mortar, steel, nickel plate, petrol, slate, and gunmetal. What will we be told next year - that beige is the new gray?

Then there's the hemline decree: Short is out, long is in. But how long is long? Mid-calf? Ankle-length? Decisions, decisions.

Yet even these dictates and changing styles can leave bewildered shoppers glad for small favors. Gone, mercifully, is the old fashion tyranny of several decades ago, when only one look prevailed each season. Conformity reigned, and woe to the wearers whose hemlines didn't measure the "right" length, or who ignored the rigid rule that declared: No white shoes before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.

But relaxed rules and refreshing individuality create perils of their own. The results can be confusing - sometimes even comic. A friend who is attending a convention banquet this week has been informed that dress for the event is "business nice," whatever that means. How nice is nice in this context? And while we're at it, just how casual is casual Friday, anyway?

In a revamped fashion world where almost anything goes, does sartorial freedom risk becoming simply another, subtler form of tyranny by creating unsettling uncertainty? The old dress-for-success formulas - laughable as some now seem - at least offered reassuring guidelines.

However constricting, those rules imposed a comforting order of sorts. One knew, in general, what to wear to a job interview, a dinner party, a church service, a wedding, a funeral. One also knew that blue jeans were acceptable to wear to a movie but not necessarily to the theater.

But go to the theater in London today, even on Friday and Saturday evenings, and you see jeans in abundance, mostly on American tourists. Similarly, go to a wedding in the United States and you discover that black tie can mean any tie, or no tie. Casual chic has few limits.

The old lament about "nothing to wear" has probably never been less believable. As shopping malls proliferate, closets expand and so do the wardrobes to fill them. Yet having everything to wear - and permission to wear just about anything - can still produce worries about coming up empty-handed for business and social events alike.

For now, that's enough to send conformist September shoppers to the nearest mall, searching for something gray and long - perhaps slate and mid-calf? Just what the designers ordered.

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