Britain holds back

British designers are walking a tightrope this spring, and nobody envies them. On the one hand: the voice of caution. With 17 percent inflation and more to come, store buyers are begging their favorite creators to take things easy, to make investment clothing.

Dull, dull, cry the fashion-lovers, the avant-garde. In times of stress, we should be daring.

The first viewpoint is winning. You could shop almost blindfolded in many a department store this season, so calm and well-made are the garments. Even the dashiest designers are thinking classic.

Some of the best things from Bill Gibb's spring offerings are the low-key little crepe dresses for after dark in rich colors like terracotta, butter cream , and sapphire blue. Gibb even restrained himself from his traditional sequined bee motif, reckoning that the dress with low square back and flat pleats all down the bodice had enough impact as it was. His evening clothes are slimmer, many of them in highly sophisticated suit form with deep side slits.

John Bates, too, is thinking calm -- which is in no way to say dull. He's showing that bat-wing-top ring-neck dress that's been his signature for years and has sold 50,000. But his newer shape, and one with an equal look of success about it, is the revived chemise, cool and grown-up in yellow wool crepe.

These chemises are all around town, and they rather baffle the young. Older women are enchanted to slip into them again, however. Jean Muir does some beauties.

Totally contrary to the chemise is the cinched-waist dress which comes most prettily for spring in peplumed dresses and jackets. Janice Wainwrights's are of vice-versa prints in streaked silk, one side black on white, the other, perhaps used as a peplum, being white on black. Muir and Bates flute out peplums on kid and suede jackets, always teamed to go with the dress underneath.

Nothing flatters the skin quite like the shades of soft peach, apricot, and face powder, and happily these are all here for spring. Turquoise and aqua balance these well, and there's quite a lot of lemon.

But the strongest look of all, eternally reminiscent of the late Sir Cecil Beaton's famous Ascot scee in "My Fair Lady," is the black with white one. You get it at every level in British fashion this spring. Some of the most stunning crepe dresses come from lower-priced firms like Radley. Red with white is another strong and pupular mix.

Streaks and branches and outright op art dominate the print scene here, and Reldan's tulip print is about the only floral in town.

Fabrics are sharpening too. You find seersucker for lots of sporty separates , cotton pique suits, and boleros at prices that seem quite mad -- say $:65 ($ 130) for a bolero at Jaeger. Wow. One's driven back to the quilted Indian jackets again!

If its gleams, catch it. Many a cotton, leather, or silk taffeta garment has that glimmery quality the French call "changeant" whereby a lilac at one moment becomes a pink the next. Rainwear looks especially pretty in this sort of cotton, and there's a lot of it about to spark the basic Burberry scene.

Knitwear has far more surface interest, an jacquard reigns again. Many knits have out-and-out blobs of natural cotton among the silky rayon threads. It's the first time many of today's teen-agers have worn boucle.

Women took a stand in this country last winter and they won. The grossly padded shoulder got nowhere, and garments emphasizing shoulders were marked down dramatically in January sales, sometimes by as much as 75 percent. So pads are now subtle for spring. And the other strong autumn '79 look, the pencil skirt, has now been quickly replaced for women-in-a-hurry by the crystal-pleated one, swinging free.

Isn't it gratifying that someone, somewhere, notices what you and I actually like -- and buy?

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