The Hemline controversy: Milan Skirts the issue

When in doubt, wear pants. The Italian designers, artful to the last one, hedged the entire hemline controversy in their big autumn shows recently and showed seven pairs of pants to every three skirts.

But what pants! They're as controversial in shape and length as ever a mini or a maxi was.Abandon those sprayed-on jeans and get into the newer full pants, many with a distinct jodhpur flavor emphasized by contrasting piping that rounds the hip and goes down the leg.

Knickerbockers are the new vehicle for showing a leg, and they're everywhere. While most are in traditional British tweeds or in velvets, and cup in sharply below your knee, those of Giorgio Armani, Italy's star tailor, have a unique feature. It's called air. These knickerbockers are gathered into a two-inch band at the knee, but it doesn't hug at all. It stands stiffly out away from your skin so there is no constriction, and there is air and space.

Italian coats are chunky, easy, raglansleeved, and look like the steamer coats you see on old Cunard Line posters. One important touch they all share: Buttons have been virtually banished. A single button high on the side of the ring neck holds everything together. Armani's coats are lean and spare, falling straight from this ring neck in firm gray ribbed wool.

Suit jackets, sweaters, and blouses all have diagonal closings (at Armani the slanting buttons are hidden under a fly closing). Diagonals swoop up coat hem fronts, make hankie-hem party dresses, even serve as the decorative stitch on knitwear. (By the way, the new look is to tuck your sweater intom skirt or pants.

Scarves and shawls are noticeable by their absence, and the keep-warm news is pretty three/quarters mohair jackets in white, criscrossed all over with gold kid. (This crisscross lattice motif is strong all through the autumn clothes.)

Leather has never been more vital or abundant in Italian fashion, possibly because of the strong "investment dressing" mood. The soft caramel kid pants, with hip pleats and tapered ankles, look fresh and unaggressive with tweed spencer jackets and a white silk blouse frilling at the throat in the new crossed-over way.

Sheepskin jackets won't ever seem the same again to the several thousand buyers and members of the press at the Milan Fair complex. They are cut the new Italian way in pale creams and honeys. They ripple out at the back, flaring and swinging in deep folds, their hems sometimes embroidered in gold. And other embroidery popped up in the form of enhanting Romanian folklore designs in pink and pale green to enliven officer neck or deep wrist cuffs on white wool coats.

These whites and honeys were the rare light touches in a palette for autumn 1980 that's deep, somber, chic, and practical. Brown is on a terrific comeback and makes black look a little old-hat. You get every shade, from beige through taupe to caramel, chestnut, and strongest of all, bitter chocolate. It's marvelous when married to white, as in coat-and-pants ensembles.

Brown nights, though, could be sad and unflattering, but not in Italian hands. They use gleaming satin or velvet and dress it up with giant gold necklets and disc earrings.

The hemline controversy, at the Italian shows, never started. The designers in Milan simply showed half a dozen lengths, some mini, some kneetop, many two inches below. It's not an economic season for taking wild chances, and they know it.

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