From Milan; Pants take it all for spring

Can you imagine getting all through next spring and summer without a skirt? Milan's designers think you can -- and they make the alternative, pants, so alluring you'd almost be inclined to try.

Spring fashion week in Milan produced enough pants to outfit the French Foreign Legion. The reference is appropriate because we were vigorously in Africa, with a thousand safari suits in cotton drill, moroccan trousers, baggy pants of every sort. Your spring trousers are, most important of all, knickerbockers.

With them: a strict collarless Nehru jacket, often in a contrasting fabric (suede with cotton voile, checked tweed with linen). Armani, the great Italian tailor whose jacket shapes whiz a thousand copyists to their sewing machines, favored, in addition, the snugfit fencer's jacket this year, and its back, dipping to a little center point, has a decidedly slimming effect. His Nehru jackets were sometimes sleeveless, and he also like the long, lean cardigan floating open over a white blouse with Knickerbockers.

These earth colors are important. Shrieking tones are out, and nobody but Versace used bright scarlet (he did kid jackets in these over his flower-printed silk knickerbockers). But the putty, khaki, and olive tones led the field, always freshened with immaculate white, often frothing with lace ruffles.

Burnt sienna and ochre tones followed naturally, and the chic mix was black linen with mushroom.

Show week in Milan rivets the eye and ear, for the productions on the catwalk are true spectaculars, light-years away from the old "here comes Jennifer wearing blue" sort of show. A dozen girls spin onto the catwalk at once, all in African jungle prints, a dozen concepts of how to whirl the soft silk round the body for glamour evenings. Another, it's white one-piece swimsuits worn by beautiful American black models who had splashed their limbs with oil just before going on stage. The gleam dazzled.

Just for a change, the American models didn't have heart flurries every time they left a show, for they'd all obtained work permits from the Italian consul in New York. In other years, vigilant Italian police had hovered backstage.

Everyone moved swiftly, for all the shoes now are delicate flattie sandals. Not a high heel in sight. Not a speck of denim, either, nor of padded shoulders , nor of narrow constricting skirts. The linens, the gauzy jutes, light muslins , voiles, were used generously. Some beach dresses (there were just a few) were just three layers of muslin -- curry, olive, burnt sienna. Firmer fabrics that are strongly in fashion again: gabardine and tablecloth-check Thai silk.

Strapless is back, looking terrific in cream knit swimsuits at Fendi, emphasized by a fat rouleau band of color around the top and on the hipline. Hips are indeed the dominant place of interest and are always circled with muslin scarves, multicolored, often further topped by a plaited leather belt in copper (far newer than gold).

The Japanese obi came into breathless play, too, its stiff 6 inches of corded silk holding Nehru jackets even closer to the body above their contrasting knickerbockers or draped raj trousers.

Jewelry suits the Africa theme -- bold, simple, exciting single disks of beaten gold on chains, drop earrings to match, masses of thick gold bangles. Several designers slung chains with tiger teeth from the leather belts.

Nobody gave a hoot about skirt lengths; the pants passion fudged over all that. But what skirts there were turned out surprisingly long. Among the inevitable merry minis were bias-cut skirts 2 and 3 inches below the knee, and Fendi's terrace linens came right down to midcalf.

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