After splurging on opulence and thinking rich for fall and winter, fashion has reverted to simpler ways. Getting down to the basics for spring will not, nevertheless, mean dressing poor - although that theme has a certain following in Socialist France, where Paris designers sense an atmosphere of retrenchment.
In America the simplification is expressed through purity of line and cut. Much is being made of modern, architectural fashion in the innovative manner of Ronaldus Shamask, a New York designer who uses soft fabrics for geometrically seamed clothes. His influence is expected to grow in the future.
There is also much less extraneous decoration than was given last season's lavishly embellished clothes. Fashionmakers are responding to the preference women have shown in their buying habits for fewer but better clothes by cutting back on the frills, especially when meeting costs has been a necessity.
The more conscientious designers uphold good standards of quality, using expensive materials with a free hand and maintaining a high grade of workmanship wherever possible. Lasting value has become a watchword for buying cheap disposable clothing is a luxury no one can afford.
The diversity of shapes and styles continues, but a few changes are in progress. Classic tailoring is phasing out, except for the tradition-bound areas of the business world. The blazer appears to be headed toward the same fate as the dodo. The most popular replacement is the collarless cardigan jacket.
Liz Claiborne, whose separates are reliably fashionable and appropriate for the office, makes a cropped jacket with modified leg-o'-mutton sleeves, an indication of the direction career fashions are taking. Feminized trousers are also proliferating, and they are finding wider acceptance as a day-to-day alternative to skirts.
Although length is not an issue, what may rock the fashion boat are the new ultrashort shorts and skirts, many of them gathered or flared. At the advance showings, designers sent troupes of models wearing every length imaginable out on the catwalks.
Otherwise the news is not headline stuff. It centers around such sidebar stories as the reappearance of black and white (a simple, elegant, and time-honored combination), bright colors with white, and an outburst of vivid, clear colors.
Stripes, as bold as they come, are the domunant pattern in a season in which plain and textured fabrics outnumber prints. The so-called rugby stripe is everywhere in bright white in silks as well as cottons. Suede, handled like cotton or crepe de Chine, ranks as the prestige material.
Ralph Lauren was the advanceman for the Santa Fe vogue that is hitting the mass market with copies of American Indian concha belts and prairie skirts. Worn over petticoats, with high-necked Victorian blouses, prairie skirt turnouts are being called ''Oklahoma dressing'' and are due for a popular run.
Other forms of ruffly nostalgic fashion reflect the English milkmaid or country garden looks of Laura Ashley's clothes.
Most clothes are loose and easy, but more formality is possible for the woman who wants a neat, organized appearance. Oscar de la Renta's thin, black wool-jersey suits with white handkerchief linen blouses are a case in point. Nautical styles abound, looking cleaner and more shipshape than ever.
Waistlines are wandering. The cinch that hugs the ribcage coexists in the fashion picture with the belt that rides low on the hipbones.
But in the main, we have a choice between a full, flared, sometimes ballooning silhouette and secondly, an elongated, linear look. The latter has been done with great success by Perry Ellis, whose croquet stripe hip-length jackets and long, pleated skirts recall the grace and charm of the green lawns of other times, yet manage to look completely modern. That, when all is said and done, is probably the objective for many women today: looking romantic but still modern.