THE messages from the European spring ready-to-wear shows are clear: Change, chaos, rebellion, retro, sexuality in flux. It's the clothes that take a little unscrambling. Somewhere under the layers, the hair, and the love beads, a new woman is emerging.
She's pink and baby blue. She's pretty. And she's industrial-strength sweet. The new woman from these Paris collections is as feminine, and sometimes even as fragile and innocent, as her predecessors were strong and aggressive.
She wears long white cotton damask and eyelet dresses with cutwork and fagoting at Chloe and Chanel. She covers her full damask-linen skirts with hand-painted aprons at Christian Lacroix. And she rediscovers white broderie Anglaise (English embroidery) as the comeback fabric of the season - the materialization of innocence and femininity in eyelet and other fine white needlework.
Karl Lagerfeld gives these sweet embroideries his imprimatur at Chanel, closing the show with exquisite tablecloth handwork - all in white, all christening-dress delicate.
The apron is perhaps the most symbolic item of the season, appearing in almost every collection, usually over pants, and signifying the gentler woman from the tied-to-her-apron-strings generation.
The new woman is also more serene, less frantically sexy. Claude Montana portrays her in a brilliant collection of soft, creamy silk crepe pants with self-belted trench jackets in the same fluid cut. Or in sheer, sleeveless tops of khaki viscose jerseys over flowing jersey pajamas. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons sees her in pale cotton jacquards that have been processed to remove the color. In a remarkable dressmaking feat, the Japanese designer cuts long, sleeveless dresses from one piece of fabric, then darts-in the shape rather than cutting and seaming it.
Clothes with a past. While no one is sure where fashion is going, there's a lot of evidence of where it's been. The 1960s and early '70s showed up in the Milan shows, with bell-bottoms, love beads, cropped tops, flower children, and Superfly platforms.
The '50s were represented by the full calf-length skirts Annette Funicello and Sandra Dee would have worn with their off-the-shoulder blouses.
And the '20s and '30s gave us women in ivory silk crepe-de-chine chemise dresses and parasols.
The lookbacks that are the most puzzling are the many dresses and skirts with trains. From Yamamoto's tribal dresses that leave at least four yards of fabric trailing in their wake to Romeo Gigli's black Spider Woman gown with not one but two trains, fashion's rear-guard action links these dresses to the past - the immediate past.
Redefined sexuality. Versace, who has done as much to define the strong, highly-charged sex subjects of recent years as anyone short of Madonna, continues to explore fashion sexuality - this season in sleek white crepe Martha Graham-like dance dresses with revealingly low, square-cut necklines. He also perfects the bellwether bell-bottoms from his July haute-couture collection via pantlegs that flare, flounce, fan, and trumpet above platform sandals. Some spring out over white pantaloon-like petticoats.
Show time. In the continuing saga of see-through (designers love it, but do you ever see anyone wearing it?), the news for the spring is that the sheerness has traveled from tops to bottoms. Lagerfeld's see-through skirts from his signature collection last March and his transparent chiffon pants from Chanel haute couture in July began as a way to keep miniskirt-lovers happy by giving them a way to show their legs in long skirts or pants. These garments set the stage for a new look at transparency and hav e triggered an explosion of such fabrics as chiffon, organza, georgette, and sheer jersey.
Unlike his first see-throughs for Chanel that posed mousseline pants over thigh-high stockings, Lagerfeld's new chiffon pants are shown over black bodysuits in this collection for Chloe - his first for that company in nine years.
Rome's Valentino gives see-through a new dimension by printing a chiffon jumpsuit in an elephant motif and layering it over a knee-length jumpsuit in a zebra print - his artful salute to the African jungle. Valentino also veils a satin bra with an openwork tunic of beaded coral worn with long, full pleated pants.
Baring it. The midriff replaces the legs as the center of attention. Even the most classic designers such as Hanae Mori and Christian Dior show bras as the new blouse.
At Givenchy, the new twin-sweater set is a sleeveless, cropped pullover that bares the midriff and a matching cardigan.
The naked midsection also appears as part of Saint Laurent's homage to Thailand - a finale of costumerie combining gold lame sarongs with tassel-fringed, frog-closing, cropped tops, some of them jeweled.
Corselets remain on the scene, newest looking in whaleboned tweeds at Chanel, where they match-up with short bolero jackets. And for a new view of vulgarity a la mode, John Galliano teams his abbreviated whalebone corsets with deconstructed Napoleonic jackets and Josephine trains.
The search for skin also includes sleeveless jackets. Lots of them. At Gaultier, pinstriped vests peel off to reveal white T-shirts with long, jacket-matching pinstriped sleeves. Gaultier also shows pinstriped suits that look perfectly normal from the front. When the model turns, you see legs instead of the skirt back.
Rykiel, who played a major role in shaping the '70s with her high-armhole, narrow-shoulder fit, resists the temptation to bring back that look, preferring to remember the decade with long vest-like jackets and a pants wardrobe that includes some barely bells.
Cher croppers. Remember those midriff-baring cropped tops and vests Cher used to wear? Designers do. They offer vests as brief, bosom coverlets. Vests as jackets. Vests as dresses. Vests as weskits and gilets. Vests in chiffon, leather, poplin, georgette and knitted viscose. And vests as the most authentic hippie top for bell-bottoms.
The dress as accessory. Of all the layering ideas for spring, the newest revolves around a long, button-front, sleeveless dress in wispy chiffon, georgette, or silk crepe de chine. It's worn with only one or two tiny, self-covered buttons closed at the waistline as it flutters over a bra and pants, a bodysuit, a vest, or a long slip dress. The best renditions are by Ozbek and Lagerfeld - Lagerfeld for Fendi, Lagerfeld for Chloe, Lagerfeld for Lagerfeld, and Lagerfeld for Chanel.
Strong on long. Except for Saint Laurent, Dior, and Givenchy, where the daytime hem remains firmly above the knees, long skirts are the majority length. They range from body-hugging tubular knits to the newer trumpet flares and sunburst pleats.
Pants, pants, pants. From Versace's bell-bottoms to Armani's pajamas in delicate Tahitian border-printed organzas and the palazzos at Montana and Galante, pants take center stage. Wide legs look newer than narrow, as in Montana's viscose knit versions and his white crepe ensemble with matching vest and organza blouse.
Hip accessories. Hair is the accessory of the season, getting longer and fuller and covering the ears, thereby eliminating the need for earrings. If you don't have long, straight, center-parted hair, get out the iron or prepare to go to bed again with your hair rolled in tin cans. Even the Afros are bigger and taller than the originals that inspired them.
Platforms rule the runways, especially as clogs, mules, wedges, and espadrilles. Ankle-wrapping is a favorite softening device. Thanks to the hippie era, long necklaces, love beads, openwork chokers, medallions and floppy or straw hats are with us once more.
The preposterous hats of haute couture have definitely found an audience in ready-to-wear. Scarves get two new looks: either wrapped around the head, bohemian-style, or draped down the back, Arab-style, as the Armani models wore them in his Moroccan segment.
Makeup. Get out the tweezers and reach for the lip gloss. It's Penelope Tree time again in Milan as designers practically eliminate eyebrows, light the lids in yellow and apricot, spot the cheeks in color and glaze over pale lips. Makeup is definitely more romantic in these soft-but-there colors.
Beauty marks are back at Chloe, where they star the cheek, and at Yamamoto, where they appear as golden teardrops.