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A step back into old-world opulence

Bustles and crinolines were all very well, but in matters of dress at the court of the Emperor Franz Joseph, the men had more fun. Officers waltzed around in colorful uniforms scrolled with soutache and gold braid and wore dashing capes slung over their shoulders. At their mountain lodges, the Austrians sported loden jackets with Tyrolean silver buttons. At their country places, high-born Hungarian men decked themselves out in rich versions of silk-embroidered peasant costumes.

Men servants, too, were more splashily attired than their feminine counterparts, with coachmen resplendent in elegant livery and pages decorative in velvet breeches and lace.

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Fashion designers, both here and abroad, absorbed all this when viewing last winter's "Hapsburg Empire" exhibition at the Costume Institute of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show was conceived by Diana Vreeland, the forceful fashion personality who serves as special consultant to the institute. Her displays of period costumes from the grand old days of Vienna impressed the fashion world so vividly that what is being called the Hapsburg Look applies to a goodly portion of new fall styles.

Imperial officers' uniforms and Austrian Alpine dress intrigued Yves Saint Laurent for his ready-to-wear. Other Paris creators went in for Hapsburgiana in their haute couture, and numerous American designers followed suit. Oscar de la Renta voyaged into Hapsburgland and based his entire collection on source material from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

His clothes are only remotely related to the modern world, but escapist, fantasy fashions may well be what women who want out from present-day realities wish to have.

The designer's evening regalia is an interpretation of 19th-century opulence: a profusion of jet beading, ruff collars, and flashing bugle-beads on black velvets and moires. Puff-sleeved satin-sashed metallic lace dresses are inspired by what the Empress Elizabeth wore when dancing to Johann Strauss. Hungarian gypsy outfits of Lurex-dotted silk gauze, heavily ornamented at the hips and necklines with clinking coin chains, and Zouave pants with hussar jackets are other offerings for today's ballgoing public -- wherever it may be.

Adaptations of the men's costumes have wider application. La Renta's frog-fastened shearling coats lavishly embroidered with silk needlework, for instance, and his Tyrolean greatcoats and capes, suede jackets embellished with braid scrollings and fastened with Brandenburgs, and velvet dirndls with silver-buttoned wool jackets piped in red are modernized counterparts of the museum-piece finery.

These styles are quite wearable. Similar, lower-priced versions from lesser-known American manufacturers will be fairly plentiful.

As for knee breeches -- a court page idea translated by various designers for both day (in tweed or in velvet worn with tweed) and evening (in black velvet with white stockings, a lace jabot, and buckled shoes) -- they have their charm, if left to the young and lissome.

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