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London fashion: a season for courtly romance; Fall showings bask in nostalgia

Romance is shedding its mellow glow over just about everything here, and its reflection is particularly rosy. Even the latest in English youth's freak-out dressing --the piratical fop look -- has dulcet overtones of Regency and other courtly, sentimental times.

It's "The Wedding," of course --every tongue. Along with the spirit-boosting effect of the royal nuptials, tangible fringe benefits are expected to accrue that will give the British fashion industry the lift it has needed.

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For in Lady Diana Spencer --with her young, vital looks and her sense of style -- Londoners see a new image that should attract more buyers to purchase, and media folk to publicize, their designer apparel.

And why not? Britain offers much besides superlative cashmeres, great raincoats, and kilts --the traditional clothes visitors seek out in spiffy shopping enclaves like the West End's Burlington Arcade.

London Fashion Week -- held this spring between the Milan and the Paris showings --at the other fashion capitals, but the outlook at the British presentations reflected a high degree of optimism.

More attention was paid to names that are lesser known internationally than the two big stars, Jean Muir and Zandra Rhodes. British designers who are particularly proficient at leathers and suedes -- often combining them, as Janice Wainwright and Ann Buck do, with thin wool jerseys --were newly appreciated, as well as English craftsmen and women who create wonderfully imaginative hand knits.

Provocative street fashions like the swashbuckling Captain Kidd regalia that has taken over Chelsea's King's Road struck many as outrageous and highly peculiar. Few may want to wear Vivienne Westwood's bicornes with skull-and-cross-bone motifs, but her World's End wholesale line of baggy shirts and pants with swashbuckling sashes is already bringing in ducats.

It was also clear from the plethora of buccaneer styles on the runways of Paris that such rock-inspired shock looks have their experimental value. They often initiate trends that become high fashion elsewhere. Above all, though, where the British excel is in making beautiful ball gowns. And with parties expected to be in full swing here and abroad from now through the winter holiday season, a ball gown boom is under way.

Retailers on the hunt for splendid gowns by other specialists such as Belville Sassoon, Murray Arbeid, Bruce Oldfield, and Victor Edelstein were more than satisfied. "We're spending a lot of money," Thomas Neil Crater, executive vice-president of Philadelphia's Nan Duskin, reported.

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The current array of rustling silk taffetas, layered tulles, and hand-painted organzas with high Victorian or low, shoulder-revealing necklines is particularly spectacular. Prices are also tempting. Certain extremely well-made dresses (with metallic lace or paillette trimming and generous petticoated bouffant skirts) are ticketed at around $400. Such gowns would sell in the United States or Europe for about $1,200.

These puff-sleeved evening spectaculars generally take their fashion cues from Gainsborough or from Shakespearean costumery -- black with a molten-gold lame being the favored combination for grand court scenes, such as Zandra Rhodes's finale, complete with pages and ladies-in-waiting decked out in velvets and metallics.

Another leading look for evening is the modern interpretation of Lord Fauntleroy's velvet and lace. The knee pants by Gina Fratini, for instance, are particularly engaging. Court breeches, as they are known here (it would be a faux pas to call them "knickers," as that means underpants to the English), come with matching jacket or vest worn over frilled blouses with wide lace Bertha collars.

Lady Diana has helped put court breeches into fashion currency, although it is doubtful she will wear them in public from now on. She has a sporty daytime pair in corduroy as well as some black velvet knee pants that she bought off the rack at Fenwick's. She has worn them with a Laura Ashley ruffled blouse.

"Instead of wearing hard-line clothes, it's fun to wear something romantic," says English designer Genevieve Miller, "what with the wedding coming up and all. . . ."

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