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Dresses sweet with sentiment

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So sugary-sweet are this spring's English clothes, you almost should suck a lemon drop while shopping. The sugared-almond colors rule - every other dress is baby blue, lemon yellow, pistachio, face-powder pink, perhaps a clear coral.

The styling tends, on the whole, toward gentle nostalgia as well. The sugary colors are this year's sentimental substitute for last year's Princess of Wales frills, and it's rather a relief to report that the frills are now taking a holiday. The dresses, though, are the sort you wear to meet a future mother-in-law: demure white Peter Pan collars (very Chanel, this, even to the fake white, pinned-on camellia) with long-torso bodies and a hip seam from which spring flat pleats. If the dress is specially trendy, it will have dolman sleeves.

London designers are tired, on the whole, of the pouf Edwardian sleeve popularized by the Princess. The irony is: Parisian couture still loves it, showing it everywhere in the January collections for $1,000-a-suit customers.

The alternative to all this sugar-sweet dressing is the untamed hessian look, with slash-neck dresses of hopsack girdled round and round with real rope. Their skirts are wide, often patch-pocketed, and if they're not long enough in themselves for the window-dresser's taste, she slips a longer cotton skirt underneath. The look has dash, especially when shown with a twist-crinkle cotton-crepe scarf at the neck, a batch of raffia bracelets at the wrist, and the new sheer-color tights rather than the ribbed ones popular in winter.

Among other directions you can take if pastels are not your dish, is the strictly tailored suit in black and white, often chalk-striped or dice-checked, neatly belted with a peplum frill and a slim skirt. Or, consider the whole wave of Japanese work wear - inspired by those offbeat Tokyo designers who made such news in Paris last season. They used such quietly strong mixtures as navy with gray, black with cream, and they have been copied in mood by such lively fashion chains as Warehouse, whose designer Jeff Banks makes separates in these sturdy cottons.

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