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About-face for spring fashion -- femininity is key

MOST of the clothes for the mild months ahead are simple, clean-lined, and comfortable to wear. They are also cheerful, bright, and airy. As for newness, the main point they make is that they have stopped being overly masculine. They are, in fact, quite feminine. There you have the telling difference in the coming fashion scheme. It's going to be all right for women to look like women again, even to dress in ways that have romantic overtones. Should there be any doubts lingering around about this, a glance at the markdown racks in your nearest department store will assure you. It seems that the oversize mannish clothes of last season were a resounding flop at the cash register. What was touted as the absolute latest failed abysmally to end up on the backs of American women. That is what often happens when a runaway trend strays too far from the realities.

So designers are getting back on the track, to what you might call normal. In doing so they have taken various directions. Some have moved toward body shapes: short dresses that draw attention to curves through one device or another, for example. Side-draped sarong skirts, shirred effects that outline the hips, tight rounded bodices, and large bows strategically placed are among the means used to this end. Bare looks -- shoulders, backs, and midriffs -- also signal a return to a sexier (some would say sexist) frame of reference.

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Other fashionmakers whose tailoring has been conservatively controlled have in their own way loosened up considerably. Firms like J. G. Hook and Evan-Picone are using softer fabrics and stressing easygoing jackets, slouchy sweaters, and city shorts as alternatives to their basically classic lines of apparel.

Still others are carrying over the menswear concept without missing a beat, yet managing to convey a look that is definitely female without resorting to the hourglass silhouette and other desperate measures some designers feel are a must. A running theme in the collections of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, as well as for such lesser-knowns as Danny Noble, is the man's shirt. It is present in every possible guise -- as a top, a tentlike cover-up, a short or long dress -- nearly always with wide armholes, amply cut, and light in feeling.

Besides the big shirt, which was starred both in New York showings and abroad, other masculine-inspired styles stay in circulation. The long broad-shouldered blazer, the trench and the duster coat, plus trousers of all sorts, are being held over for another engagement. Urban-styled Bermuda shorts paired off with hip-length jackets are offered as a hot-weather substitute for a conventional suit. But none of the above look like the result of a raid on the extra-size racks of a men's haberdasher.

A profusion of prints has taken over center stage this season. Making a big play are the floral linens. Some, like the kind Jeffrey Banks uses for a blazer and matching pants, are two-toned pastels. Lauren's versions, in cotton and linen, are many-colored but muted, recalling Victorian wallpaper. Other flowered patterns are large and brilliant. They may suggest the blaze of color of an English garden or the lush vegetation of a tropical paradise.

In addition, there are abstracts, giant madras plaids, huge polka dots, and plenty of stripes, particularly bold horizontals on fresh white backgrounds, plus neat-and-tidy shirting stripes. Mixing stripes as well as solids with florals or other patterns is a favorite ploy of the moment and worth bearing in mind. It could be a way of enlivening last year's separates by experimenting with combinations of new buys with what is already hanging in your closet. The medley can be composed of stinging brights or of soothing pastels, or just confined to a play of textures and patterns in good old navy and white.

Cotton knit sweaters often have intarsia details that pick up motifs of a printed skirt or pants. The colors of some of these outfits are often on the wild side. Enough orange to compete with a citrus grove has been produced by the fashion industry and when used in close proximity with jade or hot pink the effect is eye-boggling, to put it mildly.

In matters of hem lengths, beltlines, and the like, long skirts and dropped waists continue to be options, along with knee lengths and fitted middles. But every above-ankle hemline seen on the fashion scene is countered by a little mini or a pair of shorts. Those who like advance notice of what the future holds might like to know the word is around that next fall's skirts will be ultrashort and snappy. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

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Meanwhile, what may be best about the best spring styles is their staying power. Many new fashions have enough versatility and built-in longevity to be useful through November. Pinning a seasonal label on clothes does not make a lot of sense these days. One sign that the lines between winter and summer fashions are blurring is the amount of glitter being lavished on warm-weather fashions. Sequins and diament'e touches now go all around the calendar for dress-up occasions.

With today's fast pace, tight schedules, and frequent travel from one climate to another, certain pieces of everyday clothing are worn 10 months of the year. Designers appreciate this, and they have acted accordingly. So if bought wisely, such new acquisitions as the light raincoat, the gabardine skirt, and the drop-waisted silk dress should be paying long-lasting fashion dividends.

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