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The Feminine Mystique

This spring, say the sages, feminist fashion is dead. To which we reply, are you really less empowered if you ditch a suit for a pretty dress?

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Who would have thought that the spring 2004 shows, with their emphasis on ruffles, florals, and a whole lot of lingerie, would leave everyone so ruffled? “The quiet death of feminist fashion” were the doomy words from the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes as the procession of dresses, dresses, and more dresses wended by. You could see her point. On the runways, at least, it wasn’t a stellar season for suits, despite some great versions at Balenciaga and Chanel, and Lars Nilsson’s first offerings at his new home, the house of Nina Ricci. As for the shirt—washed chambray at Prada and crisp cotton at Lanvin—the designers gave it anything but a workaday showing. Instead of being slipped under suits, it was worn with bustle-back or soft, swishy, pleated skirts, and fifties-style pumps. The trench, too, was tricked out, belted with clear plastic at Tuleh and deconstructed into a mini-cape that perched on the shoulders of Kate Moss at Burberry Prorsum.

But as always with fashion, a lot of the trends are no more than smoke and mirrors—or, in this case, billowing, diaphanous chiffon. It’s easy to obscure what’s really going on, which is that this season, designers have concentrated on creating clothes that come with no greater subtext than to make their wearers look as alluring and attractive as possible. It’s a moment in which saying a garment is pretty is paying it the highest compliment. Accordingly, it’s not a great time for the highbrow conceptualists, and the smart ones have adapted. Helmut Lang shaded his avant-garde sportswear in a beautiful palette inspired by . . . dragonflies (sumptuous reds, purples, and a gorgeous golden-green). Hussein Chalayan left the critical theory behind to focus on lavishly ruffled dresses that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a benefit at the Parish Museum. And Jil Sander, the Jil Sander, back at her label after three years’ absence, ditched moody Über-minimalism in favor of a collection that was—and I mean this in the nicest way—lightweight: floaty Empire-line dresses, soft, pleated wrap skirts, and short gauze tunics.

Yet with all due respect to Suzy, since when do “feminine” clothes preclude feminism? This is not to argue for the empowering qualities of clothes cut from barely-there fabrics, but the best of next spring has a carefree frivolity built in that will make it not just fun to look at but a joy to wear.

Where does that leave you, the New Yorker looking to replenish her spring wardrobe? Perusing the following pages. And for fun, we’ve identified the archetypal Manhattanites who, we predict, you’ll be seeing on the streets in these styles.


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