Byline: Bridget Foley

NEW YORK — When Gianni Versace takes a right-hand turn toward discretion as he did with his couture collection on Sunday, it hits you in the face; a Versace runway without T&A is about as expected as his sister, Donatella, with a brunette rinse. But the conservative attitude that’s sweeping fashion started well before the couture’s current alta moda, and yes, before Newt & Co. stormed Capitol Hill.
In fact, Conservative Chic has been waltzing toward prominence for the last two major seasons. Pretty is back, and not just for those lunching Ladies who never understood why anyone would want to look otherwise. Now, it’s hip to look pretty, for everyone: downtown girls in their vintage slips and sweaters, for whom hard edges were once a badge of honor; Hollywood stars who’ve spent the last few years elevating unkemptness to an art form, fashion victims everywhere who live to throw themselves on the latest runway bandwagon. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact genesis of Conservative Chic, it was firmly in place by the spring ready-to-wear collections, even at such unexpected venues as Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana and Anna Sui. And while its newfound acceptance corresponds nicely with the Republican Revolution in Washington, the reasons for its rise are rooted at least as much in nonpartisan fashion reality:
The inherent tides of change: Short begets long, and shapelessness, curves; gentility follows hard core.
Retro: the Forties; the haute Seventies of Yves Saint Laurent; designers’ ongoing fascination with the early Sixties, especially as represented by Babe Paley and Jackie O.
Most important, the re-embracing of the traditional designer customer. Tired of what she perceived as fashion’s widespread obsession with overly youthful clothes, she had all but boycotted the stores.
A hoped-for win-win situation with younger customers. “Ladylike” looks right on the certain-age set, and fashionably awkward on the young-and-hip.
Some of the earliest indications of quieter times to come occurred during the fall ready-to-wear collections. In the midst of a season of plastic, feathered mayhem, Miuccia Prada showed her first mainstream blockbuster. The collection had two distinct sides — suits with austere angles and gentle, diaphanous dresses. Both were cut with those controversial knee-lengths, and neither bore a trace of the lighthearted fancy so many other designers fell for at the time.
Similarly, another cult favorite, Jil Sander, moved more into the mainstream by tempering her own signature austerity with a newfound softness seen in the lineup of gentle dresses she showed along with her typically strong tailored looks. And by the time the spotlight moved to New York, Calvin Klein showed that he, too, was prepared to buck the prevailing frivolity with his own take on austere style.
All of this struck a nerve that hadn’t tingled in some time. The look was at times shocking in its difference, one that Prada herself maintains goes beyond the ordinary shifts of fashion to a more primal social change. “That women are finding a new femininity may mean something more profound,” she says. Perhaps. But on a more superficial level, the designer adds that now it’s “more striking to see a young woman dressed demurely than when it’s all hanging out there.” And underlying the newness of her collection was a wearability that ultimately won out. While many retailers skipped New Length for fall, calling it a near-impossible sell, by spring, most had been converted. It is, after all, the rare designer who doesn’t drop short skirts several inches for production as a matter of course. And after a season’s allowance for the proverbial “eye to adjust,” longer skirts simply made sense.
With good reason. The new, ladylike approach to dressing seemed to strike a happy, salable balance between deconstruction and the overtly sexy looks that followed it.
“People are excited now because of what came before,” says Russell Bennett. “All that deconstruction — big, dark, shapeless — it’s very unflattering.”
“We’ve gone to wonderful good taste,” says Adrienne Vittadini.
In fact, by spring, common sense seemed to have raced through the fashion world faster than a red-hot rumor. After grunge and deconstruction had bombed at the mainstream designer level, the common retail wisdom was that suits fuel the designer business, and no suits mean fewer sales.
“The designer business is finite,” says one retailer. “It’s the career customer, Ladies Who Lunch, special occasions. The first two center on the suit, and if you don’t tout its importance, you don’t give those women a reason to buy.”
While spring’s buzzwords were “glamour” and “retro,” the season was really about simple suits and dresses — pretty shapes in pretty colors, cut in sensible — yes, sensible — proportions, gently curved, to the knee. Toss in those twinsets and skinny belts, and newly fashionable Ladies were wrestling their tartier sisters for field position. For now, at least, the Ladies are ahead.
“It’s a balancing act,” says Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of Bloomingdale’s. “In part, spring was a backlash after fall’s over-the-top fun. We forgot about the Ladies Who Lunch out there. Fall’s wilder things sold early, then slowed down. Quieter looks have a longer life.”
Ruttenstein notes in particular the success of twinsets, skinny belts and curvy little dresses, especially those from Tocca, which he describes as “very quiet little dresses, even if they are a drop on the short side.”
The ongoing influence of Jackie O is one factor fueling the current interest in dresses, and it continues to show up in the couture. Spring’s other big retro moods — Seventies and Forties — also provided plenty of fuel for the clothes now hitting the stores. While some of the Forties-inspired suits, most notably the John Galliano knockouts, are literal translations never intended for broad distribution, most are merely pretty suits, which will barely whisper retro off the runway.
Anna Sui brought her hems to the knees for fall. The look was hardly humdrum, but it was a far cry from the fall cheerleader skirts that left almost nothing to the imagination.
“A short skirt always looks cute and young, while a change of proportion introduces a ladylike tone,” Sui says. “Add a shoulder pad, highlight the waist, and that mood becomes stronger. The challenge is to make it young again by playing with the rest of the proportions — making the sleeve skinnier, the waist shorter. In my case, I wanted a camp take on sophistication.”
Others whose reputations depend on a hip image are quick to turn Conservative Chic inside out. “There’s an awareness of length and proportion that makes the look work for young people who otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead in it,” says Victor Alfaro. “For them, it’s an experiment they can turn into an interesting statement.”
“Is it conservative or kinky with a twist?” asks Karen Erickson, a partner in Showroom Seven and a designer of Erickson-Beamon. “I wouldn’t use the word conservative. Instead, I’d call it the return of a ladylike essence. But is a lady conservative or is she just private? Are they proper Catholic school girls, or just doing it in the pews?”
Then there are those who don’t approach fashion with religious fervor. Questioned at the Golden Globe Awards, Jamie Lee Curtis said, “You have to find what works for your body. It doesn’t matter if it’s conservative or chic.” And Jodie Foster said that no matter what, “I’ll always be wearing Armani.”