• In 2004, Prim Looks Foretold the Mood

    Demure clothes have sold well all over the country. They have even shown up on Nicole Kidman

    In 2004, Prim Looks Foretold the Mood

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    Last spring, KOMO, a news station serving the Seattle area, featured a story about a shopping predicament facing a girl named Ella Gunderson from Bellevue, Wash. Unable to find the sort of clothes that reflected her bespectacled, "I don't watch `The O.C.' " sensibility, Miss Gunderson wrote the management of Nordstrom a letter. "Dear Nordstrom, I'm an 11-year-old girl who has tried shopping at your store for clothes, in particular jeans," it read. "But all of them ride under my hips and the next size up is too big and it falls down. Your clerk suggests that there is only one `look.' If that is true then girls are supposed to walk around half-naked. I think we need to change that."

    Designers, as it happened, were already thinking along just those lines, offering women clothes that made them look less like sunbathers on the shores of Brazil and more like graduates of the Katharine Gibbs secretarial school around 1955. In fashion, the year 2004 will be remembered as a time when Seventh Avenue demonstrated a rare kind of prescience, reading a cultural shift toward conservative beliefs and tastes earlier and more accurately than a legion of political prognosticators.

    The accomplishment seems all the more remarkable given how far removed the world of high fashion remains from the habits and passions of most Americans. Ask a young designer who lives in the East Village to locate Biloxi on a map, and he or she might easily stick a pin into the heart of Idaho.

    Still, designers picked up on signals that other people, those surprised by the turnout of values voters, missed. Surely no one ever invited Marc Jacobs to appear on "The McLaughlin Group," but he might have been an interesting addition. Looking back, it seems now that Mr. Jacobs, and those who worked in his vein, managed to predict the outcome of the presidential election by last March. His fall 2004 collection, shown last winter, was full of cinched waists, ribbon belts and collars as big as chafing dishes — clothes that signified a midcentury allegiance to domesticity and seemed to embrace a value system that left little room for appreciating images of a half-dressed Janet Jackson. Fashion realized perhaps that Americans besieged by too much reality TV, too much Tom Ford and too many advertisements for Cialis were ready to cut back on the dollars they spent supporting the aesthetic of the pleasure palace.

    A number of other designers followed Mr. Jacobs's lead, as did mass market chain stores. Ann Taylor offered prim dresses and costume-jewelry pearls. Tweed jackets with oversize buttons filled store racks, as did neat little cardigans with fox trim. Had you been to a branch of J. Crew in May, or a Saks Fifth Avenue in October, you may have cast a more skeptical eye on the early exit polls on Nov. 2, which anticipated a George W. Bush defeat. Full skirts with button prints, dresses for garden parties, pink pants with embroidered pineapples — everywhere you looked in the retail landscape were garments that seemed intended for meetings of the Women's Republican Club. Even actresses like Jennifer Lopez dressed like Laura Bush.

    The conservative clothes found eager adherents on both sides of the party divide. It might seem that prim clothes would have reigned where they were against type — in the liberal Northeast and on the West Coast, where such looks are generally interpreted with a sense of irony. But the demure look succeeded everywhere. "We had an amazing season," said Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs. "The clothes were accessible to more people, they were definitely more conservative, and we did well with them all over the country." At Femme, a shop in Mobile, Ala., the owner, Allison Gamble, said she was surprised to find the look embraced by young people there.

    Ultimately fashion served to express a political common ground this year. As liberal pundits reminded audiences in the aftermath of the election, parents on both sides of the political aisle lament the incursion that a vulgar popular culture has made in their own lives, and those of their children. Few people want Ella Gunderson to shop in a world where jeans look like lacquer.

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    Published: December 21, 2004


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