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Fashion 88 : Safely Sexy: The New Cover-Up : Designers Tone Down Aggressive Look With Scarfs, High-Button Jackets and Long Skirts

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Times Staff Writer

Critics are calling it nonaggressive fashion. Designers use words such as gentle and sedate, and one clinical psychologist has gone so far as to label it “dressing for safe sex.”

They’re all talking about a change in approach to fashion, away from skintight, mini and cropped clothes toward softer, draped styles that fully cover a body and leave plenty to the imagination. Fashionologists say the shift is in keeping with a general return to more conservative attitudes, a result of such ongoing national disasters as the AIDS epidemic and the recent stock market crash.

Two unlikely superstars help illustrate the change. One is Madonna, the pop singer turned actress, and the other is French designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Several years ago, their styles intersected when Madonna wore corsets, petticoats and garter belts on stage as if they were blouses and skirts, while Gaultier created dresses that looked like skintight girdles and long-line bras.

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Now they’re in sync again. She’s covered up like Katharine Hepburn in a 1940s movie, dressed in gabardine suits with high-button jackets, long sleeves and skirts that hide her knees. He’s wrapping his models in full, flowing trousers and ultrafeminine jackets with soft, silk scarfs set into the neckline, a look that has been widely imitated by U.S. designers.

Even Azzedine Alaia, the bad boy of Paris fashion, is toning down his supersexy style. Four years ago, he sculpted body-revealing clothes with explicit stitching that outlined the wearer’s behind. Now he’s showing softly pleated skirts that flow to mid-calf length.

“The dangerous look is dead,” concluded Leon Max, Los Angeles’ resident philosopher-fashion designer. “Anything tarty looks wrong. Clothes help communicate who you are, and right now people want to say they are gentlemen and gentlewomen, not sexually loose.”

Four years ago, New York designer Donna Karan’s first solo collection featured bodysuits over bare bodies. This fall, the lead item is a scoop-neck, crocheted sweater jacket. It’s a soft-edge replacement for a blazer, Karan’s fashion director Patty Cohen said. “We went from masculine, hard, making-it-in-a-man’s-world clothes to feminine--not overtly feminine, but softer,” Cohen said.

Paloma Picasso, better known for her jewelry and fragrance, is getting into the gentlefolk fashion revival now, with her first luxury line of leather goods. She is showing round-shaped handbags. “Sculptural but not aggressive shapes,” she said, “shapes you want to touch.” For other suggestions of softer styling, Picasso uses stitchery and applique work she has studied in the wrought-iron decorations on old buildings in Europe. To her, they evoke a romantic past.

Not only accessories but fragrances and footwear are contributing to the subtler style. Annette Green of the New York-based Fragrance Foundation pointed out that some of the most successful scents introduced this year are light florals that evoke romantic images--Estee Lauder’s “Knowing,” Elizabeth Taylor’s “Passion” and Calvin Klein’s “Eternity” among them. They’re a dramatic change from what Green calls the “hard-rock, extremely pungent” scents introduced in the past several years.

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“Courtship is more important than sex;” Green said that’s the message of the new fragrances, as well as the new fashions. She repeated what the surveys tell her. “Women want marriage and family. They don’t want to be superwomen anymore. That had a very negative end result.”

Even footwear reflects the same attitude, said George Malkemus, U.S. president of Manolo Blahnik shoes. He noted that the London-based Blahnik, like other supersophisticated designers of stiff, highly structured, citified shoes, is easing up.

“There’s not the overt, hard sexuality there was,” Malkemus said. Instead of dress shoes with spike heels, he explained, the new look for fall is the Louis heel, a modified hourglass shape Malkemus described as romantic. Other signs of subtler styling are the current emphasis on suede or soft Napa leather, “not the hard, aggressive, erotic look of crocodile that every woman wanted a year ago.”

A movie buff, Malkemus referred to Hollywood’s new breed of leading men, Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid in particular, as personifying the same shift in approach. “They’re not studs; they’re more subtle, softer, Gary Cooper types,” said Malkemus, who can quote from memory what he believes is Costner’s best line in his latest movie, “Bull Durham”: “I like long, slow, sweet, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”

“Sex without sex.” That’s what Los Angeles clinical psychologist Stella Resnick called it. “We’re getting comfortable with a new sort of sexuality that’s not aggressive. People want a subtler sexuality they feel less compelled to act on.”

Resnick sees signs of the attitude in such fashion items as knee-grazing, ruffled skirts, sleeveless tops, a preference for few buttons, zippers and other hard edges, as well as a preference for softer, draped fabrics.

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More than anything else, Green attributes the change in ideas about fashion, fragrance and even what constitutes a romantic evening, not to epidemics or inflated dollars but to what she called women’s growing sense of security. She added: “They aren’t afraid of being feminine anymore.”

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