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STYLE: FASHION : Divine Imperfection

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<i> Rourke is The Times' fashion editor. </i>

From the moment they started sweeping along fashion runways more than a year ago, I promised myself I would avoid long skirts. They don’t suit professional women like me who take stairs two at a time. But it’s barely fall and already my resolution is meaningless. Paris couturiers are now showing micro-minis for spring, and ready-to-wear designers are rushing to imitate them.

The essence of fashion is change, but showing long skirts one season and short the next, especially at top prices, is a fashion sting. Not that it hasn’t happened before. Skirts went from mini to midi in the course of two seasons during the early ‘70s. Then, customers were furious. This time, we’re just amused.

We make our own decisions about hemlines now--long or short is a matter of personal preference. Like most women, my most pressing fashion questions these days are about limits. Can I afford it? Will it last? Can I buy it quickly? Practicality is my main concern. This season, I’m buying items, not outfits. I’m mixing an old jacket with a new pair of pants and buying new boots to update a skirt. Even Hillary Rodham Clinton is doing it: She posed for a recent cover of Mirabella magazine wearing an old brown sweater under a tweed jacket from Calvin Klein’s fall collection.

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Interestingly, this kind of necessity is breeding today’s hottest look: Imperfection. Shoppers invented the trend, and now designers are creating outfits to appear as if they just happen to work. Not even the jacket and skirt of a dressy suit need match anymore. Finally women are developing personal style--something designers used to do for us.

Like our attitude about fashion, today’s silhouette is also more lenient: Clothes slouch. They don’t have that ‘80s-style, pumped-up inner construction. A more natural shape has replaced shoulder pads and body-molding contours. And not only are today’s clothes slouchy, they should look slightly worn--and definitely paid for. No more pretending to be perfect while the bills pile up. If you can’t afford it, put away the plastic.

Even the power suits of modern CEOs convey a new image. A soft-shouldered boss connotes ‘90s confidence. She doesn’t pretend she knows all the answers. She doesn’t even pretend that she bought a new fall wardrobe. Instead, she found a good tailor to replace the big shoulder pads on her older jackets with smaller, more natural shapes.

There are still women who worry about skirt lengths this fall, and for them there’s another option: pants. Giorgio Armani shows pants almost exclusively, and both Calvin Klein and Donna Karan opt for them as often as for skirts. Meanwhile, deconstructionist fashion has set adventurers free to experiment: Should new skirts have fronts and backs or just fronts, as Jean Paul Gaultier showed them? Deconstructionist fashion is pushing imperfection to the outer limits, where recycling is another option. To save shrinking natural resources, some designers are showing sweaters, jackets and skirts that are made from used clothes. And then there’s the trend toward “spiritual” dressing-down: long, plain dresses and rosary-like necklaces. Called divine dressing by some, depression dressing by others, it gives you an idea of how people feel about the ‘90s, so far.

Disillusionment with designer whims, the necessity to conserve finances and the quest for clothes with staying power have carved a deeper streak of independence in a lot of fashion-conscious women like me. We don’t worry about keeping up with designers’ irrational leads these days. We lead them.

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