Romance -- or whatever reason--is in.
The trends in fashion, entertaining, personal relationships, literature, even the marketing of a new cigarette seem to reflect a yen for temporary suspensions of reality: poetry and candlelight, satin and seduction, moonlight and roses.
"A lot of customers come in with briefcases, usually women lawyers, and they want to wear something really feminine at night--or a bit of lace with their professional image," says Joan Cohen of the Great Gatsby, Alexandria. The romantic clothing business, she reports, has never been better.
"Women are self-confident enough now that they don't have to package themselves into a man's uniform," claims Aniko Gaal, Garfinckel's fashion director. "The Molloy theory 'Dress for Success' is out."
J. Robert Ave, chief of marketing for Lorillard, is betting on the return of romanticism to sell Satin, a new cigarette for women. "The pendulum," he says, "is beginning to swing to a point where a woman can be overtly feminine as well as successful."
In literature, of course, romance novels are hot. Publishers Weekly reports that "retail outlets are now coping with four to six new titles each month from at least 10 imprints." Walden Books has enrolled 20,000 members in its new romance line, and B. Dalton has formed its own romance club with the slogan, "Read your heart out."
"What we're seeing is the heyday of the contemporary romance," says Kay Mussell, associate professor of American Studies at American University. The heroes are still virile, she says, but younger and more interesting; the heroines are professionals who still need love.
"I think what's romantic," says Claire Harrison, chairman of Washington Romance Writers, "is that the woman is incomplete without love. But the same is true for the man, no matter how successful he is. They both require the commitment."
The commonly held myth that romance literature interests only those with little else to do is on the way out.
"It makes me mad when people say it's just bored housewives. Yes, a majority are married and work, but not 'bored,' " says Harrison, 37, who writes under the name of Laura Eden.
"The reading audience is not heterogeneous," adds Mussell, 39, who teaches a course on Images of Women in the Media. "Marketing research has shown that readers are better educated, span a broader age group and have better jobs than they thought. There seems to be a market now for executive women."
Why the popularity? Is it a backlash of feminism, high technology and an increasingly complicated world?
"It's very complex," says Harrison. "It's inexpensive entertainment. In rough times, people want fantasy; other people might read westerns or mysteries."
Says Mussell: "Romances are to women what James Bond is to men. There is always a need for escape."
"Courtship is always interesting to women," adds Harrison. "It's a very intense experience, and they get a vicarious thrill out of it, no matter how often it happens."
Others theorize that the popularity of the genre is more than vicarious thrills and escape.
When television's Merv Griffin interviewed Kathryn Falk, publisher of Romantic Times (a New York-based newsletter for readers), she read this passage from a romance novel: tracing his finger down her cheek and over her neck.
"I never," responded Griffin, "think of those things."
To which Falk countered, "Well, you should; women love it."
When Robert Masello, author of the His column in Mademoiselle magazine, asked readers to answer, "What is it about men that drives you truly crazy?" there was, he says, "a fairly wide margin" wanting to know, "'Why are men so lousy at romance these days?'"
One woman wrote: "I want to be surprised once in a while. I want to be swept off my feet by a small, tender gesture. Men seem oblivious to all the finer points of love and romance nowadays."
Where did romance get off the track? Does its present popularity indicate, as Psychology Today asked its readers, that the sexual revolution is over? "Are the forces of workaholism," the magazine asked, "financial troubles and herpes turning us back to traditional romance? Have our feelings about love become more romantic and if so, possibly less realistic?"
First, "traditional romance" may not be so traditional.
Dr. Nathaniel Branden, author of The Psychology of Romantic Love (Bantam, 224 pages, $2.95) and a firm believer in his subject, says it helps to remember that, historically, romantic love is still an infant.
"Throughout most of the past, the concept of romantic love as an ideal and as the expected basis for marriage was unknown; it is still unknown in many cultures of the world."
Second, "less realistic," contends Branden, does not mean unworkable. Romantic love, in an age of scientific revolution, has had more than a few critics; many, he says, regard it as "a temporary neurosis, an emotional storm, inevitably short-lived, which leaves disillusionment and disenchantment in its wake."
Branden, 52, director of the Biocentric Institute in Beverly Hills, however, maintains that the problems with romance are "not because the ideal is irrational, but because we are still in the process of grasping its meaning . . ." In the long range, he believes that "feminism, or anything that supports the equality of the sexes, is good for romantic love."
On the other hand, Harrison--whose Washington Romance Writers includes five unpublished men--believes that "the women's movement has made choices difficult and the roles ambiguous. In the romance novel they're pretty clear-cut. The popularity of the romance has increased with the advent of feminism--they've gone side by side."
Masello, 30, points to the fiery days of feminism as possibly discouraging male courtliness.
"There were a few touchy years back there when the most romantic men around took their lives in their hands by bringing bouquets, pulling out chairs, sending perfume. To some women, such gestures were politically reactionary.
"Following the sexual revolution, the pace of a relationship became so fast . . . the whole story told in the space of a few minutes. No more kissing on the porch swing, no more guitar serenades beneath a moonlit window."
Having missed the process in their formative years, many men, Masello suggests, have been reluctant to try it later. "Unlike a direct come-on, which requires only chutzpah, romance is something of an art--and most of us had never served an apprenticeship."
To Branden, who gives seminars across the country on male/female relationships, romance is more than an art. "I see romantic love as requiring more of us . . . than we generally appreciate."
The ideal romantic concept is applicable to relationships, he says, when you get "an integration of reason and passion--a balance between the subjective and the objective that human beings can live with."
And even though he suggests that people still need information on making love work on a day-to-day basis, romantic love endures because "it answers profound human needs."
"I will sometimes say to the group, 'Never marry a person who is not a friend of your excitement. If our partner is not comfortable with excitement, in the end he or she will not be comfortable with love, even the love we feel for him or her.'
"Romantic love is not a myth, waiting to be discarded, but for most of us, a discovery, waiting to be born."