NEW YORK -- There is a creeping nostalgia in the opening days of the American spring collections from mommy's favorite clothes -- houseboy pants, popover smocks, earnest pique' dresses and boxy little suits that women wore when bridge club was a significant occasion to dress up.
The role models for this pre-feminist infatuation are, invariably, Barbara Cushing Paley, otherwise known as Babe, and Lady Nancy Keith, who was Slim to her friends. The crux of their style was chic without fuss, its most glamorous moment captured in black and white fashion photographs from the '50s. That the late Babe and Slim should be taken up by young designers as style symbols ("They have that Slim Keith feeling," says the thirtysomething Gordon Henderson about a pair of his skinny red pants) is profoundly wistful. And as sentiments go, it's not unlike wanting to marry a man just like your mother found.
The aqua gingham slacks and full-skirted white organza dresses at the Perry Ellis show the other night were full of domestic innocence. They evoke images of women poised over the patio barbecue, and changing from sweater set and plaid trousers to gilt lounge pants. The many neatly tailored suits with navy piping and mattress ticking stripes suggest interminable tuna-melt luncheons at the club, where decorating schemes are discussed.
Marc Jacobs, the house designer for Perry Ellis, has been working toward this ladylike repose for a couple of seasons. His spring clothes are wearable, to be sure, but they're stilted by the limited scope of an over-used era. Jacobs, with his ponytail and sharp wit, is a better advocate for clothes inspired by the spontaneous ways his contemporaries dress. His best ideas -- a horizontal-striped sequined sweater in Lifesaver wrapper colors and a clear plastic swing coat sprayed with rhinestones -- speak to a more liberated customer.
Bill Blass, on the other hand, doesn't suffer from happy housewife nostalgia, and certainly not a Babe complex. His ideas for spring draw on the simple lines of the early '60s -- the cap-sleeve shift, the mod trapeze jacket scissored up the sides, a silk faille car coat -- but the results look persuasively modern.
He builds jackets in hot blocks of color -- a sleeve in pink, another in yellow, pockets the color of ripe tomatoes. Picasso-inspired prints splash over nautical striped skirts or, by sexy turn, over cigarette pants in red lace. He continues to explore the transparency of black lingerie lace for evening but a more interesting shift is a silky black baby doll dress suspended at the shoulders with strands of fat pearls crisscrossed in the back.
Blass the veteran pushes the boundaries more than usual this time and the results are generally worth the risk. But his limpid dresses in silky tiers of pink, yellow and turquoise look amateurish, and the baby-doll dresses in dotted layers of netting are better left to Geoffrey Beene.
As if there was any doubt where Carolina Herrera stood on revivals, she opened her show with Kay Thompson singing "Think Pink" from the 1956 movie "Funny Face" with Audrey Hepburn. From there she moved on to Tom Jones's greatest hits.
Herrera is in her element, though, with A-line shifts and white cotton pique' suits dotted with gold Dalmatian spots. Her many dresses -- spliced open over the collar bone, slipped off one shoulder, bared in the back -- flutter with her kind of perky femininity. Colors are tuned to the season: melon, tangerine, lime and aqua, with the requisite number of hothouse prints. She favors lilies of the vally spritzed with beads. Here and there are more modern touches, notably an orange and yellow rugby striped T-shirt dress paved with sequins and set off with ladylike white satin cuffs.
Leave it to Betsey Johnson to provide commentary on mommy's dearest clothes. Presiding over her show at the Roseland ballroom like a '50s fashion mistress, Johnson mocked the era that others took so seriously. "These country frocks are ideal for whipping up that cherry pie we love so much!" she trilled as models twirled their calico skirts.
Fit and flair! Clean and sporty! Very Audrey!
The models wore headbands, bouffants and fashion maven attitude, along with rompers, pinafores, floral granny dresses, white vinyl space tunics and cotton Lycra bandanna prints that even Johnson admitted were ideal for a barbecue.