In an ongoing effort to take fashion to its minimalist extreme -- a course that may ultimately lead to public nudity -- designers are looking at slips with new-found lust. This undergarment with limited hanger appeal has suffered in recent years, a casualty of pants and bodysuits, but now designers are hoping that the has-been slip will be infinitely more popular if it's worn with no clothes at all.

Tenuously supported by spaghetti straps, the slip dress was hailed at the October runway shows in Europe and New York as the new springtime look. John Galliano's versions were flimsy whiffs of chiffon, layered in triplicate and worn by sleepy-looking models whose hair had been ratted into random haystacks. Martin Margiela's motives were no less transparent: sheer black maxi slips worn over broken-down bluejeans. Given the design limitations of a slip, it was little wonder that so many of the runway abbreviations simply looked recycled from the lingerie department. Not even the odd intrusion of pink taffeta, tied gift-box style around the hips, or the last-minute rhinestone brooch could lift these sweet nothings from their fundamental nothingness.

Among establishment designers, the slip dress is at least more palatable to their customers than, say, bondage corsets and vinyl bustiers with industrial-strength zippers. But a few years ago, when Jean-Paul Gaultier was mimicking the pointy allure of Maidenform bras and suggesting facetiously that women wear hip pads -- something designers once considered serious underpinnings to create artificial curves -- it occurred to a lot of people that lingerie was about to be exposed. Since then, evening bras have come into their own and strapless dresses that were once zipped in the back are now laced in the front, clearly implying accessibility.

The slip dress can also be seen as a softer, less aggressive way of showing off the body. Even Gaultier, whose conical D-cups were most likely inspired by drag queens rather than old Sears catalogues, has taken up this gentler outlook with transparent negligee dresses. In their wisdom, fashion people define such scantiness as minimalism and praise it as modern, though, in fact, the slip dress has been around since the '20s. Back then, however, the sight of underarms and thinly veiled breasts was considered scandalous enough to warrant newspaper editorials. "What is a modern girl?" asked the London Weekly Dispatch in 1925. To which Lady Walpole replied: "She is an inane, insane, Eton-cropped, useless, idle, mannish young woman who smokes doped cigarettes, uses bad language, wears practically no clothes, and is an abomination to her fellow creatures."

But freedom in dress was the real issue, and loose fashion, as with morals, generally succeeds periods of stuffiness and constraint. The corset never had a prayer after Coco Chanel abolished it, except as a high-fashion fetish. The current slip dress is also freedom in motion -- the freedom to wear next to nothing or, for the truly disobedient, to buy one's latest party dress in the lingerie department.