NEW YORK, NOV. 4 -- Call it boho, grunge or deja vu all over again, but the new look for spring is chaotic, contrived and so encumbered with cultural significance that even the most astute follower of fashion will find herself wondering if she's supposed to look like Courtney Love or Nicole Diver.

The Seattle music scene, which spawned the cockeyed Love, has inspired a scruffy cool on Seventh Avenue so deliberate as to seem dated the moment it appears on the runway. At the Perry Ellis show the other evening, one felt like a spectator at an office theme party, in which the participants -- ranging from the models to a handful of fashion editors in ski caps -- had all agreed to dress grungy for the day. Rarely has slovenliness looked so self-conscious, or commanded so high a price. At Christian Francis Roth's show on Tuesday, the designer himself appeared -- first in a home movie and then in person -- wearing a stocking cap and playing an electric guitar. By the time the first models had emerged on the sod-covered runway, lurching forward in unlaced army boots and some rather bereaved-looking knits, it was clear that Roth was more interested in expressing his relative hipness than saying anything new.

The speed with which designers embrace contemporary culture -- or, in the case of Ralph Lauren, a literary image from out of the past -- tends to produce whiplash. After all, it was only six months ago that Marc Jacobs mined the '70s for Perry Ellis, successfully blurring the past by giving old shapes a new, and strangely more authentic, authenticity. A year ago, Roth was dabbling in pinstripes, and before that, something vaguely Mennonite. This theme-park approach to fashion only confuses people, and makes them suspect that the price of admission is nothing more or less than old-fashioned foolishness.

At least Lauren knows how to keep things in perspective. His show today revisited the expatriate world of the '30s, a world forever besotted with images of languid women at Cap d'Antibes -- Nicole Diver and the whole Fitzgerald gang. Whether or not such characters actually wore dressing gowns in china blue prints or long gauzy skirts over black stockings hardly matters, though, because Lauren's motives are essentially modern. Floral dresses, in china blue and dusty red, looked almost winsome over ruffled white blouses, and yet, when slung with black leather belts and worn over black tights, they suggested an eclectic indifference to fashion itself. The image they evoked was of a woman throwing on a little of this and a little of that, and then striding out -- mindful, of course, that her sex appeal was not lost in the jumble.

Indeed, these clothes were suggestive rather than provocative. A black leather vest, belted at the waist, lent a certain tomboy toughness to a striped jersey T-shirt and a long black skirt in opaque jersey. Though many of the ensembles were layered -- ruffled georgette blouses over T-shirts, dresses unbuttoned over pajama pants, embroidered silk jackets over ivory satin vests -- the fabrics were light and mostly sheer. The merchant in Lauren obviated the underwear problem by using opaque, rather than transparent, fabrics, and by putting the models in black tights. Their other accessories included platform espadrilles, head-wraps, fringed stoles and ropes of jet beads or pearls. As for Lauren, he wore bluejeans, a thermal undershirt and several days' worth of gray stubble. But that too seemed to be in the spirit of things.

Michael Kors rarely goes in search of theme, literary or otherwise. He absorbs the ideas of the day -- layers, lingerie, lightness -- and works them into his signature sportswear. At his show on Tuesday evening, the models breezed down the runway wearing knitted maxi vests, cropped T-shirts and floral pajama pants in patterns reminiscent of old wallpaper. Now and then the smell of hairspray and body lotion wafted up from the runway, as yet another model came out in a crumpled linen blazer and silky maxi vest, its tails blowing out from under the jacket like a sail. The idea of wearing a long blouse or vest under a shirt is not new -- Yohji Yamamoto and Jean-Paul Gaultier have been showing this for a while -- but it worked well for Kors, whose more wearable clothes will help give the look credibility.

Todd Oldham's infatuation with kitsch has produced some hilarious sendups of garage sale drag and suburban hausfrau chic. Inspired this season by the corn dog charm of a county fair, he dressed his bouffant girls (and boys) in a merry-go-round of striped cigarette pants, crocheted bras, satin patchwork skirts and the long, fitted vests that have gradually upstaged jackets. The clothes had a kind of campy elegance -- a saffron rayon cardigan dabbed with rhinestone buttons and worn with belled chiffon pants; a black fake leather vest mixed with a long black skirt in eyelet lace; some slinky black jersey dresses with cap sleeves beaded in a harlequin pattern -- but after two or three trips down this midway, one knew exactly what Joan Didion meant when she said it was distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair.

Strange to think that credibility is the one thing most lacking in the American spring collections. At the Perry Ellis show, the models wore their hair in their faces, or pulled back haphazardly with barrettes. They clomped down the runway in black boots or padded in Birkenstocks, their car coats thrown open over a mishmash of shrunken sweaters and cheesy hot pants. Black jersey dresses appeared to be torn -- slashed across the tummy or (daringly!) across the bottom. The pale plaid shirts identified with grungewear were tied (of course!) around the waist. A red vinyl car coat seemed calculated to offend by appearing as clammy and crinkled as old diner leatherette.

Who's kidding whom?

These were clothes worked to a theme, a theme of dishevelment that requires no particular allegiance to runway fashion. In the end, that was the only bit of irony Jacobs had to offer.