It used to be that sequins came down the runway at the finale of a fashion show. Sparkling paillettes and jewels were reserved for evening wear, for sensual slinks and grand ball gowns. Then designers began to incorporate sequins into simpler silhouettes--knee-length skirts and cashmere sweaters, for example. But the underlying sentiment was that these sportswear shapes were still meant for swanky occasions. They were simply more comfortable than a corseted ball gown.

But now, with the dominance of hippie chic, bohemia, techno style and a host of other sub-genres, sequins no longer signify anything. They are generic adornment in the manner of polka dots, stripes and ruffles.

Designers have incorporated glitz into everything from unconstructed handbags and hobo pouches to blue jeans and Western shirts. Designer Anna Sui, for instance, is launching a denim division with her spring 2000 collection and one of its trademarks is a sprinkling of stardust on this mundane fabric. Marc Jacobs used matte sequins to decorate his sailor trousers. The tiny discs are sewn on with military precision, outlining the silhouette of the pants in the way a gold braid might give a uniform its grandeur.

Cynthia Rowley uses a dash of sequins on her patchwork peasant dresses, transforming low-brow frocks into garments with enough flash to pass muster with the glitterati. John Bartlett and Donatella Versace show sequins on their menswear. Because sequins have always been thought of as belonging exclusively to women, using them in menswear is virtually subversive, suggesting that men, too, can allow themselves to look like a decorated doll, fragile and vulnerable. Sequins equal feminine and when a man wears them, he is revealing that hidden side of himself.

Unless, of course, he is wearing Western-inspired styles. Western shirts, with their references to strong, silent cowboys, ironically look quite natural when they have been decorated with handfuls of glistening spangles. The flash of the rodeo is conjured, and the marriage of brooding machismo and Liberace seems quite natural. And for a woman, the mix of prairie skirts and Cher makes sense in some strange way.

Perhaps it is because country and western performers have always had a flair for mixing farmhand basics such as faded dungarees and plaid shirts with flashy cowboy boots and extravagant, vanity belt buckles. The American fashion industry is mining its own culture for ideas that, on the runway, seem surprisingly indulgent. Yet when one steps back and considers the possible origins, these electrified cowboys and cowgirls start to look familiar.

As sequins lose their association with evening and extraordinary occasions, it becomes more challenging to acknowledge that an event is deserving of some special attire. Short of pulling out a full-blown ball gown, how does one signify that an event has special meaning, when caviar-beaded twin sets are perfectly acceptable office attire?

The changing use of sequins may be nothing but a momentary blip on the fashion radar. In a couple of years, designers may start plucking the sequins off all of their day wear, reserving them for only their most extravagant evening confections. But until then, sequined messenger bags, jeweled denim and spangled peasant skirts all suggest that the notion of special occasions, moments worth getting dolled up for, no longer exist or at least no longer register in the consciousness. There simply is one big pile of clothes appropriate for almost any occasion. Can a ball gown be worn to the office? No, lines have not blurred that much. But certainly, it would not be a surprise to see glittery jeans at a formal ball, mirrored handbags in the board room or a light show of sequins on the back of a ranch hand.