The ruffle, one of the quintessential ways in which the fashion industry expresses femininity, has returned to virtually every collection presented here for spring 2000.

At Chloe the ruffles are a mere flirt, a sly flounce at the hem of a dress. At Yves Saint Laurent, the ruffles look more like flower petals as they adorn hemlines and add volume and movement to a simply cut top or a slim skirt. For Dries Van Noten, ruffles help to express his romantic vision of Spain and imbue his skirts and blouses with a lyrical quality. And in the Comme des Garcons collection presented by designer Rei Kawakubo, the ruffles are lush and thick, more like bouquets of flowers than a wandering vine.

Ruffles have the ability to spark an image of traditional femininity, of ladies in sweet frocks doing something warm and homey like hosting an afternoon tea. They can also make one think of flirtatious vixens, young women who play the game of cat and mouse with a flip of the hair and swivel of ruffled hip. And they can evoke the image of a proper lady in a buttoned-up blouse with a ruffled jabot resting on her bosom. But with the presentation of Kawakubo's exploding ruffles, there suddenly seemed more ways to read these ripples of fabric.

Observing her version of ruffles stuffed into slim bodysuits or distorting the silhouette of a model, one couldn't help but wonder whether this was symbolic of traditional femininity being reshaped and reworked in a way that allows it to fit into modern life. It has been a long time since designers so enthusiastically embraced this bit of feminine frippery. Ruffles would have looked out of place in the last decade, when fashion was more concerned with simplicity, sexiness, strength and utility. Indeed, even when they were trying for sex appeal, which might have been given a boost with a few ruffles outlining a plunging neckline, designers avoided them and instead embraced beading and transparency. But fashion has become more comfortable suggesting that women let down their guard and look a bit vulnerable, approachable, soft.

Ruffles imply all of that. Most women would have refrained from wearing a ruffled blouse to the office 10 years ago. Who could be taken seriously in the boardroom with ruffles spilling out all over the place? But now it seems like a much more reasonable idea. Designers have shown a host of beautiful, dainty blouses--many of them made even sweeter with the addition of ruffles. They somehow look just right if a woman pairs them with a slim skirt or tucks them under a tailored jacket, especially since that same woman might have worn a sweater set to the office just the day before.

The popularity of ruffles, which were also evident during the shows in Milan last month, suggests that the notion of career dressing has completely collapsed, in part because the definition and expectations of a career have changed. Where once a woman might have been required to dress to impress her clients and her boss--or follow a company dress code--now she dresses only to amuse herself.