During the spring 2000 presentations here this month, clothes became more voluminous, pumped up on air, crinolines and gentle gathers. From an era of sleek fashion--slim trousers, the pencil skirt, the shrunken twinset--designers are moving into a period of full skirts, loose-fitting blouses and oversize jackets.

The shift has not been embraced by the entire industry, nor has it meant the end of fabrics such as slinky jersey that reveal the body's every curve. But for spring, clothes have loosened up--there's more movement in the fabric and a greater sense of ease in the silhouettes.

Belgian designer Dries van Noten dedicated his collection to an exquisite group of full skirts, many embroidered with romantic flowers. John Galliano resurrected bobby-soxers and their expansive crinoline-lined skirts and dresses. Christian Lacroix even sent a contemporary version of his 1980s, tutu-style party dress--le pouf--down his runway.

Volume also was explored above the waist. Jean Paul Gaultier offered luscious pirate blouses with ruffles that cascaded down full sleeves. Alber Elbaz introduced blouson bodysuits at Yves Saint Laurent, and both he and Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga sent out sack dresses that fell loosely from sloping shoulders, obscured the waist and went on to curve in subtly at the knees and highlight the legs. And designer Martin Margiela has been a proponent of the oversize sweater or jacket both in the collection he creates for Hermes and even more vigorously in his signature line.

All this poufing and pumping exaggerates the female form. The idea is not to inflate everything all at once, so a woman ends up looking like a Thanksgiving parade float. Instead, the point is to emphasize one part of the body. A full skirt is often matched with a pared-down top. Or a large, flowing blouse is worn with a sleek skirt or a pair of slim trousers. If both the bottom and top have significant volume, the waist is kept trim for an hourglass effect. Or everything remains in motion so the silhouette doesn't become too spherical.

These clothes, which by turns emphasize hips, waist and bosom, are part of the season's fascination with femininity. They forcefully underscore the psychological link between womanly curves and the concept of femininity. It's impossible to look at the work of van Noten and not envision someone with the physique of a young Sophia Loren--or, for that matter, an older Loren--wearing one of his A-line skirts and a stole as she took an evening stroll through a piazza. These are not the frocks of a lithe Gwyneth Paltrow or most of the reed-thin models on the catwalk.

It would be wrong to think, however, that these fuller clothes can hide an imperfect figure. The majority of them won't. Instead, they will exaggerate wide hips, broad shoulders or a thick waist. Still, there is something reassuring in the realization that these clothes will gently drape a woman's body rather than constrict it or follow the line of it so closely that she dare not breathe for fear of marring her own silhouette.

If there is an element of this trend that is cause for concern, it is the use of debutante crinolines. One can only hope, pray and burn incense to the gods that designers refrain from trying to sell those runway pieces. Perhaps some women would welcome the chance to wear a gown reminiscent of the one Cinderella wore to the ball. But most women realized long ago that their chances of marrying a prince are slim, glass slippers lead to blisters, and a bouffant dress makes one look not like the belle of the ball, but like the post-midnight pumpkin.