As the September fashion magazines crash-land in mailboxes and onto newsstands, one is reminded of how little bare skin designers are suggesting a woman reveal this fall. The covered-up politeness of the collections is not merely an acknowledgment of how low the temperature will drop in the coming months. These clothes suggest that women adopt an aesthetic of reserve and mystery. And, if a woman follows designer admonishments to the letter, she will dress herself in a manner reminiscent of Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina and, occasionally, "Gunsmoke's" Miss Kitty. In fashion parlance, prim is in.
Chief cheerleader of this newfound decorousness is the Paris-based designer Olivier Theyskens, who has become particularly influential within the fashion industry since taking over the creative reins at the French house Rochas in 2003. His collection for fall 2005 was one of the most breathtaking on the runways and, in some respects, among the bravest. It is no small risk for a young designer to suggest that the lithe social set -- ladies who engage in a disciplined combination of Pilates and starvation -- should cover their hard-won physique with a floor-length gown that has neither a high slit nor a plunging neckline but instead is a tower of sweet lace with a chin-grazing collar.
Other designers also have announced their support for propriety. Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga offers a mod form of restraint with his angular coats and their high fur collars. Alexander McQueen looked to the heroines of Alfred Hitchcock films and found inspiration in their trim suits and unflinching composure. And Miuccia Prada celebrates the austere sophistication of the classic little black dress.
Amid the hundreds of pages of the September Vogue, there is a photo story called "A Grand Affair" in which the Russian model Natalia Vodianova is cloaked in primness and restraint. She portrays a confident horsewoman dressed in a grand black silk dress from Comme des Garcons. She is also a regal mistress in her garden wearing a gray silk Carolina Herrera riding jacket and billowing full-length skirt. There is only an occasional hint of bosom and a suggestion of the hourglass figure hidden beneath all that fabric. And if the industry's most influential designers are to be believed, fall's new erogenous zone will be the wrist, or perhaps the forearm.
In contrast, the gentlemen who serve as props in some of the photographs, which were shot by Steven Klein, are generally nude from the waist up. The men are thoroughly rooted in the body-conscious, look-at-me sensibility of the modern day while Vodianova wears ground-sweeping skirts and high collars. There is no denying a certain element of romance in her genteel clothes; one can't help but think of that woefully antifeminist -- but stubbornly enticing -- fantasy of a prince with a six-pack saving the imperiled damsel. But in the photos, that reverie is interrupted by the intrusion of surfer shorts, broken-down cars, surfboards and gushing garden hoses. It is as though the heroine has wandered in from the moors expecting to find her Heathcliff, and instead finds herself on the set of an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot.
The juxtaposition is discomforting, but no more so than the clothes themselves.
Is the woman who wears a Rochas gown with its Edwardian modesty (or a McQueen suit with its sexually constraining silhouette) trapped in history? Is she wrapped up in unforgiving rules, suffocating traditions and cultural mores? Or is she incredibly chic -- stamping out excessive displays of cleavage, bare midriffs and Rockette legginess -- and leading the way in a laudable prim rebellion?
As mass-marketers create smugly self-righteous advertising campaigns baring and celebrating fleshy figures, designers have shifted gears. They have left the broader culture sputtering indignantly in the distance about the beauty inherent in all shapes and sizes. At the tippy-top of the style pyramid, the point is moot. Whether size 2 or 16, designers are saying, put on some clothes, button your collar, pull on some gloves.
The only question is whether, after covering up so much, the fashion industry will have handed women an empowering victory or a stifling defeat.