At John Galliano's spring runway show over the weekend, it was difficult to gauge whether the audience responded most raucously to the fat lady in the black strapless gown with the mountain of ruffles barely containing the deep valley of her cleavage, or the midget in the pale pink jacket with the bows jutting out from her child-size shoulders, or the old woman in the gray blazer with her fedora pimped to the side.

The Saturday night show was set against a backdrop that called to mind the confluence of a carnival sideshow and a burlesque theater. There was a Thumbelina-size woman in jeans and a nearly transparent blouse and a gentleman in yard-long, auburn dreadlocks who looked like a Rastafarian Rumpelstiltskin. Redheaded twin girls wore complementary gold party dresses. The models, as always, were chosen for their unusual physical attributes. But instead of selecting only aberrantly tall young women who weigh 110 pounds, there were beanpole men, tiny old folks, models with jet-black skin and others almost as pale as an albino. The extremes of humanity were drawn together in a celebration of diversity. It was fashion taking on some of its worse biases: fat, old and ugly.

And it was uncomfortable.

The audience laughed. One woman in the audience jerked fitfully back and forth, she was so overwhelmed with amusement. Some people pointed and howled in hysterics. Others applauded appreciatively, offering the models encouragement for stepping into the spotlight -- a daunting task even for those who do it five or six times a day.

A single-page handout left on each seat underscored Galliano's intention, printed with the lyrics to a song familiar to anyone who'd ever been to Sunday school: "Jesus loves the little children / All the children of the world. / Red and yellow, black and white, / They are precious in His sight. / Jesus loves the little children of the world."

Galliano's array of characters were dressed in clothes that merely hint at his spring collection, a sort of come-on ploy the designer has used before: the denim, the jackets with their sheer scrims of black, and the bias-cut gowns that hugged the derriere and then splashed to the floor in a curtain of chiffon. Some of this will be included in the frocks that await retailers in the showroom. One hopes that his references to tangos, his washed-out charcoal jackets and trousers, and his "Galliano Gazette" newspaper prints were not simply for spectacle. They can form the foundation of a fine spring collection.

The human-specimen display on the runway, meanwhile, was unnerving. The audience was invited to stare. (And mother always said that was impolite.) Were people applauding because the culture believes it takes an exceptional amount of nerve for a fat person to model an evening gown and not collapse in tearful embarrassment over the fact of her fleshy arms? (Cheer for the fat girl!) Whose sensitivities are really being appeased?

This admonishment was embroidered across Galliano's multicolored coats, and scrawled across the thin strip of chiffon that served as the show's invitation: "Don't cry for me, fashionista!" Inherent in that proclamation seems to be the accusation that the fashion industry -- with all of its self-important pronouncements about style and beauty -- need not pity those who don't fit its arbitrary definitions. The models on Galliano's runway swaggered with pride and confidence.

The laughter at Galliano's show was complicated. Was the woman in the gray blazer and trousers funny simply because she was old -- and old people aren't considered beautiful, let alone worthy of walking down a fashion runway? Or the obese woman in the black strapless gown, accompanied down the runway by a muscular man in white leggings -- what did the audience find so funny? Was it the man's exaggerated stage makeup? Or was it the woman's size?

Galliano used fashion as a tool for provocation. No matter if people laughed, knitted their brows in confusion or shifted uncomfortably in their seats, there was no wrong way to respond. The question left to ponder, however, is whether there will ever be a right way.

Pilati for YSL

As the shows ended here Sunday night, no other designers engaged in the same kind of social commentary as Galliano. But three powerhouse brands put their collections on the runway in nearly back-to-back shows. Stefano Pilati showed an explosion of ruffles for Yves Saint Laurent. Alber Elbaz created a tougher version of his gentle aesthetic for Lanvin. And Marc Jacobs offered a mix of mod silhouettes, hippie embellishments and a stray pair of bike shorts at Louis Vuitton.

Pilati has ignited a lively debate within the fashion industry about modern dressing. There is no question that his collections -- with their unwieldy ruffles, wide belts, platform loafers and bubble skirts -- have been influential. (The average height of fashion editors in this town seems to have increased by three inches, so many of them are teetering around on Pilati's exaggerated loafers in black or claret velvet.) One simply wonders whether Pilati has been using his authority for good.

For his afternoon show, a temporary amphitheater lined in claret velvet was tucked into a far corner of the Grand Palais. The collection took its inspiration from matadors, and the first styles down the runway were cropped trousers, tiny bullfighter jackets, blouses erupting with ruffles, and details such as minute pompoms dangling from the hems of trousers or along the edges of a scarf. Evening gowns were a storm of haphazard pleats and emphatic ruffles cascading down the body and trailing behind it.

Pilati has a confident hand with ruffles and never allows the models to drown in all the flowery frills. (Although several of the blouses have ruffs that rise so high on the neck that the models' heads look like little pistils waiting to be fertilized.) Compared with the designers who have tried before him to capture Saint Laurent's spirit -- including Elbaz and Tom Ford -- Pilati has most ably reconstituted the essence of the house.

But there is little that is modern and easy about his clothes. Pilati cut tight-fitting, hobbling skirts that stymied the models, who moved with an awkward, strained gait. All of those ruffles were sometimes compressed inside a cramped little cardigan wrapped snugly around the body like a cape -- or an exquisite straitjacket. It calls to mind a host of fashion archetypes: the chic Parisian madame, the gamin in elegant repose and Catherine Deneuve (who also happened to be sitting ringside at the show with a smoldering cigarette as long as a blade of wheat).

Individually, some of these pieces have relevance: the cropped pants, a little jacket. But on the runway, Pilati is selling image, attitude and point of view. And they remain relentlessly rooted in the past. With so many designers influenced by him, one feels that he is tugging an entire industry backward instead of nudging it toward the future.

Elbaz for Lanvin, Jacobs for Vuitton

In contrast, Elbaz moves forward -- deliberately, thoughtfully and with a reassuring ease. He is Pilati's perfect foil. For several seasons, Elbaz has succeeded by offering darkly pretty collections of gently gathered skirts, jersey dresses with industrial zippers scaling the back and blouses decorated with elegantly tarnished paillettes. For spring, he wisely concluded that it was time to move on.

He opened his show with a model in sleek black, her waist cinched tight with a wide shiny belt. His slender skirts zipped up the back and left a glint of metallic shimmer as models strode across the wood-plank floor wearing the kind of death-defying heels that women love to hate. His only embellishments came from his references to kimonos -- obi belts dramatically wrapped around the waist; origami-folded ribbons adorned the neckline of dresses that dipped low in the back. There were hints of flowers in abstract appliques on sober black dresses. When those details appeared toward the end of his show, they were in gloriously beaded colors that exploded like brash fireworks to signal the close of a collection that had been almost all dark shadows, suggestions and whispers.

Elbaz changed the look of fashion with his hauntingly romantic dresses and his ability to make the most rigorously designed garment seem as though it began with little more than a few strokes of a pencil on a sketch pad. Now he has added a new ingredient to his work -- strength. But Elbaz did not lose the joy, which so often happens when a designer decides to go hard-edged and tough. In his work, Elbaz not only displays his superb technical skills, he also reveals his heart.

The buildup to the Louis Vuitton presentation and the subsequent party at the Petit Palais was accompanied by the usual parade of celebrities. Those lining the Vuitton front row included Deneuve, Sharon Stone (inexplicably dressed like the Mad Hatter) and Pharrell Williams, who brought along the soundtrack for the show and an enormous bodyguard. (The big man stood around with nothing to do because only about five people in the room even noticed Williams, thanks to the blinding glow emanating from Uma Thurman. The lack of paparazzi love for Williams was a shame because his music was one of the best things about the show.)

Jacobs's collection started off mod with stiff miniskirts and filmy dresses adorned with paillettes akin to mirrored Christmas tree ornaments. There were Indian embroidered babydoll tops, miniskirts with elongated backs and giant jeweled brooches on the hips, and even an errant pair of bike shorts that were just plain awful and, well, Mr. Jacobs, what on earth were you thinking? The house's signature Murakami handbags grew rainbow-colored fringe and were none the better for it. But there were terrific patent leather satchels in bright orange with a gold circular nameplate as big as a tea saucer.

The party afterward, in a beautiful open-air garden, seemed, at least for the first hour or so, to include a lot of Veuve Clicquot and bits of foie gras sandwiched between crispy wafers. There was a lot of milling about and a lot of wondering whether this was in fact the party, or if it was really someplace else and no one other than Thurman and friends had found it.

Alexander McQueen, Nina Ricci, Chloe, Maison Martin Margiela, Valentino

There was a spate of mediocrity over the weekend, with Alexander McQueen getting caught up with a fascination for warrior princesses, Neptune -- the god of the sea -- and superheroines. While there were thigh-grazing dresses with seams that curved around the body in a seductive manner, much of the collection was overwhelmed by too many gilded harnesses, too much Grecian draping and dresses that looked as though they should be accessorized with bullet-deflecting cuffs and a golden lasso.

Nina Ricci's Lars Nilsson and Chloe's Phoebe Philo created collections that settled somewhere in the center of fashion's bell curve. Nilsson displayed his sophisticated sense of color with dresses in subdued shades of pale blue and dove gray cut from crisp men's shirting. He also delivered distinctive details including seamed satin belting that held up dresses and wrapped around the bodice.

Much of the Chloe collection looked like first Communion dresses with their fluffy sleeves and frilly details along the bodice and at the collar. Upon encountering a woman in one of these frocks, one would be inclined to burp her rather than try to engage in intelligent conversation.

At Maison Martin Margiela, troll-like men dressed in black pushed women on dollies along a track. And ultimately, this was a good thing. The women posed and preened to music while wearing pinstriped suits in which one pant leg was left unfinished, its fabric trailing onto a bolt of fresh cloth. Other models, dressed in languorous white dresses, wore necklaces made of colored ice cubes that slowly melted, bleeding green or fuchsia onto the garment. In case anyone is wondering, the presentation posed questions about the nature of design -- what is finished vs. what is still raw; serendipitous creativity vs. something that is planned and manipulated. And yes, the suits were quite beautiful.

On Sunday morning, Valentino's spring collection, inspired by Chinese jackets, showed off some lavish embroidery and tasseled belts that accented the waists of austere white dresses and skirts. His floral prints in shades of yellow and raspberry were an exuberant burst of color and energy that reminded one of the pleasure that Valentino continues to deliver based on the simple belief that a woman wants to look beautiful.

Sometimes fashion need not get any more complicated than that.

Fashion as a tool for provocation: Galliano's models evoked a carnival sideshow, but those who looked beyond the unorthodox choices saw the foundation of a fine spring collection: References to tangos, and "Galliano Gazette" prints. Left, Valentino's bursts of color and energy; above, ruffles galore from YSL. Right, Chloe's first-Communion look.Alexander McQueen's spring line features thigh-high dresses that reflect a fascination for warrior princesses and the mythological god Neptune.Left, Lars Nilsson's collection for Nina Ricci benefits from his sophisticated sense of color and distinctive touches. Marc Jacobs's mod collection for Louis Vuitton, right, includes giant jeweled brooches on the hips of his skirts and dresses.