AFTER AN UNUSUALLY long hiatus, prints are suddenly prominent, showing up everywhere from the priciest designer collections to the mass appeal racks at JC Penney's. This onslaught is not by accident. But handing out the credit -- or, if your taste does not tend toward oversized cabbage roses, the blame -- is not a simple matter.

Some think Ralph Lauren launched the current chintz blitz by using the material last year for both home furnishings and clothes. Others believe that a London boutique is more directly responsible for putting floral draperies back on the sidewalks. But everyone seems to agree that Japanese designers have had us wearing a palette of solid, somber colors for far too long. Fashion, after all, could not exist if we didn't become bored with what we have.

And so it happened that Seventh Avenue anticipated that the public might be amused by florals, foulards, paisleys, plaids and graffiti-style prints. European designers evidently had the same idea.

Proving just how many currents there are in the world of fashion, various experts suggest that the bold new prints expected to flood the market for at least another year are inspired by everything from a steadier economy (we're more optimistic) to the Olympics (all those bright colors) and MTV (visual graphic excitement).

For the time being, everybody is right. In fashion, it seems, nobody is wrong until nobody buys the clothes. "I could tell you a wonderful fable about how the latest trend started," says Joe Brodie, president of J.B.J. Fabrics in New York, "but I don't think anybody really knows. We just hear the drumbeats."

Still, there are those who make it their business to monitor the drumbeats. Merrill Greene, a fashion director at Nigel French Enterprises, a fashion forecasting firm, says her company hit this year's preoccupation with prints square on the nose. "We were talking about it two years ago as a kaleidoscope look," says Greene, "a profusion of patterns and eccentric combinations."

It used to be that Parisian couturiers dictated fashion on the streets. Now the reverse is true. As one fabric designer puts it, "You see things walking on the street and then you see a variation of it in a couture house." That being the case, forecasters like Greene take cues from the counterestablishment styles popping up on the streets of London, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Paris, cities that fashion savants visit regularly for purposes of business and inspiration.

In what amounts to a roving fashion clinic, "all of us," says Greene, "are shopping the same stores, going to the same clubs and watching the same rock stars."

According to Greene, the first print blip came on the screen three years ago. Just when Japanese designers were getting us comfortable with sedate monotones, the streets were breaking out in vintage Hawaiian shirts, purported precursors of the tropical prints so abundant this season. And then MTV burst on the scene two years ago, supposedly adjusting everyone to the visual barrage that results when patterns and prints, lights and sound, images and symbols are mixed.

Another significant portent was over a year ago, when London designers Scott Crolla and Georgina Godfrey began making clothes with chintzes and tapestry fabrics that were meant to furnish homes. It's an arguable point, but Greene contends that the highly publicized chintzes shown this season by Ralph Lauren and Bill Blass are merely confirmations of a trend begun by Crolla and Godfrey.

Jean Paul Gaultier, a French designer known for being a fast trigger to the street market, is another person fashion forecasters like to watch. They know, for instance, that Gaultier has been hanging around the Sacre Coeur section of Paris, where the Moroccan and North African cultures mingle. His interest? Authentic Moroccan and African fabrications. Directional designers like Gaultier rarely find the fabrics they want in the open market. Those wise to his haunts will shop the same stores, familiarizing themselves with the colors and fabrics that will probably become commercially viable next year.

For all the various influences, the trend toward prints couldn't have solidified into this season's commercial fashion if the print market hadn't become involved, supplying volume manufacturers wth prints that run the gamut from floral to expressionistic.

"We're putting a lot of marbles behind prints really catching on for the next few seasons," says Joan Weinstein, fashion director of Concord Fabrics, a firm that sells its contemporary designs to companies like Catalina, Wrangler and Jantzen. Like most converters -- companies that translate prints into cloth -- Concord selected much of this spring's prints a year in advance.

Weinstein says she's gambling heavily on prints because there's a natural void for them to fill. "For the last few years, we've been darked and neutraled to death. I think that due to the vicissitudes of the economy, there have been a lot of safe, plain goods being sold. When people are uncertain, they stick with proven things.

"Now the market seems ready for fancy goods with more texture and patterns. One of the cheapest ways to make goods fancy is to print them. Women have lots of solids in their wardrobes already and we think they're looking for something to spark them up."

"People just got tired of religious-looking clothes," says Marc Jacobs, a 21-year- old New York designer. "The Japanese stuff was wonderful, but at the end of the day, it's just very religious. I think the young trendies responded to that by wanting to look sort of opulent. We're not poor lost shepherds anymore. We want to look loud, and prints are a way to do that without changing the basic shape of things."

PRINTS, OF COURSE, are nothrics existed as long ago as 2500 B.C. More than a few designs making the scene now are remarkably similar to the patterns that first swept Europe in the late 17th century, when the popularity of Indian chintzes terrified French silk weavers. In deference to their protests, the French government passed an edict in 1686 pro- hibiting not only the wearing of imported chintzes, but their manufacture in France as well. For the next 77 years, French commissioners attempted to enforce the impossible law while their fashionable wives insisted upon wearing the forbidden cotton prints at their country homes. Ignoring restrictions, Madame de Pompadour decorated her entire apartment at Bellevue with indiennes.

More flagrant offenders were disrobed by guards at the gates of Paris; in a single day, hundreds of dresses were seized and burned. Women merely appearing at their windows dressed in contraband materials were arrested and sentenced. When restrictions were finally removed in 1759, printed fabric factories opened everywhere in France.

Such were the origins of toile de jouy, a pastoral landscape print that contemporary fashion experts predict will be the next big thing after we've had our fill of florals.

BUT FEW BIG-NAME fashion designers will attribute their current fondness for prints to anything so prosaic as fashion cycles. Instead, they tend to speak in terms of inspiration.

Norma Kamali, for instance, says she was inspired to use bold floral prints because she was tired of people assuming she wouldn't. Marc Jacobs mentions as a major influence pop impresario Malcolm McLaren, the man who brought us the Sex Pistols, Boy George and a rap version of "Madame Butterfly." "McLaren is a good barometer of what's coming in youth culture," says Jacobs, "so it's really timely to do all these romantic, operatic clothes."

Speaking for the grown- ups, Ralph Lauren says he was inspired by the romantic floral chintzes associated with English country homes: "I felt that same feeling translated into equally beautiful clothing."

Although they usually get all the credit, few top fashion designers actually have the time and inclination to create their own prints. High-profile designers tend to shop at European fashion shows and work in concert with print designers, converters and fabric historians.

"You know Ralph Lauren's beautiful chintz fabric?" asks Susan Meller, who owns the Design Library in New York with her husband Herbert. "We sold it to him here."

Like a private design museum, the library boasts a collection containing millions of original designs, fabric swatches and wallpapers dating from the mid-1700s through the 1960s. Unlike a museum, everything is for sale. Bill Blass found a floral pattern for his sheets there. Calvin Klein is a regular customer. While Meller recalls Ralph Lauren purchasing his popular chintz pattern last spring, she was already sellings chintzes to European designers the previous year. The Design Library encourages clients to come for "inspiration," but since no copyright infringements are involved, prints found there can be quite faithfully reproduced.

"People who know their business," Meller says, "just pick up on the fashion zeitgeist. Tradtionally, prints come and go in cycles, but so many of our clients say they have never known such a long cycle of nonprints. Five years is a long time not to have prints play a prominent role. So we think this current cycle should last for at least three years."

According to Joe Brodie, who has been marketing prints for 40 years, print cycles generally last for three years "because you never get enough of it the first year. That has to do with production catching up with demand."

After last fall's fizzle with the menswear look, demand is something the fashion industry could use. But as Vogue points out, although prints are "a charming element," they're "not something around which you base a wardrobe." Shortly after moving into a closet, prints begin to age. "They have a much shorter life than solids," says Joan Weinstein of Concord Fabrics. "A print is dated after several months."

Each significant print cycle distinguishes itself from recent predecessors. To the experts, that bowling shirt from three years ago is bound to look three years old. "If you take out a large floral print from 1980," says print designer Sheila Stewart, "you'll see it's not the same. The flowers are smaller, the colors are not so bright and the shape of the garment itself is different."

The Color Association of the United States makes a business out of predicting where mass market color preferences will lie, a forecast that helped determine the bright palette of today's prints. "You can predict color preferences accurately by simply charting cyclical color movements and what people are interested in," says Margaret Walch, an associate director of the association. "1985 really seems to mark a turning point in the decade toward colors that are brighter and more luminous."

Among other things, that means you'll soon be seeing a lot of greens -- all the greens you've hated for 25 years.

In the end, the fashion business depends upon everyone in it trying to be in the same place at the same time. What happens when all those drab, dreary clothes in your closet are finally outnumbered by prints and bright colors? Lee Stewart, who runs a highly regarded New York print studio with his wife Sheila, has a ready answer:

"It's inevitable that someone is going to say, 'Hey! Let's get a dull color out there.'

If this explanation is starting to sound logical, consider the fate of Lily Pulitzer. With questionable color combinations and prints making fashion news it seems ironic that Pulitzer, queen of the lime green and fuchsia shift for 23 years, has filed for a Chapter 11.