Dress to De-Stress

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When Adam and Eve created the world's first garments, it was for emotional rather than physical reasons: they wanted to cover their shame. And it was emotions that seemed to be on designers' minds for the fall collections they presented last week in New York City. This is fitting, as the last New York collections started on Sept. 7 and were abruptly halted by the attacks a few days later. How does one of the most superficial yet avidly followed of the American arts express the mood of the country after events like those?

Apparently through the sartorial equivalent of tuna casserole. Just as Americans turned to comfort foods in the aftermath of Sept. 11, designers are offering up the kinds of clothes that suggest warmth, solace and a reassuring hug. They include nubby sweaters; lots of suede and corduroy; a mostly muted palette of navies, taupes and browns, and fabrics that evoke old bedspreads, sheepskin rugs and quilts. There was a homespun, wholesome feel to nearly all the collections. "We have the ability to energize the process of moving forward and make people feel better about themselves," says Kenneth Cole, who opened his show with a shot of lower Manhattan sans the World Trade Center. He closed it with a model in a black velvet ruffled camisole, black knee socks and a black knitted cap — a human tea cozy.

There were obvious tributes, such as the reimagined fireman's jacket at the Anne Klein show, the black armbands that Sandy Dalal had his somber models wear and the outfit called Give Piece a Chance by Cynthia Rowley. But mostly the designers did not overtly refer to the attacks. They instead sought out a place of refuge, somewhere familiar with a blankie and a mug of hot cocoa. That feeling was translated into pea coats, long cardigans, belted robelike jackets and lots of hand-knits.

This is not to say the clothes were not beautiful. Because fashion is a business and not corporate-sponsored therapy, and because perpetually bummed out does not say "Buy me," there had to be glamour. So, come October, the American woman will be able to wear her comfy sweats and her party dress at the same time, just like the model at DKNY who wore a roomy hoodie over a pretty feminine skirt. Then there were Marc Jacobs' military-inflected overcoats over cutoff party dresses, suggesting a celebration interrupted by a matter of grave urgency — apt, as Jacobs was the only major designer to show last season. Cynthia Rowley's collection seemed ideal for the woman who won't get out from under her comforter, so full was it of pajama-esque coziness. Even Dr. Clinical, Helmut Lang, showed some chunky knits, and Nicolas Ghesquiere, famous for fabulous-to- look-at-but-difficult-to-wear outfits, created some wearable polar-bear hugs for Balenciaga. If it's a look you like, snap it up. Fashion can't stay cuddly for long.