The general sense of anxiety is reflected in the Spring collections. Wi ll we look rich? Will we look poor? And what will we do to look shocking now?
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THE HEROINES of Edith Wharton's fiction might have been painted by Edouard Manet: billowing silk and privilege, confined by corsets and the stringent morality of the late 19th century. Wharton and Manet both understood the language of clothes and their importance to the social landscape; the way they delineated the realms of beauty and power and who could occupy each.

In Wharton's well-ordered universe, clothes made an unambiguous public statement about class, education and sex.

If Wharton and Manet were at work today they'd paint a sartorial universe split in two. First, the world of "clothes", made up of denim shirts and jeans, chinos and polo shirts, now worn with unisexual fervour. This wardrobe of basics, a largely Americaninvention taken up abroad as voraciously as hamburgers, suggests the fair and equitable distribution of goods the way the hammer and sickle used to. They make it harder to place people on the social ladder; to identify the rich and the powerful, the poor and the ordinary. These are clothes that require the wearer to make his own distinctions between labour and leisure, public and private, as society will no longer do it for him. In the casual chic of global emporia like the Gap, everyone presents a picture of efficiency, ease, confidence and entitlement of a rurally endowed sort - part Colorado rancher, part Borders farmer - even if it is not exactly so.

Then there is "fashion", a different world altogether: fascist where clothes are forgiving and democratic; a pantomime of domination and submission; an urban phenomenon that assails the body with tattoos and rings through lips, eyebrows and erogenous zones; eventually leading, say the experts, to ritual mutilation, like that of tribal warriors.

"Fashion" and "clothes" have separated like continental landmasses parted by the sea. Clothes hide sex under the sanction of utility; but fashion flaunts the body and reaches ever further to light the fuse of rebellion. The fetish - the shoe, the corset or bit of lingerie with power to bewitch - flashes from designer fashion at the end of the century like a peep show, as it's done progressively since the stiletto heel of 1955. As forbidden zones are occupied, fashion cannibalises itself, leaving one to wonder, as Gertrud e Stein did about Oakland, California, "Is there any `there' there?"

"To think how shocking it was 20 years ago when Robert Mapple-thorpe put a ring through his nipple," muses Dr Valerie Steele, a professor at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and the author of a forthcoming book, Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). Steele is to fetish dressing what Anne Rice is to vampires, the intellectual interpreter of death wishes beyond our ken. "The connection between fashion and fetishism is not just a question of a few collections,"she says. "It's been growing for the last 30 years. The trend towards kinky clothes is broader than political flips to the left or right. It's about people's uncertainty about the boundaries between the `normal' and the `perverse'. The shrinks say it's bad. The fetishists say it's good. I'm just curious about how it all works.

"There's a triangle of relationships: fetishism, S&M and transvestism. They are all related sartorial sexual phenomena. It's partly about power and gender stereotypes, but in the psyche, not sociologically. I think it works differently in fashion than insexual subcultures. Some-times a leather jacket is just for a fashion look. People may not be entirely clear about what messages they're sending."

While fashion grows more pluralistic, clothes look more and more alike. Hence the confusion that makes many people feel they can't find "fashion" any more. There is simultaneously more of it in theory - on television, in books, museums and on film, and less of it on the ground. It doesn't exist on the high street, as it did pre-Sixties, as a wholesome group activity. It has less relevance as a public statement, but increased intensity as a private one. Electronic chat lines on fetish clothing, S&M, B&D (bondage and domination) and transvestism (this last made up of mostly heterosexual men) crowd the Internet with all manner of apparel-related intimacies: how to walk in high heels; how to care for shiny latex and PVC garments. "Use p u re talc rather than baby powder, which contains oils (that could damage the fabric)," writes the Danish author of a so-called "Fetish Usenet News-group" electronic bulletin board. "I'm a bit paranoid," he avows, "since I had a lovely hood that developed a hole from beingput away without being washed."

Corsets, newly popular for spring, may be the cross-over item, the one that a century ago signalled respectability, then disappeared, to be dragged out again as subversive. Leather and fetish fabrics such as vinyl, PVC and Lycra dominate the runways of recent seasons. The shiny cyberbabe is a kind of intergalactic dominatrix who will, be assured, rule your world.

This spring, the vinyl-clad "Barbie" has been a leading proponent of girly raunch. The female tattoo has become as ubiquitous as the peace sign pendant was in the Sixties. Even the new season's most delicate gossamer dresses suggest the hard sell of sex - a nostalgic version of Depression-era streetwalker who wears a yellow satin slip with her leather jacket. As Gore Vidal told the assembled members of America's National Press Club rec-ently, America is going though a strange time: "There's a smell of the Weimar Republic in the air. Something is going to happen. I don't dare [predict what]."

Every age finds its own ills terrifying. But in the late 20th century, some basic tenets of the faith have been rewritten and fashion is manifesting the anxiety. Baby-boomers who grew up expecting nothing but success, abundance and eternal life have beenhit by limits of age and finance. In America, they can barely afford to raise children or care for ageing parents. The work ethic has been rattled; the promise of mobility implied by the revolutions of the Sixties - the manner in which the whole world, parent and child, student and teacher, rich and poor, male and female, took to wearing jeans - has proved empty. The spectres of Aids, homelessness and crime defy faith in the future. Next to all this, cloth is too flimsy a fabric to express the shock ofthe new. The body has stepped into the breach.

Fetish fashion treats cloth more like skin, and skin more like cloth. Now that blue denim, the old stuff of rebellion, has been exploited by everyone from Gloria Vanderbilt to Ronald Reagan, the epidermis itself is the subversive fabric of last resort. ("It is now beyond doubt that in size and scope the rapid global spread of the habit of wearing blue jeans, however it may be explained, is an event without precedent in the history of human attire," wrote the New Yorker at the height of the "designer jean" craze in 1979.)

Escapism is another sartorial symptom of Nineties anxiety. Since the decade began, designers have declared disinterest in "progress" in the old sense of the term - that of pioneering a new silhouette. Instead, they have pioneered an alternative universe from the past, projected like digitised flashbacks of old couture glories. The intelligence is modern - a wilful appropriation of codes that have gone before; the fabrics are new, but the forms are grandiloquently old, even mournful, a paean to

a time when the risque wasn't so risky. The curves of Balenciaga, or the whaleboned waistlines of Jacques Fath, seem to bring comfort in the manner of a Bette Davis movie on a rainy afternoon. Nostalgia is modern, and is acknowledged, more than ever, to be a plaything, a pose, an emotional pacifier.

Few practise this revisionism with the childlike sincerity of the American designer. To look at the clothes of Todd Oldham, Marc Jacobs or Isaac Mizrahi is to see the designer as a little suburban boy hunched before the Sixties American TV screen. Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier cartoon the past, but with a degree of emotional distance that cannot be summoned by their Seventh Avenue compatriots, devotees of that princess of sitcom, Mary Tyler Moore.

"How to explain her? She makes my creative juices flow. She's like mother's milk," says Todd Oldham. She is security. Nothing about life in America looks like it used to, except in black and white television reruns played like a lullaby deep into the night.

It used to be said that fashion could predict degrees of optimism or pessimism with the accuracy of the Dow Jones average. (Skirt lengths fell from the flapper high of above the knee to mid-calf on the eve of the 1929 Stock Market crash.) This strict correlation between hemlines and economic horizons no longer applies (if it ever really did) in the chaos of post-modern parody. But shapes can still make strong suggestions about the future.

Just before the Stock Market Crash of 1987, the puff-ball skirt, a bubble-shaped garment from the 1890s, revived by Christian Lacroix, was at the height of its fame. Then, sure enough, the bubble went pop, along with the dollar.

The Spring collections, particularly those in New York, provided another whiff of the near future: political retrenchment, manifest in the Republican sweep of US elections that concluded the day after the fashion shows, and made the House of Representatives Republican for the first time in 42 years. The elections were called "Reagan's Third Term". In Europe, the style of every decade of the century was pulled into a phantasmagoria of lost innocence: the Twenties, the Thirties, the Forties, the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, even the Eighties were nostalgically recombined. But in New York, the John Travolta period of Saturday Night Fever disco got the most play. This look back at recent history mimics the current American moment, a time of uncertainty andcynicism. What the two decades have in common are fears without precedent: the environmental and fuel crises of the Seventies; Aids, homelessness and financial depression now. Resus-citating disco glam-rock is like playacting at decadence without the danger. In disco clothing, everyone masquerades as comfortable - remember a lithe Christie Brinkley jette-ing across the page? - while the awkwardness of platform shoes, pointy collars and slick, shiny fabrics gives away a certain dread and precariousness.Late Seventies clothes have an ugly foppishness that is heavily weighted towards satire.

Now John Travolta has made his screen comeback (in the parodic Pulp Fiction) several pounds heavier. Studio 54 has recently re-opened with its coke spoon ornament dangling above the dancefloor, spotlit, "where the drug is supposed to go", says a spokesman. And in the century that discovered a great high - free sex and love - and quickly lost it to the grim reaper, in some urban circles, it is once again open season on sensation.

New York magazine recently dedicated its cover to the burgeoning bourgeois culture of S&M and B&D clubs, and private agencies in which "bottoms" pay "tops" $300 an hour for the privilege of being abused. Now that the sex-equals-death fantasy has become ahorrifying fact, play-acting sex "scenes" a la the Marquis de Sade has acquired a certain acceptability: safe conduct for complicated times, not something to get you arrested. Edith Wharton might call it the Age of Guilt, of sanctioned decadence and outed perversity, where all the whips, chains and secret desires have spilled from the closet. An equestrian supply shop in Manhattan sold 15,000 crops to urban "riders" last year.

But isn't any suggestion of fetish dressing a giant leap backwards for womankind? "The older feminists have been too narrowly sociological in their approach," says Dr Steele. The most fetishistic gear bears an ambivalent relationship to power; and so, o s tensibly, does the wearer. High heels hobble, but they also stab. While casual clothes keep sex under wraps, "fashion" emphasises the sexual differences between a powerfully curvaceous woman and an ultra- masculine man. It sculpts as deliberately as a corset or a cod-piece.

A more recent feminist contention is that women can "own" their sexuality through flaunting their attributes, not unlike politicised gays who proudly appropriate the epithet "queer". Being a BABE, a bosomy Boadicea, corset on, heels staggering, is the w a y to self-possession.

This kind of streetwalker chic has seized the fashion imagination. The red light district of 42nd Street, near which the New York shows are held, seems to have provided the inspiration, with models imitating strippers from the Midnight Cowboy era. Pasties (the little tassels strippers have on their nipples), G-strings and skin-tight snakeskin underscored the sleaze factor, in itself a nostalgia for a 42nd Street which is being stripped of some of its old sleaze by urban renewal.

Younger New York designers, such as Kitty Boots, advertise women's wears with the subtlety of a porn shop. The words "pussy" and "fetish" are sewn in spangly "lights" across the chest of T-shirts. Sofia Coppola, the director's daughter, designs T-shirts that announce "I Love Booze" or "Wasted".

Valerie Steele reckons that branding - filed on the Internet as "Body Art" - is going to be the new big thing. Simulated branding has already arrived in the form of haircuts which have words buzz-cut into them, close to the scalp. Young ghetto kids have recently sold their heads as "billboards" to advertising agencies which pay them a nominal fee for having commercial slogans cut into their scalps. After that, according to New York-based trend spotter, Irma Zandel, consultant to mega-sneaker m anufacturers and other youth-dependent businesses, "Ritual self-mutilation," like cutting a nick in your earlobe or off the tip of your finger, is next.

"What could be shocking now?" asks Harold Koda of the Costume Institute of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, talking about the impotence of stylistic symbolism and the Seventies revival. "The things that are really shocking are now all too real. Every time you walk by a homeless person you feel it."

If you listen to America's new right, you will hear a lament that the Sixties, with all their attendant humanism, ever happened; that we ever started on this slippery slope, that we ever took to wearing jeans in the first place and making everyone feel entitled. Bring back orphanages instead of writing unwed mothers a public assistance cheque. Make the hierarchy of have and have-not more visible, they seem to say, like it was before the Gap.

According to the American historian Robert Reich, secretary of Clinton's labour department: "There is little doubt that we are headed toward a two-tiered society, composed of a smaller group at the top, and a much larger group continuing to lose ground. I'm very fearful of the next century," he told Newsweek recently. "There is more economic and geographic segregation by wealth. We depend on upward mobility and the work ethic as the moral centres of the economy. If we lose our middle class, we invite the worst forms of demagoguery."

A century on, Wharton would be pleased to know that what we wear still speaks a kind of truth. If casual clothes still promote the myth of the American dream, high fashion does not. It has become a neurotic examination of personal potential. Which side of the socio-economic chasm will we end up on: in a sleazy underworld, or a lofty seat of privilege? Upstairs or downstairs? Underneath, or on top?