Smiles, Everyone–Smiles! Mirth Sucker-Punches La Mode

The hideously ungroovy clouds of war, terrorism and potential nuclear Armageddon are casting a pall over many a glittering Manhattan milieu.

As Showdown Iraq approaches, it has unleashed the gray mists of restraint and sent them swirling through the salons of Park Avenue, thence south to clog the mournful canyons of Wall Street. Declining property values and plummeting stocks further depress the populace, and inhibit the collective penchant for chuckling self-indulgence, foofy dinner parties and gushy galas. This buzz-killing blanket of doom unfurled itself right after Christmas and smothered the sizzle at New Year’s Eve bashes across the city. Many Manhattanites of my acquaintance elected to stay home and watch Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve . That’s how tragic things are.

And where is spring 2003 fashion in all of this? What’s a girl to wear when everything’s gone all Kafkaesque and depressingly awful? Funereal Yohji shrouds? Helmut Lang–ish uniform attire?

Not on your nelly!

Look over on Seventh Avenue! There’s a gap in the clouds, and the sun is pouring in. And yes, what appears to be a rainbow is arching through the bustling G.D. (garment district) where Fashion-that great barometer of societal mood swings-has chosen this particular moment to put on a big fat smiley face.

Check out the pages of the seasonally slim-but bracingly chipper-January Vogue , from which an unprecedented number of models are actually smiling at you! How transgressive and shocking! Who knew Karen Elson even had teeth? And Brazilian Carolina Ribeiro is grinning like a Cheshire cat! Where’s that zombie-like heroin chic? Where are those banged-on-the-head-with-a-frying-pan blank stares? This nouveau gaieté has turned these formerly humorless fashion editorials into jolly tableaux reminiscent of the Alive with Pleasure™ Newport cigarette advertisements.

Washington may have gone all Dr. Strangelove, but as far as Seventh Avenue is concerned, pink is the new black and giggly is the new dour!

It was a long time a-comin’. For the past 10 years, designer fashion has been sucking in its cheeks in a desperate attempt to conceal any signs of auto-amusement. “Vacant,” “cool” and “smacked-up” are the words which best describe the tone of runway shows and fashion marketing throughout the 1990’s.

It all started when waifs and grungers eclipsed the go-go 80’s and traded in pouf-skirted exuberance for a headachey pseudo-intellectualism. A detached emotionlessness-very Godard!-dominated the decade. Ask a model to smile on a fashion shoot during this period, and she would probably call her agent and ask for more money. This arty and often Teutonic drumbeat issued from the influential designers of the period-i.e., Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela and Miuccia Prada. Even the crotchy hedonism of Tom Ford’s mid-90’s Gucci had a bored-rich-bitch vibe. Very Antonioni! Even wacky Galliano girls and tarty Southern Italians-Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Roberto Cavalli-refused to crack a smile. The stony face of fashion stared haughtily, relentlessly and, ultimately, boringly down from the runway.

Until last fall.

The spring 2003 collections burst onto the runways with a perky Reese Witherspoon–ish cavalcade of halter tops, cartoony prints, tarty sun dresses and a borderline goofiness. (Re Ms. Witherspoon: This adorable petite blonde thespian is living proof that perky girls fare much better in life than irate, bitchy slags. She’s skinny and rich. She’s reproducing and lensing up a storm, and she’s married to that pot-lovin’ cutie, Ryan Phillippe. Reese might just well be the commanderette in chief of the new chirpy revolutionary party.)

In any event, the message from Europe was clear: It’s not just O.K. to be happy, it’s O.K. to be happy while wearing a $3,486 Balenciaga tropical-fish print scuba-dress (F.Y.I., Ms. Prada-former supreme avatar of somber 90’s intellectualism-also succumbed to a zippy surf motif for spring.)

Leading the anti-grim trend in Paris were hard-core avant-guardians Viktor and Rolf, who did the unthinkable: They staged a fashion show where girls in loud floral frocks not only smiled, but broke the icy membrane between themselves and the plebes in the front row by mugging coquettishly and laughing! The cognoscenti rippled. “I felt like I was at a fabulous, fun party,” said Barneys fashion director Julie Gilhart. “But I also knew it was a watershed moment.”

On this side of the Atlantic, Marc Jacobs-whose muses have hitherto included glum young director Sofia Coppola and the poster child for 90’s dour, model Kirsten Owen-produced a collection of Sandra Dee early-60’s sweetness. Donna Karan exorcised her New Age druids of yore with a collection filled with cheeky ruched satin, halter tops and polka dots recalling bawdy Bette Midler’s early-70’s retro camp, itself a retread of the 40’s.

This tsunami of feel-good fripperies begs the question: Is high fashion wildly out of sync with the impending doom of the moment? Or is she-La Mode-attempting to ameliorate our anxieties with an intuitive skippy buoyancy? Wouldn’t it be lovely to think that Fashion was attempting to cheer us up and improve our lot? But does she even give a rat’s ass?

During her après-show musings to the press, Ms. Karan professed herself to be in search of a more polished look, inspired by Hollywood glamour. She did acknowledge that the powerful shoulder emphasis of her collection was about the need for security during a period of uncertainty. The truth is, Donna and the mass of ethnically and aesthetically diverse folk who make up the fashion-design pool created their collections way before Swedish weapons-inspections dude Hans Blix had even bought his plane ticket. In total, there is a nine-month lag between the time that designers buy their fabrics and the point at which they find their way on to the consumer’s back. The fashion message is therefore doomed to a lagging inconsistency. This is part of its fascination for us breathless, self-styled fashion commentators.

Even if designers were able to create their collections on the very same day as their shows, it is hard to imagine that they would ever collectively reflect political drama. Most fashion designers know even less about world affairs than Sean Penn. But unlike fact-finder Penn, they wisely stay away from international politics. (Though I can’t help thinking that if the U.N. sent an axis of evil queens-e.g., moi , Andre Leon Talley and Karl Lagerfeld-to Baghdad, we could effect some fabulous Entente Cordiale .)

No, the new and very welcome sunny face of fashion arrived because fashion folk simply got tired of the prevailing unsmiling, super-cool shtick and were ready for a change. Anyone who is out of sync with the new mood needs to lighten up-or face the consequences. Designer Miguel Adrover, who unsuccessfully attempted to relaunch himself this historical/hysterical season, cast nasturtiums on comedian Debra Messing (happy) in a New York Times post-show interview, saying that he would prefer his clothes to be worn by Charlotte Rampling (cool but dour) rather than “a comic.” His Euro elitism failed to strike a chord with retailers.

Miguel, give it another shot and please cheer up! The new smiley face of fashion may be here for a while. After all, fashion is innately exuberant, and fashion people love silly jokes, and wearing clothes should be fun. (Keep your dial tuned to this column for a look at peppy newcomer designers Proenza Schouler and Pierrot.)

Let’s not criticize fashion for being out of sync. Just be glad that there’s some cheeky new frocks to buy. Fashion’s commitment to superficiality is its strength-in peace or in war. Make it yours. “When war was declared, I went out and bought two pounds of henna,” wrote Quentin Crisp, whose discarded mattress was once, hauntingly and coincidentally, fabricated into an attention-getting runway ensemble by none other than Miguel Adrover.

If war breaks out, run out straightaway and buy a sassy Donna Karan polka-dot Bette Midler frock ($5,995). No retro Betty Grable hairdos, please-and whatever you do, don’t carry a purse. Tuck your cash down your cleavage and strut. The only accessory you need for spring 2003 is a big, goofy grin.