New York's fall 2011 runways at Lincoln Center were packed with conservative looks of longer skirts and button-up blouses.
Tory Burch led the pack with a series of plaid, polka-dot, and pleated dresses with long sleeves and high necks reminiscent of the '70s working girl. Designer Yoana Baraschi featured a long-sleeved tan-and-black polka-dot dress with a high neck and tie -- which she called "the librarian."
"People are finally more interested in covering up," Baraschi said at her presentation. "We are trying to be sexy and be alluring at the same time."
The result is going to be a fall that's both retro and wearable. Tailored pants will replace leggings -- which will have their last hurrah this summer. Long tunics will be replaced by cardigan sweaters that stop at the hip. Glitter and shimmer will remain, but in smaller quantities on shirts and accessories -- the flower on a cloche or other accent piece, for instance.
Other popular designers followed (a simpler) suit.
BCBG Max Azria featured three-quarter-length skirts and jumpers paired with vests and petal-thin turtlenecks.
Lela Rose focused on shifts with long sweaters and cardigans in soft watercolor prints. Her knee-length socks were an absolute hit.
Nanette Lepore sprinkled springtime shades into her tailored pieces. But one sheer knit turquoise dress featuring ruffles down the torso was a scene-stealer.
Nicole Miller worked clever folding techniques into her dresses that had color blocks of slate blue-gray and pops of orange -- very discreet yet futuristic.
Michael Kors -- an expert at making tailored looks appear feminine -- experimented with color, working mauve into his mostly black and camel palette.
But the most significant change noticed on the fall runways was the menswear influence, said Constance White, a New York fashion expert whose own outfit demonstrated the latest trends: a soft tailored dress under a fur vest. "But it was very soft and streamlined." In many cases, the menswear looks alternated with the womenswear, usually something soft and sexy. "It was about balance this season," she said.
Why so much menswear? Experts say the male-oriented clothes help designers get more bang for their buck. Menswear's penchant for layering and tailoring, White said, helps designers show a lot of pieces within one look. And the pieces -- except those with fur flourishes and wool -- can be worn effortlessly from season to season.
Plus, White said, it helps designers reach a global market because the medium weight of the fabric can work in different countries.
And then there is recession's influence, fashion's biggest nemesis for the last several years. Designers, eager to keep the quality high and the prices low, all are offering pieces that have staying power. Tailored jackets for men, and longer pleated skirts for women, can last an eternity in a wardrobe.
"Designers can't ignore the recession," White said. "But they also want to give us fashion and glamour."
That said, while the fall fashions were undeniably minimalist and monochromatic, that didn't mean there wasn't shimmer, shine, or sex appeal.
Tibi showed a succession of dresses with deep V-necks. Kors' shirts were sheer.
As usual, Ralph Rucci focused on construction, but his red pieces added kapow. And Ralph Lauren worked a '20s vibe into his collection with deep V-neck gowns, noticeably less all-American and much more evening-loungey.
Many outfits were jazzed up with tights in opaque solids or patterns. In some cases, designers added ankle socks over the tights or went with knee-length socks -- so very schoolgirl. Models wore thicker heels ranging from platforms to wedges. Tall, tall, taller.
"I'm finding more and more that people want to dress up," said Joan Shepp of the high-end Philadelphia boutique bearing her name, after 3.1 Phillip Lim showed a group of silk dresses paired with cloaks and sweaters.
Fashion followers will notice that in addition to the new silhouettes, there's a different color palette for fall, ranging from all-black -- Altuzarra -- to all fiery reds -- Rucci and Prabal Gurung. Some designers mixed colors that don't normally go together, such as turquoise and tan. And Lim and Diane von Furstenberg played with greens in a fresh way -- Furstenberg featured a spearmint fur vest and Lim used a grassy green silk for trousers and a long-sleeved scoop-neck dress.
Time will tell whether we can thank Lim for ushering in an all-but-forgotten fashion trend -- two-toned pants.
I'm not sure how I feel about that. But then again, fashion has a way of making us wear things we never thought we would -- again.