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During lunch one day last summer Ira Ostroff, who does market research at J.C. Penney, ran a spur of the moment survey in the company cafeteria. He'd been arguing hemlines with a designer who was pro short. Ostroff's point was that most women aren't _ and to prove it, he started counting. What he found was that for every woman wearing a short skirt that day, there were five or six or seven in knee-length or longer skirts.

Few designers seem to have noticed this. Probably the skirts they notice most are the ones they designed themselves, which, for the past few years, have been short ones, which they're getting tired of. But they seem terrified to come out with long ones _ even though at least half the female population has been wearing them all along.

You can see their simultaneous longing for and fear of change in the weirdly contorted hemline treatments that have been traipsing down the runways. It started with the Paris couture collections for last fall when a surprising number of designers showed evening dresses that were very short in front but swept the floor behind _ a wonderful idea if your evening plans include dancing the cancan in a cowboy movie.

Saloon-girl skirts showed up again in ready-to-wear collections for spring, among a startling number of equally desperate attempts to drop hemlines without hiding legs: long skirts with side or back or center slits, long skirts so sheer you could see right through them, long skirts slit to ribbons so that they worked almost like fringe (the grass skirt Todd Oldham showed with a coconut-shell bra seemed to be joking about this and about the underwear-as-outerwear trend at the same time), long skirts left unbuttoned down the front over shorts, etc., etc.

Why should designers go to such lengths to solve a problem (how to make long skirts that aren't really long) that doesn't seem to be a problem for anybody outside the fashion business?

It looks like neurotic "acting out" _ as if they're still haunted by, but somehow unable to come to grips with, the awful specter of the midi debacle.

A little background here: From the early 1900s, when hems of day dresses quit brushing the floor, up until 1968 or '69, hemlines in what was then quaintly considered the civilized world rose and fell in lockstep. Up in the 1920s, down in the '30s, up in the early '40s, sharply down in 1947, then edging up inch by inch beginning in the late 1950s until, in the late '60s, many women were wearing fingertip-length skirts.

It was a join-or-die proposition: Wear the current Paris-approved hemline or look like a frump. In the '60s, even grandmothers eventually gave in and shortened their skirts to flapper length.

So nothing prepared designers for what happened at the end of the 1960s, when they made a concerted effort to drop hemlines. Revolution! Women protested, picketed and started wearing pants en masse. Skirts and dresses languished unbought on store racks. Stores lost buckets of money and, naturally, they blamed the designers, whose power to dictate had eroded without anybody (except customers) noticing.

Any halfway reflective former child knows that losing one's sense of omnipotence can be painful and confusing. Even today, some segments of the fashion industry aren't coping that well.

Over the next couple of seasons, most designers will probably come to see that long and short skirts can coexist peacefully in their collections _ as they have for years in many women's closets. (The summer collections suggest that some of them are already beginning to see the light.) Customers _ for whom the brouhaha over hemlines only underscores the fashion establishment's irrelevance to their lives _ can be forgiven for wondering what took them so long.

Patricia McLaughlin has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post and Rolling Stone magazine.