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Don't write off the short skirt, the designers haven't

Changes of fashion rarely happen in a neat and orderly manner. Women who are constantly looking for the latest styles are in the vanguard.

If they look appealing enough in the new clothes, their lead is taken up by women in the next tier, those who are more comfortable with the familiar and don't see themselves as pathfinders.

At the moment, designers are accommodating both groups. In their resort and early-spring collections _ clothes that will start arriving in the stores in November _ they have something for everyone.

Earlier this year, Karl Lagerfeld sounded what could have been the death knell for knee-baring hems when he announced that "short skirts are for middle-aged women." What woman would want to make a public announcement of her age group, even if she found short skirts more flattering and more comfortable?

Actually, the death notice was premature. It seems that young women like short skirts, too, and don't want to give them up.

This fall, many women of all ages have tried a new long skirt, showing a preference for black with a deep slit at front, side or back to keep it from looking funereal. They at least have the advantage of knowing they are among the first on their blocks to display the new order. If it turns out they like it and other women like them in it, the new order will be well on its way.

But covering all bases, fashion designers are offering short and long skirts in their new collections. Sometimes the same style is presented both ways. Louis Dell'Olio at Anne Klein went a step further. He offered three lengths in his main collection as well as in the secondary lines, Anne Klein II and A-Line.

Short is 21 inches, which bares the knees, long is 27 inches, which covers them, and really long is 34 inches. You pay your money and you take your choice.

In the same way that many women have not made up their minds about length, so are many designers still undecided.

"Some clothes look great long, but others look terrible," said Arnold Scaasi after his couture presentation last month. "In the beginning, we made everything longer, then we took away the ones we didn't like."

The result was that most styles in his show stopped short of the knees. But the few that remained, like a black silk dinner suit with a gently spreading skirt, looked fresh and spectacular.

But Scaasi also took another direction in his made-to-order clothes that designers of ready-to-wear, both casual and more formal, are also investigating: He showed trousers.

Part of the new importance of pants is related to the uncertainty about skirt hems. But more important is the casual feeling that is permeating all branches of fashion, from weekend to party wear.

Bill Blass, for instance, is reviving the caftan, which he showed over pants, because he believes that it is a comfortable way to dress.

The pants suit as a daytime phenomenon is being revived along with that newest accessory, the vest. And for milder weather, there are many shorts, both the casual variety and the more formal styles, with long suit jackets, that could be worn to the office.

What it all adds up to is more variety than has been available for many seasons. There is no need for any woman to stuff herself into clothes that she does not feel comfortable with.