With the fashion-forward set not wanting to appear insensitive to the public mood, glamour is out and subdued blacks and patriotic colors are the order of the day

Fashion mavens are in a dither. What is the proper attire these days for a formal event? Do you pull out the sparkly evening gown and dress up for the symphony? Or do you reach into the back of the closet and dust off the black sheath that reflects low-key sophistication?

The word from stylists in L.A.: black is back big time (did it ever go away?) as well as those good old patriotic colors of red, white, and blue.

Want glitz? Go to Las Vegas.

"Nobody wants to seem inappropriate," said Phillip Bloch, Hollywood's stylist to the stars who frequently appears on MTV and CNN as a fashion commentator. "Everybody wants to be politically correct."

Bloch hasn't been dressing too many starlets in beaded gowns lately and for good reason. "Nobody wants to be stealing the thunder when all these policemen and firemen have lost their lives," he said. Even the most glamorous are opting for a smart-looking pant suit or a great fitting plain dress to stroll in front of the paparazzi outside major events.

Hollywood's long-held penchant for the casual is even more apparent these days. At the recent premiere in Westwood of the movie "Bandits," star Bruce Willis was wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans. He showed up with ex-wife Demi Moore, who was wearing a plain short-sleeve black dress. Actor Billy Bob Thornton was similarly dressed down, as was his wife, actress Angelina Jolie, who was dressed head to toe in black. Both wore American flag pins.

Just as subdued was the recent premiere of "Corky Romano" at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Vinessa Shaw, one of the stars, shunned the evening gown look and showed up in a sleeveless navy blue top and brown pants.

Low-key talk

On the television talk shows, no one is daring to be different or to exude sexiness. For last week's appearance on CBS's "The Late Show with David Letterman," Farrah Fawcett donned a sleeveless black wool sweater and black pants.

While black is the reflexive color choice, it's not the only option. "One of the most visible things I've seen is the addition of red, white and blue. It's a very big, big part of the landscape these days," said Alex Berliner, a Los Angeles photographer who is at just about every major fund-raising and celebrity event in town.

And it's not just Hollywood. Dress codes are being revamped for all sorts of fund-raising dinners and formal events.

Organizers of the Los Angeles Opera have noticed a sobriety seeping into the audience's attire. At the Sept. 4 opening of "The Queen of Spades," opera aficionados were dressed to the nines. Women were wearing brightly colored designer clothing and massive amounts of jewelry.

But because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the opera's Sept. 12 opening night party for "Lohengrin" was changed to a closing night party on Oct. 1. And the attire for the event did an about-face.

"There was a certain somberness," said L.A. opera spokesman Gary Murphy. "Women were wearing subdued dresses. Normally at the opera you would see a lot of sequins and gowns and certain flashes of brilliance and color. The opera is one of the last places people feel they can dress up in their finery."

For many, it seems like a throwback to past economic downturns. "Any time you go through periods like this, there is an awkwardness about conspicuous consumption or looking too festive or too celebratory," said fashion observer Brian Watson, who represents specialty stores and apparel manufacturers.

Partygoers were in a mellow mood at a recent fund-raiser for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Honoree Ilse Metchek is a force in the Los Angeles apparel industry and executive director of the California Fashion Association. While Metchek put on a bright red dress for the occasion, many of the 580 guests were less flamboyant.

That also was true at the fundraising event held for the American Oceans Campaign at Century Plaza Hotel in early October where former President Bill Clinton picked up an award. Actress Barbra Streisand was fully enveloped in black, though she was wearing a diamond necklace.

While somber colors are making the party rounds, not everyone is adhering to the new code. Twenty-something women are still saluting fashion by wearing short-cropped tops and low-slung pants when out on the town. Said photographer Alex Berliner: "All these girls are still showing their stomach, despite what the Taliban is saying."

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