Something strange is happening.

The current issue of Martha Stewart Living features a bizarre spread of well-groomed girls in aprons. Similarly, and closer to home, Mimi & Lena's holiday fashion show concluded with models in filmy organdy aprons flinging cookies to the crowd. And now Nicole Kidman has starched out her million-dollar locks for her next role, a remake of a domesticity-fetish thriller. Fashion fluke? I don't think so.

Stepford Wives style is back.

You remember The Stepford Wives, don't you? You know, that '75 horror flick where happy-go-lucky suburban women actually turned out to be robots. Their look, personified by the super sexy Katharine Ross, blends crisp-and-virginal '50s with free-love '70s in a sultry "Crystal Blue Persuasion" haze. Gingham halter-tops knotted high above the ribcage. Angel-wing blouses with daredevil décolletage. And, floating above it all, the irrepressible maxi-dress.

That freaky fashion phenom, which perfectly unites mojo with modesty, was in style for about 15 minutes during the Ford presidency. Search the Net for "Stepford Wives" and invariably a couple of these long-forgotten dresses will pop up. But the maxi deserves more than an E-Bay auction. It deserves a full-blown resurrection.

Speaking of second comings, most maxis, from the bustline down, are nothing more than scads of swaddling yardage à la Mary-mother-of-Jesus. In fact, the ideal maxi hem begins at an empire waist and brushes the toes of your strappy sandals. But up on top, anything goes: sweet smocking mixed with bohemian buckles, lacy necklines that dip down to the navel, metallic trim and fanciful appliqués. Day fabrics tend toward the textile equivalent of a Peaches and Herb album cover. For night, evening maxis are glittery, with bold chevrons and trippy Pucci swirls.

Iconic designer Halston elevated the form with body-clinging knitwear fabrics and sexy details like thigh-high slits and diagonal zippers. These dresses--even designer versions--can be found locally on the racks of thrift and vintage stores like Magpie. Just add a spritz of Jean Naté splash, a hot-rolled-and-hairsprayed hairdo, and a tray of frosted cookies, and you'll ignite that special someone's domestic fantasy.

But even beyond fashion tips, there's insight to glean from a fresh screening of the original Stepford Wives. The plot is still eerily topical. Our suburbs are still stocked with distant, software-company hubbies who commute to sinister industrial parks (men crave submissive superwomen who can iron a shirt, mix a stiff Sanka and shag them silly? Who knew?). There, too, are still some young wives who once had professional or artistic ambitions, but have resigned themselves to the delights of domestic life--cleaning, Target markdowns and getting stoned on Easy-On spray starch.

Appropriately enough, Frank Oz (the man/hand behind Miss Piggy) will direct the Stepford Wives remake as a "stylish black comedy," and he plans to target today's SUV soccer moms as our era's anti-feminist domestic drones. But really, can this film succeed without the sexy camp of wives greeting each other in the grocery store in wedge heels and hot pants? Can subterranean Stepford scariness be conjured by Ann Taylor loafers and Nike Dri-Fit?

That's the chilling thing about our current cultural return to domesticity. Cock one ear toward those gated communities and you can smell the meat loaf and hot glue. I think I even hear the snip-snip of pinking shears through felt. But otherwise, it's very, very quiet.

Can that kind of forced tranquility be funny? Well, it's certainly not good for fashion. And it's one more reason why the maxi-dress, with its lascivious styling and dated femininity, is more hip than ever.

Come to think of it, wearing one today might even be an act of rebellion.


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