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Pleats are back on the cutting edge

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Schoolgirls wear them. So do Scotsmen. Tennis players, too. But now, pleated skirts aren't just functional - they're fashionable . . . again. The versions that designers and stores offer now - with more to come in the fall - are pretty, graceful and modernized by fabric innovations: shimmering cottons, whisper-weight woolens and airy organzas. And there's enough variance in lengths - from midthigh to midcalf - to make it an all-inclusive trend.

While the crisply pleated skirt is considered a classic, it's been seen less than streamlined skirt styles in recent years.Now, the silhouette is slowly easing up, says New York trend tracker David Wolfe, and "designers are making the transition to a fuller look by taking baby steps and showing pleated skirts."

Cutting-edge designers Marc Jacobs and Helmut Lang are credited with making pleats trendy again.

For spring, Jacobs designed pastel pleated skirts that were both ladylike and sophisticated. Cut to knee-length, they suited women in their 20s through 60s. Lang cut his narrow pleated skirts out of ivory starched silk.

Other designers took notice and as a result, pleats proliferated. This fall, American and European designers, including Jacobs and Lang, showed at least one pleated skirt in their collections.

For summer, pleated skirts look more youthful and fresh when worn with twin sets, sleeveless tanks or crocheted cardigans instead of blazers and starched shirts.

Currently, pleat widths range from razor thin to inches across. Here's a glossary to keep you current when the subject of pleats comes up in conversation.

Pleat variations

- Accordion: Narrow, pressed-in pleats, similar to the folds of the bellows of an accordion, often edge stitched. Difficult to wear if you have a tummy bulge.

- Bias: Pressed-in pleats cut on the diagonal, usually stitched part way down. Can be randomly placed on a skirt and a good choice if you are hippy or don't want an all-over pleated look.

- Fortuny: Crinklelike pleats, favored by designers Mary Mc-Fad-den and Issey Miyake, for skirts and trousers. Another form of this pleat is called broomstick pleating, popular several seasons ago for skirts. A flattering look on all figure types.

- Knife: Very narrow sharply pressed flat pleats going in same direction. Look for skirts in which these pleats start below the hips.

Tips for pleated skirt care

- Always use a skirt hanger.

- Press pleated skirts between wearings so the folds hold.

- Carefully tuck pleats under you when sitting.

- Expect to pay about $3.50 to have a pleated skirt dry-cleaned, plus 10 cents a pleat. Also read care labels carefully. In some types of skirts - broomstick or Fortuny - you are often advised to wash the garment in cold water rather than dry-clean it.