If concrete evidence is needed for the current idea that fashion is experiencing a sober moment, Exhibit A might be the As Four show, a proper runway event held in the Bryant Park tents and featuring real models with neat hair—a far cry from the nutty avant-garde shows this troupe was famous for mounting in previous seasons. It’s not that As Four, a quartet of good-looking downtown types who all lived together in the same silver loft until recently, didn’t offer some lovely outfits: Suits had funny-curved seams and swirly pants; Me Jane tunics shimmered in lamé; a model swathed in gold resembled a life-sized Oscar statue. But even with Ms. Oscar walking a pit bull down the catwalk, it was a far cry from the days when the group showed their clothes on dancing dolls or in the pitch dark.

Young, edgy designers tend to show the first weekend of Fashion Week—a smart idea, since by the end of the shows editors are so jaded you could march Ichabod Crane dressed in a Rudi Gernreich topless bathing suit down a runway and no one would look up. This season is no different, if you assume a rather liberal interpretation of what constitutes young and edgy. Stephen Sprouse, who’s been around since the Warhol days and has a comeback every couple of years (two summers ago he made graffiti-printed patriotic flip-flops for Target), presented T-shirts and hats at the Diesel store on 14th Street. It is against the policy of this column to review T-shirts, but the multi-colored striped stocking caps can be had, right now, for $50.

Another veteran strutting his stuff the first night of Fashion Week was Jeremy Scott, a Kansan who moved to Paris, made friends with Karl Lagerfeld, and is sort of fashion’s version of what Allen Ginsberg used to call a holy fool. Scott presented an elaborate series of tableaux vivants in the form of peep show booths with bad girls (and boys) writhing around inside. To give you a better idea: Most scenes employed a rubber penis. Though this was not, strictly speaking, a fashion show (no buyer from Saks is going to order that apron with the clear plastic porthole that flips up to reveal the wearer’s privates), it was certainly a crowd-pleaser, and since most real people have neither the means nor the intention of buying the stuff that’s shown on catwalks, what’s the diff? (Scott was not alone in his affection for smut: Pierrot, a knitwear designer with plenty of talent, put on a show inspired by ’70s porn flicks.)

It’s a long way from these dirty pretty things to Gary Graham, who offered heavy satin lingerie fabrics ruched, ruffled, and subtly embellished with those little garters usually employed in holding up stockings. At Dres, which the invitation said would be a salute to African leaders, the tribute included bare-breasted models, a huge hit with the crowds outside the plate glass windows of the Times Square studio where the show was held. (That crowd would also have loved Liz Collins‘s show, where the muse was Wonder Woman and one mannequin whipped off a cape to reveal a spangled Show World-worthy bikini.)

But perhaps the most puzzling show in these dark times was put on by Imitation of Christ, a house that has made a name for itself de- and then re-constructing thrift shop clothes. IOC’s shows have always had a thick layer of irony—the first took place in an East Village funeral parlor—and this one was also strange. It began with a lone woman in a short red jersey dress tap-dancing furiously to a recording of Shirley Temple singing about not eating spinach. The dancing lasted for a long, long time, so long that the audience began asking itself questions like, “Are we only going to get to see one dress?” “Are we meant to look at this one dress and question the whole stupid spectacle of fashion?”

But then, the tapping finally ceased, a 1930s movie filled a screen behind the stage, and a parade of models in Jean Harlow satin and Veronica Lake hairdos emerged. Guys in tuxes joined them; everyone sipped champagne. It was all, intentionally or not, an intensely white, straight, Republican fantasy, with the whole cast looking like ideal candidates for a country club with a reactionary admittance policy. (You waited in vain for two cocktail-swilling fellows to pair off, but no.) When the lights came up, a heap of gray-swathed bodies were visible in the corner, though whether they were exhausted backstage interns or intended as a comment on poverty just outside the country club gates was not readily apparent. Oh, the mysteries of fashion.