In an unexpected way, the Lanvin collection by Alber Elbaz shown in Paris last fall summed up the Spring 2004 season with one delicate touch. It was not the series of silk charmeuse cocktail dresses that accomplished this feat. As lovely as they were, with their deft, intricate draping and saturated color, they lacked the whimsical innovation of his previous collections.

No, it was Elbaz’s choice of accessory: a sheer, gauzy scrap of lace uniquely shrouding each model’s face, articulating the mood of the season. Sexiness is about anticipation and mystery, not exhibitionism. True, with its cross between a blindfold and a twenties headwrap, this touch was gimmicky, a runway antic that would never see a department store shelf. But it was also an allusion to a kind of grown-up sexuality, one that relies on suggestion and individuality, rather than cleavage and midriffs. And this, in a time when J. Lo’s ass wins a separate slot on the perennially running VH1’s “100 Hottest Hotties,” constitutes innovation.

There was nothing uptight or puritanical about this new feeling. Designers like Rochas and Prada showed bustiers and bras that were intended to be worn peeking out from cut-out dresses and cardigans. Runways as diverse as Nina Ricci, Calvin Klein, and Alexander McQueen presented takes on lingerie as outerwear, with sheer, chiffon slip dresses, lace-trimmed satin camisoles, and bustiers layered over grey cotton t-shirts. McQueen, in fact, had one of the most exciting and influential shows of the season, basing his collection on the Depression-era dance marathons narrated in Horace McCoy’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Touching on many of the dominant trends of the season — dancewear, color, patterns, dresses and ornamentation — McQueen gave a truly innovative presentation that, though influenced by the past, was undeniably modern. After hours of rehearsals with choreographers, the models took to the wood-paneled stage in floor-length silver lame gowns with fishtail trains and fluttered sleeves, harlequin paneled dresses with cascades of ruffles streaming from the hips, and silk cocktail dresses with open fronts revealing built in bras. There were tromp l’oeil gowns, in which grey cotton t-shirts, pearl beading, and sheer chiffon were sewn to create the effect of layering in one, contained dress, and Flashdance-like ensembles of cotton bodysuits and leggings layered under lurex and chiffon dresses. These clothes were revealing, but slyly so, alluding to the skin and shapes beneath without actually showing them.

A sense of ease infused McQueen’s collection, one that other designers echoed. Flapper chic was rampant, as though the fashion world had had a collective wet dream about “The Great Gatsby.” Tom Ford at YSL, Marc Jacobs, Diane von Furstenberg, and Proenza Schouler all showed versions of a twenties-style dress, with drop waists, longer hemlines, and thin, draped fabrics. There were round-toed shoes with chunky heels and ankle straps that seemed a backlash against that nemesis of podiatry, the ubiquitous pointy-toed stiletto. In addition to his “Gatsby” references, Marc Jacobs presented a collection of pane velvet dresses, sheer ruffled mini skirts, and Liberty print sundresses, all in a muted palette. These were easy, unpretentious clothes, equally at home at a garden tea party or in a downtown lounge. Slouchy, cuffed pants draped from the hips, stopping either just above the ankle or at mid-calf. Marni and Luella Bartley also embraced this relaxed silhouette, with cropped, capelet-like jackets, fifties style circle skirts, boyfriend shirts, and loose, patterned cotton dresses. Their models looked languid, sexy and feminine.

Femininity itself was a major mantra of the spring collections. Perhaps influenced, in part, by the December release of “Mona Lisa Smile,” or a reaction to the seeming epidemic of thongs, plumber-worthy jeans, and push-up bras infecting the female population, designers reached a consensus that soft, flirty, often patterned looks were the order of the day (at least for the next six months). There was a psychedelic barrage of prints at Dolce and Gabbana, as the designers piled on mismatched floral tights, skirts and tops. Hussein Chalayan evoked the curtain dresses from “The Sound of Music” with his pale, domestic patterns, but through draping and gathering of fabric he gave them a cool sexuality Maria never would have attempted. At Prada, the patterns were reminiscent of postcards and old luggage stickers, dappling fifties circle skirts, shirtdresses, and scarves and often mixed with ombre and madras pieces. The Prada woman was a modern world traveler who crafted her wardrobe from the various items she picked up along the way.

This brings us to one of the most refreshing aspects of the spring shows: the emphasis on individuality. Even within each collection, there was a sense of variety. Instead of uniform makeup and hair for all the models, many shows, including Louis Vuitton, Anna Sui and Balenciaga, varied the looks from model to model, often allowing each girl’s specific features to dictate the choices. And though “the dress” was a key item for all collections, the sheer variety from which to choose — baby dolls, halternecks, retro fifties, flapper sheath, etc. — provide flattering options for almost any body type. When you consider it, isn’t part of being an adult coming to terms with your various strengths and weaknesses? Vogue seems to think so, having just put out its third annual Shape Issue, in which it provides style tips for thin, curvy, athletic, tall, petite and pregnant women (bet the Italian government wishes they could declare “pregnant” a body type). While there are, of course, crossovers between categories and most of the models are barely old enough to even become pregnant, it is still a step in the right direction. And the spring collections only made the task easier, by allowing women to express their individuality and sexuality without baring vast expanses of skin.

So with this plethora of options available, what is an easy way to tap into the spring 2004 mood? One quick, efficient possibility is a dress. Unlike skirts, tops and pants that require coordination, a dress is a one-step outfit. Florals are predominant this season, but for the pattern-shy, there are always bright colors (yellow was a favorite at Anna Sui, Nina Ricci and YSL), pastels and even nude khaki. A jacket is another good investment, as it can be worn everyday. Renditions of the Chanel classic tweed absorbed the attention of designers like Luella Bartley and Donna Karan and trench coats were also common, appearing in almost every incarnation from the classic khaki to bright gold.

The collection of Perry Ellis, designed by the newly installed Patrick Robinson, offers a selection of some of the season’s best items — trench coats, silky, ruffled tops, full, printed skirts — at prices ranging from $60-$250, providing an inexpensive way to test-drive the new, grown-up sexuality. True, a circle skirt probably won’t get you play at Toad’s (but then again, do you really need a designer to tell you how to do that?). And, at times, this restrained femininity can be a bit jarring. A demure, covered up Paris Hilton on the March cover of Elle was arguably more shocking than her infamous sex video.

But in the end, these spring collections, beginning with Elbaz’s gimmick, offer up a lesson in how to be an attractive, confident adult and it is one worth acknowledging. As the Lanvin show drew to a close, out strode the legendary Linda Evangelista in a gold evening coat. Unlike the other models in the show, her face seemed bare, showing little trace of the sheer black lace shrouding. No matter. At almost twice the age of the other girls and with a two-decade modeling career under her belt, it’s likely she has already learned that lesson.