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Conversation overheard last week between two female commuters:


“I’m so excited, we’re going to see `Sex and the City’ - you should come,” says the first.


“When does it open?” asks the other.


“May 30th.”


“May 30th???!! The way everybody’s going on about it I thought it was just about to open. Do you think it’s any good?”


“Oh, no - not as good as the TV show.”


“I guess I’ll go. I just want to go to see all those clothes on a big screen.”


FASHION B.C. (BEFORE CARRIE) Have there been other Carrie Bradshaws through history? Sure, says Barnard University historian Caroline Weber. Marie Antoinette: The “first fashion media icon the Western world has ever known,” Weber says. Alas, her quirky Carrieness was “so scandalous for a woman expected to be a Charlotte that she was accused of being a Samantha.” Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire: Marie’s Brit gal-pal with similar `tude (and ancestress of Princess Di). Marie Helene de Rothschild: Surrealist patron whose 1970s balls were the perfect place to wear your bloody stag headdress crying diamond tears (for real). Princess Diana: Papers with Di on the cover regularly sold out. Why? We had to know exactly what she was wearing. Don Johnson: Stop laughing. “Miami Vice” spawned Sonny Crockett wannabes with stubble, linen suits, pastel tees. Macy’s opened special sections to feed the appetite. “It’s one recent moment when American men really wanted to be trendy,” Weber says.

For anyone not packing a Y chromosome - and even for some who are - “SATC” is the most hotly anticipated film of the summer season. The big-screen follow-up to the HBO series boasts the show’s big draws: Sarah Jessica Parker and Co.; clever, candid, at-a-clip banter; the loving depiction of New York (the Central Park reservoir, Chinatown and the public library get cameos). But the mortar holding all these charming bricks together, the thing that mesmerized TV audiences from 1998 to 2004 - and that keeps the chopped-up, dubbed-clean, late-night, edited reruns at least somewhat watchable - is quite simply:


Clothes, clothes, clothes.


Not since “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” has a film, and its fans, been so associated with a “look.” Fans identify by category - are you a Carrie (quirky chic), a Charlotte (traditional), a Miranda (businesslike) or Samantha (red hot)? Fashion is such an integral part of the “SATC” brand that the mere act of seeing the film is becoming a fashion event.


“I’m already planning my outfit,” says Genevieve Ascencio (a Carrie, she admits), who’s seeing the film opening night in Brooklyn. Ascencio, a publicist at the Manhattan firm Factory, decided there’s no reason those “Star Wars” fanatics should have all the fun. She knows lots of others, she says, who’ll be styled for the multiplex. Her outfit? A Club Monaco parachute skirt, 3.1 Phillip Lim tank, Donna Karan vintage belt - and Manolo Blahnik stilettos, natch. “They’re fierce and oddly comfortable,” she says.


Carrie, no doubt, would approve.


The Manolo-jonesing heroine played by Sarah Jessica Parker with romping, romantic appeal (and a wicked, gymnastic brow) became a role model for millions of women, even though most could never afford her designer duds.


“The show became a cultural touchstone because it reminded women every week that clothing could be about more than looking pretty,” says Caroline Weber, an associate professor at Barnard University and author of “Queen of Fashion,” a biography of Marie Antoinette. “It could be about expressing crazy, creative whims, or making yourself into a completely different character every time you walked into your closet.”


The film revives that spirit with a warehouse worth of costumes from top designers. A wedding-gown montage flaunts labels such as Vera Wang, Carolina Herrera, Lanvin, Dior. Christian Lacroix dazzles with scads of pearls, Oscar de la Renta with a spicy red flowered number and Vivienne Westwood with a mountain of sculpted taffeta and satin.


There are Fendi handbags, Robert Marc sunglasses, Fred Leighton bling. And, of course, shoes. Not just the TV series’ standbys (Manolos, Jimmy Choos and Christian Louboutin - the latter being on the receiving end of Carrie’s famous line, “Hello, lover”). The film spreads the love to brands such as Stuart Weitzman and Dior, whose Extreme gladiator sandals get so much play one expects Russell Crowe to ride in on his chariot.


When the TV series established this love affair with fashion, it was a far cry from shows such as “Friends.” Sure, that cast of pretty urbanites sparked the occasional trend (remember Rachel’s haircut?), but the wardrobes are ordinary, Weber says.


Some series, such as “Dynasty,” have inspired viewers, notes Sally Singer, Vogue’s fashion news-features director. “No doubt many women (took) cues from Linda Evans and Joan Collins. But their characters weren’t interested in fashion,” Singer says.


In the past 20 years, she points out, consumers have become far more educated about designers and clothing. Web sites such as style.com parse runway trends. Bloggers babble about red-carpet looks. It’s all part of this pre-millennial cardinal shift that’s made us (for better or worse) more label-conscious, media-savvy and gaga for anything gourmet. Carrie & Co. were the first on television to embrace the new lifestyle. And talk about it.


“Oh, honey, it’s not so much the style,” Samantha once said about an Hermes Birkin bag, “It’s what carrying it means.”


“It means you’re out 4,000 bucks,” Carrie replied.


The characters also consumed fashion “in a familiar way,” Singer says. They shopped. “I can’t think of another show where shopping is so central. Possibly `Gossip Girls.’”


These days, shopping can be a political act, suggests designer Westwood, whose dramatic wedding gown appears in the film. “To have a choice is political in an age of conformity. It allows people to discriminate ... rather than just sucking up rubbish.”


If “SATC” is famous for anything, it’s for validating women’s choices, no matter how “out there” (think Carrie’s wardrobe or Samantha’s hypersexual agenda). Weber misses the show. It inspired “a lot more daring style choices from young women,” she says. “Since it’s been off the air, fashion’s become boring again.”


Then came Parker’s flowerpot hat - by Philip Treacy - that she wore to the “SATC” premiere in London this month. Weber is encouraged.


“I’m hoping for a revival of flowerpot hats,” Weber adds. “I can’t tell you how many e-mails I’ve already had from my friends saying, `I want that hat.’ For a fashion optimist like me, the `SATC’ movie represents a moment when fashion can start becoming a little wacky again.”

Tagged as: sex and the city
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