Let's see now: What to wear for tonight's special occasion? Shall we don actress Daryl Hannah's gorgeously jeweled G-string, set off by an unobtrusive backdrop of floor-length crinoline? Too cheeky? Then what about the Big Bird bonanza of trailing tail that brought out the essence of Geena Davis at the Oscars (see page 104)? Everyone's seen it? Well, how about luscious La Toya's wild West bordello ensemble (page 90)? Something that only a Jackson could love?

It is one of the unceasing wonders of modern civilization that real live people actually wear such rigs in public. Eye-popping they may be. One of a kind, yes. But fashion? Absolument non. Let's face it: Only in Hollywood would the annual flaunting of famous faces in god-awful garb be considered haute. For unlike many major socialites, many major stars show near zero taste. (On the other hand, if the major star also happens to be a major socialite, taste stands a good chance of triumphing: Kate Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Candice Bergen.... However, we digress.)

Some stars, of course, like Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John, can get away with murderous excess. Sometimes, too, outré designs can embolden certain artistic careers; in other words, peculiar outfits may at times serve a purpose, as in the case of someone like Prince. Still, the fact that this year so few celebrities dressed with intelligence—or flair—is perplexing.

Indeed, so varied and resonant are this year's entries in the annals of style that it is astonishing how few adjectives adequately describe them. Repugnant might do in a pinch. Also confused. Women wore demure little buns, à la Ivana Trump, atop their heads and unveiled less demure little buns elsewhere. Normally tasteful Barbara Walters appeared at one Manhattan party so swathed in crimson that she looked like a cherry tomato with legs. Meanwhile, other ripe dressers (we're including Cher in this category) suited up as bikers. Nor was Cher alone in the stampede to rawhide. Model Naomi Campbell wore chaps. Cyndi Lauper and Jennifer Flavin—to name but two—sported outfits that could be obtained only by mugging a dominatrix.

All told, 1992 wasn't at all sure where it wanted to go, so it went retro, which is as safe a bet as the girdle (only uglier). Youth wore platform shoes: the same toe-deforming, calf-crippling platforms that were worn by a different set of youth about two decades ago. Hemlines—like the stock market—rose and plunged and then waffled.

Old hat, you say? Not exactly. Previous stabs at fashion retro have at least had the decency to wait a few generations, until all former wearers were very likely dead (or at least too doddering to recall how dowdy they looked years earlier in the same garb). But 1992 showed no such delicacy. The First Lady's fake pearls—first cousin to the baubles worn by Mrs. Cleaver—resumed their stranglehold on dull little sweater sets from the early '60s. Woodstock hippie-dipped back. Slob slobbered anew on everyone from grunge rockers to such stars as Nick Nolte and Keanu Reeves—on whom ripped jeans and other déjà vu oddities are intended to give the wearer the very recherché appearance of poverty, with none of its well-known inconveniences.

If you were clever—and seeking higher office—the wisest move was to avoid treacherous new fashion trends entirely and, as style arbiters are always advising us, Just Be Yourself. Sensing this, and realizing they could get good mileage out of their clean-cut, baby boomer looks, running mates Bill Clinton and Al Gore were often seen doing just that, in casual running gear. George Bush also dressed déclassé whenever possible, even appearing at his daughter's wedding in the hopelessly mixed metaphor of striped pants and a cowboy shirt. In a rare display of bipartisan spirit, both sides were also spotted wearing the AIDS ribbon, that ubiquitous accessory of '92, as well as the message-emblazoned T-shirts that proliferated like mushrooms in recent months.

"Overall, it's been a very difficult year for people to buy clothes," concedes New York City designer Vera Wang, with the kind of understatement missing from the actual clothes themselves. The creator of ice skater Nancy Kerrigan's billowing Olympian frock, as well as of foaming oceans of bridal wear, Wang nonetheless holds steely views about the biz: "I don't think this has been an incredible year. I think it's been comical, wild. A lot of animal prints. How many women are going to wear leopard-skin tights?"

You'd be amazed how many, in this era of animal rights and ecofests. Put it this way: If you're green, you preen. Prominent society designers got jungle fever: "I found that all the animal prints were very, very successful, especially a particular zebra print," reports Arnold Scaasi, whose own line of zebra managed to stray far from the veld onto an evening coat lined with mink.

Mixed with ecological profusion was ecological collusion. Floating around posh stores in New York City and Beverly Hills were skimpy antistress garments made of peculiar blends like carbon and Lycra. The creations of Tunisian-born designer Azzedine Alaïa, they are designed to repel the electromagnetic rays coming out of your wicked microwave oven (or whatever)—and, no doubt, make you feel exceptionally laid-back about the $1,000-plus you shelled out for a teensy slip of a dress.

Of course the true back-to-nature award this year must go to Demi Moore, elegant in paint-and-that's-about-it. "Frankly, I'm not too interested in seeing more nudity," moans designer Wang. She is, however, virtually alone in her views. Cover girl Monika Schnarre draped herself only last April in the nearest thing to a slice of shower curtain, and Hervé Léger inaugurated the bandage dress, a decided misnomer for a garment too small to cover scrapes or cuts.

Paradoxically, the only people who seemed to dress with real restraint in '92 were a) small children and b) seriously unconventional types. Impeccable murderer John Gotti arrived in court each day dressed to kill in severely tailored suits of a European cut—until he was forced to switch to prison overalls. It is equally noteworthy that former Clinton pal Gennifer Flowers faced the nation not in black patterned hose and breast tassles but in a good Republican red-cloth jacket and a discreet, if short, black skirt.

Fortunately for stargazers everywhere, there were a few celebs who, contrary to this year's fashion inanities, managed to conserve some sense of honest-to-goodness style. Among those on the short list: Audrey Hepburn, always and forever, because she was born with it; Annette Bening, for wearing basic black instead of, say, basic breasts; Jodie Foster, because she's the only person who appears to understand that the Oscars are not handed out on Halloween. Like the other stylistic winners of the year, all three have figured out who they are, and their wardrobes mirror the nature of their discoveries. Or, as designer Bruce Oldfield sagely observes, "Style is the outward embodiment of your own thoughts about yourself."

Consider, then, the thoughts of Axl Rose as he pierced his nipple. Of Fergie, who went topless with some twerp kissing her toes. Or reflect on Jackie O's stylistic transports, which are, as ever, right on the money.