02/26/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
Back before threadbare jeans and microminis became high style in Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn set a much emulated standard of elegance with the simple shift dresses she wore in Sabrina. Forty years later, decorum-minded designers have brought those collarless, sleeveless body-skimmers back, with Princess Diana, Elizabeth Hurley and Marisa Tomei among the frocks' biggest fans. "Shifts are very feminine," says William Beranek, whose William B dresses are worn by the likes of Sharon Stone, Cameron Diaz
and Brooke Shields
. Adds Los Angeles designer Tom Mark, who counts Tori Spelling
, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Baywatch's Yasmine Bleeth as customers: "Shifts are sexy without being obvious. They prove you don't have to wear a dress cut down to your navel to be alluring."
Having outlived such conservative-chic counterparts as knee-length skirts and skinny belts, the shift is currently hitting stores in everything from chartreuse shantung to floral-printed polyester. "It is a major shape for spring—women love the simplicity, versatility and fabrics," says Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale's fashion director. Jennifer Tilly, for one, says shifts are "great for showing off your biceps." And they're perfect for those days when she's feeling, well, a little shiftless. "I throw one on when I'm overwhelmed WL by the stuff in my closet," she says. "All you do is match the shoes and bag, and you're ready to go."