01/13/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
"These dresses are pure fantasy," says designer Jane Booke of Empire gowns, those high-waisted, low-cut frocks that suddenly have celebs—including Nicole Kidman
, Courtney Love and Mariah Carey
—looking ready-made for Masterpiece Theatre. Recently revived in Hollywood both onscreen (Emma, Sense and Sensibility) and off, the diaphanous creations are "classic, elegant and timeless," says Unsolved Mysteries' correspondent Keely Shaye Smith, currently expecting a baby with beau Pierce Brosnan. "They're very flattering to a woman's shape, whether she's a perfect size 6—or eight months pregnant like I am now."
Not that going Napoleonic can't be sexy. "Empire dresses are quietly indecent," says Hollywood fashion stylist Chaim Magnum, whose clients include Cybill's Alicia Witt and Melrose Place's Lisa Rinna. "They're fantastic because they press the breasts out. It gives that push-up look." Adds Anita Austin, co-owner of Los Angeles' trendy Les Habitudes boutique, a fave of Andie MacDowell and Patricia Arquette: "Women are really drawn to this dress because it's so flattering and romantic. It's soft and sensuous." Best of all is the look's one-step magic. "You put it on, and it just works," says Booke, whose Empires adorn Maria Shriver, Nicollette Sheridan and Touched by an Angel's Roma Downey. "You can go from street urchin to princess in a flash."