02/17/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
THOSE BODY-SKIMMING COLUMNS, THOSE bare shoulders and plunging backs, that air of understated elegance—the 16th annual Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards had an unsung muse, and it was Mrs. JFK Jr. As 2,500 attendees swooped into New York City's Lincoln Center for the Oscars of couture, dress after dress echoed the sleek lines of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's famous wedding frock. Wearers included Sharon Stone, Iman and ER's Julianna Margulies, who felt "like a princess" in a silk chiffon column by Carolyn's own designer Narciso Rodriguez. There was just one problem with the new shape: the danger of tripping over one's train, especially after quaffing bubbly supplied by sponsor Dom Pérignon. "What you do," laughed Donna Karan-clad actress Maria Conchita Alonso, "is just grab your tail. It looks feminine and elegant—and nobody gets hurt."
Bessette Kennedy was present only in spirit, but the Feb. 3 ceremonies did boast a genuine First Lady, Barbara Bush, who drew much applause as she bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award on her favorite clothier, Arnold Scaasi. Top menswear honoree Ralph Lauren, meanwhile, was a favorite among such attendees as George Stephanopoulos and Today's Matt Lauer. Yet Chris O'Donnell, though recently engaged, declined to make a fashion commitment. "I wear mostly Ralph Lauren," he confided, "but I wear a lot of Nike too."