Forget mannish suits and trousers for spring; designers in New York are predicting that the newly discovered dress - sweet, short and feminine - is the most important garment of the season.

Many are as bare as bathing suits, some are as short, and the colors are lovely. Styles vary from straight shifts to fuller chemises, shirtwaists, A-lines, trapezes, tent dresses, babydolls and bubbles, but most are more feminine than in past seasons when sportswear pieces made more businesslike statements.The prettiest dresses are the painterly white chiffons imprinted with stark winter trees, or the Miro-, Matisse- and Cubist-inspired shifts of 22-year-old Christian Francis Roth, an imaginative newcomer. His "dollar bill" dresses, with the U.S. greenback imprinted on chiffon and wrapped around the body, make a tongue-in-cheek statement about our priorities and the economy.

Other knockout dresses are Carmelo Pomodoro's "flirt dresses," very full but belted silk gazar in violet over aqua, and Oscar de la Renta's chrome-yellow dress with a tiered, flounced back that looks like a bustle. His bubble skirts, on the other hand, should be kept out of the stores; they make everyone's lower half look like a basketball.

Here are some trends that surfaced at the American design shows held in New York a few weeks ago.

- Bright colors to chase away the recessionary blues are one of spring's strongest trends. "We'll give the consumer color; what else can we do in this troubled economy?" said designer Carolyne Roehm, who is president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Roehm's awning-striped chemises in sunny shades of orange and red and her Empire waist babydoll dresses in apple green and hot pink are happy enough. Oscar de la Renta's diaphanous silk organza ruffle-collar dress in lilac, gold and green flower-print looks like a floating rainbow.

- Bare backs. The halter has never been so strong. Ralph Lauren's sexy-but-ladylike racerback crepe evening dresses are gems. Cut-outs in dresses, sweaters, even in Michael Kors' red bodysuit, leave most of the back exposed. This of course is a difficult look for the office, but many of the halter dresses come with jackets.

- Plastic. Not credit cards, but rather, fabric and trims. Kors' "tiddlywink" trousers are covered in hanging colored discs that look like the game pieces. Raincoats, thigh-high like the dresses, are made in one form or another of synthetic fiber, usually in clear, see-through plastic. Gordon Henderson calls his trench coats "cellophane" coats. The prettiest ones have rhinestone sparkles sprinkled on. Also, you'll see more black patent-leather raincoats than shoes come spring.

- Shorts and rompers. Short shorts are being shown as the bottom to suits. Henderson's "boxer" shorts are so short they'll be banned unless he ships them with enough fabric to fully cover the rear end. His was a sexy collection.

- Wood bead trim in a natural color. Ralph Lauren's evening tank tops are striped in wooden bugle beads and black sequins and worn with straight black trousers for a fresh evening look. Kors' chemise dress is covered in round wood beads in the manner of that penny candy we used to eat off strips of paper.

- Glitter in the daytime. Touches of gold or colored beads are everywhere. Eleanor Brenner's pretty blue broadcloth shirt has a subtle check running through it made of blue glitter beads.

- Glitter at night. The beaded T-shirt dress is important. From Adrienne Vittadini's short-sleeved beaded T-shirt to de la Renta's pearl-encrusted strapless evening dresses, the bumpier the fabric, the better.

- Retro looks. Fifties and '60s capri, palazzo and patio pants and flyaway topper coats. At Perry Ellis, '50s cap-sleeved popovers with stand-up collars over skinny cropped pants are evident; and at Norma Kamali, flared-leg pants in an even more exaggerated version than those of the '70s. The only midcalf hemlines here are Betsey Johnson's '50s dresses worn over capri pants in what she calls "Loretta Young" clothes.