The news is both good and bad for bargain-hungry consumers these days.

The slow holiday shopping season means all the more fashion merchandise on January sale racks, but the sluggish economy has caused retail stores to pare down inventories and limit choices in colors and sizes.And as everyone knows who has a scarcely worn green-lined magenta jacket or rabbit-trimmed boots that beat bamboo on the torture scale, markdowns don't always mean good buys.

The trick is to shop sales for contemporary looks that fit into your wardrobe for seasons to come.

For some, it may not matter. It is the age of personal style, when women who dress with a certain elan look more appealing than those with store-bought chic.

Because the economy is down and clothing prices are high, significant fashion changes evolve at a glacial pace. In short, fewer looks are likely to be out of style and even if something looks a bit quaint, such as, say, a piano shawl or velvet knickers, you can pass yourself off as eccentric.

But if feeling a part of the clan is important to you, pass up passing fads or soon-to-be outmoded looks. Now may be the time to experiment.

Venture into the men's departments for big cotton shirts and oversize jackets for tights or stirrup pants, spiffy sweater vests or silk ties that will work as belts.

OK, so maybe you can't or won't wear short skirts, but do resolve not to go home with oversize, ankle-sweeping skirts resembling those in "Little Women." Skirts that hit an inch or two below the knees should be shortened at least to the knees.

Prices are expected to be up on spring clothes, and that's a good reason to invest in cottons, sweaters and shirts, as well as silk blouses.

The issues are not always clear cut. A blouse with too many ruffles looks excessive now that simple tailored shirts have the clout, but ruffles are surfacing again.

Oversize silhouettes such as the big sweater over a big skirt are dated; roomy or tent tops over narrow pants or skirts are more modern.

Unless you're a diehard preppy, skip the simple Shetland or Shaker knit sweaters for something with a bit more pizazz. At the same time, you can always use basic cashmeres and good wools.

Sweat shirts and warm-up suits for anything other than emergencies and workouts are not on the chic list. Anoraks and other garments inspired by outdoor sports are.

Long denim skirts may be comfortable, but they look old hat. Katharine Hepburn trousers are classics, but pass up excessively wide pants for daytime. Narrow is more in favor.

The psychedelic Pucci prints came and went in 1990. Floral prints are safer for post-Pucci era.

Go easy on the stirrup pants. They're so widespread now they may have a short life span. Leggings and tights and even catsuits are in the spring catalogs and collections so they'll be around.

Long shoulder duster earrings are on the wane in favor of large buttons. Chemise and tent tops are in front ranks. So are city shorts that can be worn even on winter days with heavy tights and long jackets.

Short full skirts are beginning to surface. So are baby doll dresses. Who knows why?

Metallics are still in the game, but be cautious; try your Midas touch with just a belt or embroidered lapel.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service