Michael Thomas' signature blood-red sheath was already a stunner.
But for the North Philadelphia designer's fall 2012 version, he played with peplums, adding a structured 9-inch wide ruffle along the dress' narrow waistline, ramping up the drama, and giving the simple shift a super-sexy silhouette.
"It just transformed it," Thomas said about the dress he named Michelle, after the first lady. It is one of 20 pieces in Thomas' custom line Faithful by Michael Thomas.
"It's very, very clean on the body. It's clean to the eye. It adds sexuality."
Whether the look is Max Azria bohemian, Tory Burch casual tailored, or Tracy Reese girly-girlish, nearly every designer on American and European runways sprinkled one or two peplums into their fall collection.
"A beautiful peplum can elevate your denim," said Donna Sandoz, owner of the women's boutique Primadonna in Marlton, like pairing a peplumed blazer with boyfriend jeans. "When you wear a peplum, your waist is always highlighted no matter what size you are, and it makes you feel pretty."
Although the colors this fall are bold and electric - saturated turquoises and aubergines, wines and olives - the clothing is refined and inspired by menswear.
The high-waisted pencil skirt is a key piece, as is the shrunken-lapel jacket.
Skinny pants are a strong part of the scene. Fashioned from soft corduroys and plush velvets, the britches are stylish in monochrome tones and prints. But wide-legged pants are in style, too, especially when worn with ballet flats, and a collarless leather jacket or vest can be a spunky wardrobe addition. The basic sheath is around to stay as well, some with ultra-slimming tuxedo detailing.
But all of these masculine looks can be freshened up, fashionistas say, with a figure-flattering peplum.
"It updates the slim pencil skirt, it updates dresses, trousers, sweaters, and vests," said Catherine Moellering, executive vice president of fashion and retail trend-watcher the Tobe Report. Peplums had all but disappeared from our wardrobes, so they will definitely drive sales of new clothes this fall, she said.
"It's the one feminine flourish that lends a heightened sense of femininity without being overly girly."
At a time when cellphones, tablets, and GPS are as much a part of our routines as putting on our underwear, it's not surprising that we might try to conjure up simpler times through our wardrobes.
And thanks to the incessant Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest images flashing before our iPhones, we are constantly exposed to the looks of yesteryear.
But which years? The mixed-media pieces from the Roaring Twenties are now just as desirable as the more rigid suiting from the 1940s. The mod minimalism of the 1960s is considered chic, as are 1970s bohemian and 1980s shoulder pads.
Our fashion sense is influenced more by classic images - think Lucille Ball in a polka-dot coatdress pinned on Pinterest - than by the J.Crew catalog that lands in our mailboxes.
But today's peplums don't have to be worn with hose and hats. They feature details like top stitching and ruching. Some are placed on a diagonal; others are asymmetrical. The coolest are ones fashioned of a fabric different from the rest of the garment. These peplums made of feathers, tassels, or fur often offer a soft transition to a crisply tailored piece.
New York designer Shauntele Richardson can't explain why she added the faux-fur flap to her ebony poly-wool-blend jacket. She just started sketching and ended up with an A-line coat featuring an elongated peplum, and the Promenade is one of the best-selling items from her womenswear line Shauntele.
The manufacturers "thought I was crazy," Richardson said. "They said it wasn't going to lay flat, it was going to be too wide.
"I just liked it. It reminded me of classic clothing. I was looking at a French painter who used a lot of fur in his work. It just felt appropriate."
The word peplum comes from peplos, a tubular gown that gathered around the waist that was worn by women in ancient Greece.
Peplums entered women's fashion around 1866 as accessories. They attached to waist belts to accentuate the backside when corsets were the shapewear of the moment.
In the 1940s, Christian Dior pushed peplums' rise to runway popularity by putting them on his clean pencil-skirt suits worn by Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, and Bette Davis.
In the 1980s, peplums made a comeback, giving shoulder-padded power suits even more edge; Elizabeth Taylor was a big fan.
We saw peplums pop up again on the runways in spring 2012, and by fall, favorites from Zac Posen and Jason Wu to Nanette Lepore were using the detail to give fashion-forward looks a coveted vintage feel.
"I think women are just ready to celebrate their curves," said Eric Becker, who works with his mother, Donna, at Primadonna. And if they're not crazy about some of those curves, peplums can camouflage tummy pooches, he said.
"The style is relaxed a bit and the peplums are more creative, but women have always turned to peplums as a way of being taken seriously and having a feminine look."
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.