Dress for action

Burn those frills. Chuck out the pink. It's back to wartime utility wear with a difference - time for Civilian Clothing 1998.
This time last year, the shops were brimming with lacy slip dresses, embroidered cardigans, frilly edges and floaty fabrics. The buzz-words were "pretty", "romantic", "feminine" and "sweet". It was enough to make a grown woman retch but, somehow, fashion had decreed that we all wanted to look girly-girly and as sweet as sugared almonds.

Quite why any grown woman would want to look like a little princess dressed prettily in pink is a mystery. As it was, there was little else to buy in the shops, and we didn't have much choice. Not surprising, then, that this autumn there has been a complete U-turn. Suburban Stepford Wives are out (thank the fashion gods) and urban Tank Girls are in. The last few remnants of shades of pink and beaded fabrics are being crowded out of the rails by a relentless army of grey, khaki, Velcro, zips and rugged drawstrings. As is so often the case with fashion, we have gone from one extreme to another. Khaki is the new pink; utility clothing is on the march.

Paul Sexton and Talita Zoe, owners of the influential Covent Garden store Koh Samui, saw the backlash against frills coming last spring and they ordered their collections for this autumn accordingly. "The feminine thing all got a bit too much," says Sexton. The new season's collections are much more pared-down and basic in shape.

At Spirit, the one-stop fashion emporium on the ground floor of Selfridges in London, the labels include Red or Dead, Warehouse, Diesel and Miss Selfridge. The shop floor is a microcosm of high streets up and down the country and from one rail to the next, the story is the same. At Diesel, there are Army jackets, fatigue pants, hooded fleece tops, nylon zip jackets, sweat tops, and body-warmers with practical pockets. Lots of them. There are reflective fabrics, so that you will be seen in the dark. These clothes are tough, hard-wearing and thoroughly practical. Warehouse has a whole utility collection with Army bags selling at pounds 20, and well cut Army green moleskin drawstring combat pants for pounds 60.

Upstairs at Selfridges, there is a whole area dedicated to the new Virgin label, not designed by Richard Branson. Far better, however, to buy the British unisex label YMC which, since it was launched in 1996, has been key to the look that will be remembered as "so Nineties". Kenneth Mackenzie's label 6876 is for men who don't like fuss or branding, and his talents have been secured by Caterpillar, the boot people, who have seen the niche for a clothing label designed with the same philosophy as their footwear. His first collection for Caterpillar will be available in autumn 1999.

Urban utility sportswear has been an underlying trend throughout the Nineties. When the Japanese chain Muji opened in London in 1991, its greatest selling-point was the lack of branding and logos. A mug was a mug. A grey cotton vest was a grey cotton vest. And a pair of sweat pants was a pair of sweat pants. It was all so uncomplicated. Muji has just opened its latest shop in the UK and the expanded clothing range has never looked so right. There is not a frill or an unnecessary detail in sight, whether the product in question is a pair of trousers or a teapot. The denim aprons worn by the shop assistants are the look of autumn/winter '98.

At the same time as Muji was sweeping through the fashion-conscious conscience, Massimo Osti was developing his own labels specialising in low-branded, functional clothing for men and women, after his success with the menswear brand Stone Island, and a small design team in London called Vexed Generation was setting up shop in London's Newburgh Street. Both Osti and Vexed Generation were exploring hi-tech clothing using industrial fabrics, with an eye on urban survival as well as fashion credibility. Army uniforms and industrial workwear formed the basis of their designs. Often, the clothing's functions and implied political statements - built-in anti-pollution masks, bullet and radiation proof fabrics - far outperformed the everyday needs of the average customer. But the influence of both Massimo Osti and Vexed Generation on mainstream fashion this autumn has been phenomenal.

It takes a great hike of the imagination to make a link between the uncompromising extremes of Vexed Generation and the comfort and safety of Marks & Spencer. But such is the current obsession with utility clothing and functional sportswear that the M&S design team has taken note. There are silver reflective Puffa jackets, dresses, rucksacks, tops and body-warmers, all made out of fleece and complete with rugged zips, drawstrings and hoods; no-logo trainers in reflective silver and red; and lots of Army pockets, even on a pair of khaki sweat pants adapted from the ubiquitous fatigue pants that have become the Nineties answer to jeans. The look has even been developed into childrenswear.

Likewise Prada, the Italian luxury fashion brand. When Miuccia Prada moved the family company from bags and leather goods into fashion in the early Nineties, the clothes were stark, minimal and reminiscent of Army uniforms. This autumn, Prada has moved into the sportswear market with a Sport line that includes chunky trainer shoes with rugged Velcro fastenings, balaclava hoods, reflective anoraks and heavy-duty nylon rucksacks. Fabrics include stainproof nylon waterproofed with Teflon, waterproofed wool, Scotchguard-coated nylon gabardine, and windproof, arctic fleeces.

The last time fashion was so useful was in the Forties, when the government launched the Utility Clothing Mark. The letters CC41 (Civilian Clothing 1941) were crudely stamped on to clothes that were deemed practical and frugal enough to be produced in wartime Britain. As Colin McDowell writes in his book Forties Fashion and the New Look, "it was the nearest thing to a civilian uniform in the history of dress." More than 50 years on, the world may be on the brink of recession but it is relatively at peace. There is little need for utility restrictions in clothing. Indeed, although the style and shapes of these clothes may be close to a uniform, the fabrics used are anything but stringent or economical.

But then, if you want utility clothes at utility prices, you can get the look from your local Army & Navy or from a well stocked camping store.

Caption: Main picture

Fleece top, pounds 60, canvas body warmer, pounds 70, work trousers, pounds 44, and cap, pounds 25, all by Caterpillar (0171-722 2132)

Above from left to right

Crinkle cotton army green `Lanto' jacket, pounds 140, by Diesel (0171-833 2255)

Wool boiler suit, pounds 135, by The Edge from Jigsaw Menswear (0171-499 2521)

T-shirt, pounds 14, and cargo skirt, pounds 28, both by Gap, Long Acre, London WC2 and branches nationwide