Fashion: And God created gingham

Brigitte Bardot put the cheeky into the checks. This time round they're not only sexy, they're cool, too. By Rebecca Lowthorpe
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The Independent Culture
Don't you turn up your nose. Gingham, redolent of tablecloths and pinnies, twitching cottage curtains and apple pie, is the star of some classic movies. Remember the wholesome Doris Day, whose cleaner-than- clean image would not have been complete without her sweet gingham frocks? Even in the film Calamity Jane - as the rip-snortin', gun-totin' cowgirl - what was supposed to be a racy role (she had an affair with Wild Bill Hickok) was tempered somewhat by her starched gingham shirt, knotted at the waist. Less whip-crack-away, and much more whipped cream.

And then there was cutie-pie Judy Garland, skipping down the yellow brick road in her blue-and-white gingham dress, complete with petticoat, puff sleeves, pinny and ruby slippers - the picture of innocence.

It wasn't until a pouting young French actress came along in the Fifties that gingham was finally given a major dose of sex appeal. Brigitte Bardot gave the fabric new appeal when, as a nubile, kittenish nymphet, she wrapped herself up in the most virginal of checked cloths. Bardot pioneered the sexy gingham look, first when she was photographed in that famous frilly gingham bikini, then when she married for the second time and wore a pastel- pink gingham dress with a scoop neck, nipped waist and three-quarter-length sleeves. Both looks were instantly adopted by women the world over.

Apart from the occasional sightings of Bardot around her stomping ground on the French Riviera in cute Capri pants and bosom-enhancing bra tops, the sweet checked fabric didn't really resurface - unless you count school uniforms, gym bags, oven gloves and chef's trousers - for quite some time.

Fashionably speaking, it finally re-emerged when Comme des Garcons got hold of the fabric three seasons ago. Pastel- pink-and-blue sheath dresses blew gingham's sugar-coated image out of prairie land, particularly as they came complete with weird lumps and bumps on hips and shoulders. This was more Quasimodo than Anne of Green Gables - conceptual, intellectual and pushing the great traditions of fashion forward. Suffice to say, where the cerebral Rei Kawakubo leads, others will surely follow, although it takes longer than just one season for more mainstream designers to catch on.

The spring/summer catwalks held the key to gingham's revamped image. The first sign of enlightenment was issued by Paul Smith, who had the smart idea of turning black-and-white checks into a clever shirt dress (it looks like a dress from behind but like a shirt worn with a skirt from the front). No frills in sight - just a simple, wearable dress. Then, no-fuss Nicole Farhi sent out a batch of sleek-as-you-like skirts, pencil trousers and zip-through jackets.

Even Antonio Berardi played with gingham - the baby variety, in minuscule black-and-white checks. Simple modernity not being his thing, Berardi put it into some seriously sexy dresses and tailoring instead - perfect for any modern-day Bardot.

Gingham has, dare I say it, even become cool. You only have to look at these pictures to get a sense of its new-found hipness. When the 101-year- old British company TM Lewin, the renowned Jermyn Street shirtmaker, thought to update its fusty old image and take its women's shirts into the next century, what fabric do you think it came up with? Gingham, of course. What better place to start looking for a crisp summer shirt, or several of them since they are available in rainbow-coloured checks, everything from lilac and red to mint green and fuchsia. They cost from pounds 49-pounds 60 and you don't even have to visit the Jermyn Street store - simply phone for a mail-order catalogue or visit TM Lewin's website (www.tmlewin.co.uk).

Not surprisingly, the whole high street is at it. French Connection, Warehouse, Oasis, Top Shop et al are all doing their bit to prove that tiny checks can be ultra-modern, ultra-desirable even. There are, however, a few signposts to follow if you want to make gingham work for you. Be warned that a red-and-white checked ensemble may make you look like you had nothing clean to put on in the morning and were obliged to whip off the tablecloth on your way out the door. So it is essential to stick to a neatly cut, strappy summer dress, such as the one by French Connection (pictured above).

Equally, don't get carried away and wear the look head to toe, unless you want to run the risk of being drawn like a pair of curtains. And make sure you buy an up-to-the-minute, streamlined shape - anything overblown, with frills and flounces, and you could be mistaken for Laura Ingles in Little House on the Prairie.

Now that gingham has cast off its sickly sweetness once and for all, we suggest you get into some small but perfectly formed checks, before it has yet another Calamity Jane identity crisis.

Lilac short-sleeved gingham shirt, pounds 30, by Warehouse, 19-21 Argyll Street, London W1, and 92-96 Argyle Street, Glasgow (enquiries 0171-278 3491). Lime green floral dress, pounds 225, by Mark Whitaker, from Koh Samui, 65 Monmouth Street, London WC2 (enquiries 0171-2404280). Pink gingham high heels, pounds 45, by Faith, 192- 194 Oxford Street, London W1, (enquiries 0800 289297)

Black-and-white gingham shirt dress, pounds 180, by Paul Smith, 40-44 Floral Street, London WC2 (enquiries 0171-379 7133)

Photographer: Anna Stevenson

Stylist: Holly Wood

Hair: James Mooney at Paul Windel using Bumble & Bumble

Make-up: Firyal Arneil at Julie Bramwell

Model: Colette C at Select

Shot at James English Studio

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