Fashion: Damage limitation

Skintight clamdiggers, sheer tops, skimpy dresses - this summer's styles can be less than flattering unless worn with humour and panache.
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Some things in fashion are given. A cropped trouser leg worn by anyone other than those blessed with the proportions of Naomi Campbell looks dumpy. Wearing a skirt over trousers - far from disguising self- conscious bottoms, as popular mythology would have it - may only add to the girth. Flesh-coloured underwear worn under sheer shirts doesn't look like flesh, and won't fool anyone male or female: the world will be exposed to an in-your-face view of your smalls and will probably just laugh. And slip dresses - be they halterneck or spaghetti strapped, long or short - are only recommended for the very young and very thin and, even then, preferably only on the beach.

All of which is pretty calamitous news for those of us with a yen to be achingly of the moment this season. Because the new trouser length is indeed cropped; skirts worn over trousers - the overworked modern-day equivalent of tying a sweater round your waist - remain irritatingly de rigueur; sheer fabrics, like it or not, are here to stay; while the apron dress has superseded the slip - and is debatably less substantial.

Damage limitation, then, is the key to this season's dressing - that and a hefty sense of humour. After all, if you want to keep up with the trends, whatever the havoc they may wreak on your body's proportions, don't make the mistake of taking them too seriously - be bright, breezy and brazen about it. Think Club Tropicana meets Saint Tropez, all at high- street prices. Don't even contemplate forking out a small fortune on a pair of immaculately tailored trousers or a designer slip of a dress where these particular items are concerned. The good news for the consumer (and the bad news for the retailer) is that with summer sales figures still on the decrease, price cuts are starting early, and many more directional pieces may be picked up for a snip of their original price.

First up then, in a summer fraught with potential disaster, are cropped trousers which, unfortunately, look set to carry through to the autumn. These come in various shapes and sizes. The first is a wide-legged crop which is, frankly, cruel. Wide-legged trousers are flatteringly louche if they puddle on the floor, but cut off mid-calf they are likely to make your legs look like nothing more than, well, reasonably well-established oak trees - and with ankles to match. It's a shape that might look great on the runway, but that's only when worn with sky-high heels and low-slung on models' snake hips. The rest of us are far more likely to look like we've had a nasty accident with the temperature settings of our weekly wash.

Pedalpushers (sorry, clamdiggers), similarly, have destroyed many a perfectly well-formed woman, squashing their bottoms in a thoroughly ungainly fashion, creating sausage-shaped thighs and then, just to add insult to injury, brutally interrupting the length of the leg to achieve that Spice Girl meets Blackadder effect.

The best way to incorporate this particular trend is, therefore, to opt for a Capri pant - longer than a pedalpusher, and narrow without clinging to the shape of the leg too closely. If a silhouette's good enough for Audrey Hepburn, after all... Oh, and also like Audrey, wear them with flats - disco dolly is certainly not the look you are after. Next comes the skirt over trousers combo - after all, why wear one perfectly adequate and functional piece of clothing when you can wear two? Sadly, this look is now so firmly established that there are those on the high street who have simply attached a miniskirt to the waistband of trousers - which is rather missing the point.

The point, for those unaware of such things, is layering. To this end, take the trend back to its far softer and prettier ethnic roots. Make sure the trousers are long to add length to the leg, and then wrap a knee- length sari skirt around it, the finer the better, so as not to add weight to your bottom half and to break up the solidity of what is all too often a clumsy silhouette.

And what of that hoary old chestnut, the sheer shirt? Season after season, designers, many of them - quite surprisingly - female, send out one slither of chiffon after another, and the high street is only too quick to respond. This leaves most of us scratching our fashion-weary heads wondering just how to wear it.

The answer - unless you are prepared to take out a mortgage on a brilliantly subtle sweet nothing by chiffon queen Alberta Ferretti - is to do so with more front than Brighton. Be loud and proud and don't even care. Gone are the days when underwear was meant to be strictly functional and never be seen - the humble bra strap peeks out of many a fashionable frock or vest-top these days. If your shirt is bright turquoise, your bra could be contrasting pink, red or even lime, just as long as it's none of the colours normally associated with underwear.

Beware, too, of the waterfall frill collar. If you're anything more than a size A cup and the neckline of your new shirt is high, you're likely to look puffed up like an erotically charged pigeon - keep it V-necked and plunging.

And so, finally, to the apron dress, which looks so very pretty in the pages of the glossy magazines, gracing perfect, honey-coloured, sun-kissed skin. When it comes to harsh reality, however, that skin will have to be cared for: dry, blotchy and/or sunburnt skin is best covered up, leaving more to the imagination. The best - and worst - thing about this particular design is that it comes off in a flash. On the beach, it therefore makes a far more imaginative alternative to the sea of sarongs currently flooding the international coastlines. In town, however, it only takes one prankster to yank on your ties and - hey presto! - you're left standing there starkers on your local high street with nothing but your shopping bags to keep modesty intact.

You have been warned.

Top left: trousers, pounds 28, from Top Shop nationwide, 0800-731 8284; T-shirt, pounds 55, by Jet, from Whistles, selected stores, 0171-487 4484; sunglasses, pounds 20, from Blackout II, 51 Endell Street, WC2, 0171-240 5006. Top right: sheer top, pounds 25, by Bluenile, 0181-442 8917; bra, pounds 8.99, New Look, stores nationwide, 0500 454 094; sunglasses, from Black Out II, as before. Above: apron dress, pounds 22.99, by Soft Grey, from La Redoute, mail order 0500 777 777; bikini top, pounds 15 (part of a set), from Miss Selfridge nationwide, 0181-910 1375. Left: jeans, pounds 60, by Diesel, 43 Earlham Street, London WC2, 0171-833 2255; sari skirt, pounds 55, from Ad Hoc, 38a Kensington Church Street, London W8, 0171-938 1664; ribbon-edged camisole, pounds 30, by Warehouse, 0171-278 3491; desert boots, pounds 55, by Clarks nationwide, 0990 785 886