Fashion & Style: `In among the sparkle-scattered sweetness, designers are drawing on a less ostentatious source: the American sportswear tradition'

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New season, new look? Not any more. If in times gone by the whole point of the twice-yearly collections was for one mood to be unceremoniously booted out by the next, preferably polar-opposite concern, that is the case no longer. In particular, fashion's love affair with vintage clothing and the rampant eclecticism that goes with it shows no real sign of abating. And with the bourgeois European silhouette and all its jolie madame embellishment continuing to dominate, it's almost as if minimalism never happened. Almost.

Because in among the candy-coloured, sparkle-scattered sweetness of it all, there is a more restrained mindset at play inspired by a less predictable vocabulary, although a time-honoured one nonetheless. Designers including Hussein Chalayan, Jil Sander, Helmut Lang and Emma Cook find inspiration from a rather less ostentatious source, that of the American sportswear tradition and its patron saint, Claire McCardell, in particular.

"Claire McCardell can rightly be called the founder of modern post-war fashion even though the name never became world currency as Dior's did," writes Colin McDowell in Fashion Today (Phaidon, pounds 24.95). That is hardly surprising. McCardell's most famous contribution to fashion was the 1942 "popover" dress, an entirely modest, utilitarian affair in the sort of cotton that was formerly the preserve of men's shirting. The popover dress boasted its own oven glove attached, and retailed in America for the princely sum of $6.95. Haute couture, it most certainly was not. Dior's finest moment? The entirely immodest and profligate New Look, a style that was entirely based on extravagance, on fashion whimsy over and above pragmatism.

If the response to this latter style was suitably hysterical, however - it is the stuff of fashion legend that women clamoured for copies the world over - it might well be argued that McCardell's more discreet contribution had the most far-reaching effect. "Unlike him [Dior], she [McCardell] was not backed by a billionaire industrialist," McDowell continues, "lacked the high advertising budget devoted to spreading the name of her house and, in common with most design houses at the time, had no publicity agent." Neither were McCardell's clothes anything like as attention-seeking as Dior's. Instead, they favoured functionality over frippery and were designed to help the wearer be active and independent. This was the first time that the concept of dressing to indulge the opposite sex was turned on its head, and women loved it.

"Fashion," McCardell's contemporary Elizabeth Hawes decreed in 1938, "is so shrouded in mystery, so far away and so foreign, so complicated and so boring when you understand its ways, that it has become a complete anachronism in modern life." Strong words, and ones that continue to strike a chord as yet another over-priced, beaded and embroidered Victorian- lingerie inspired slip dress/Belle De Jour pencil skirt/fashionable frump pussy-bow blouse comes down the catwalk as if it were the only one ever in the world.

In 1955, Time magazine remarked that while Parisian designs "complement the designer", McCardell's "complement the wearer". And while fashion, today a truly international beast, can no longer be compartmentalised in so parochial a fashion, the two very different approaches to dress continue to co-exist.

"The hardest thing to do in design for me is reduce ideas down," says Hussein Chalayan. "It's much harder to strip down than to add on. I do find it ridiculous to have lots of stuff going on on clothes." Jil Sander agrees, proclaiming: "Truly, it's more difficult to be subtle but it's the same old story, the fancier the richer, the richer, the more representative. Glossy representation is equated with a maximal aesthetic, an idea that comes directly from a fairy-tale as if we had never learnt anything from modernity."

In an age where even the average handbag comes weighed down by added tokens, this is a much-needed breath of fresh air.