FASHION / The beauties of the blue

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WORKWEAR in its purest form has nothing to do with fashion, which is perhaps why it has become a constant in most people's wardrobes and a never-ending source of inspiration to designers. This summer, it's the turn of the Chinese worksuit, the boxy jacket and wide-legged trousers which represented the ultimate in utility clothing in communist China. Designed to cross boundaries of sex and age, it eliminated any of the nuances of fashion. Strange, then, that it should become a fashion icon in itself.

The severity of the Mao suit has been softened for the high street; the trousers and jacket are worn separately and mixed with fluid, feminine pieces that have nothing to do with China or with working clothes. Somewhere in the translation, it has become this summer's most elegant look.

In China, the jacket and trousers usually come in indigo cotton (a close relative of the bleu de travails French labourers have worn for centuries). The fashion versions, of course, are altogether more refined. Ralph Lauren has designed a deep-blue 'work' jacket of finest wool which, at pounds 820, hardly qualifies as utility wear. It probably doesn't wash as well as the Chairman's original, either.

Julia Woodham-Smith, founder of the mail order company Wealth of Nations, introduced a collection of traditional Chinese clothing in washed silk last year. She says, 'There has been complete Chinese fever this year and everyone has been crazy for the silk collection.' Though the clothes are made in China, from traditional patterns, they look modern.

The Wealth of Nations collection includes a ma kwa, a centre-fastening jacket with knot and loop fastenings, and fu, loose drawstring trousers. There is also a more traditional cotton worksuit made in Beijing and two new cotton/linen suits with Mao or mandarin collars for men and women for autumn.

So this is less about being anti-fashion and utilitarian than about simplicity. And although you might find the real thing in your local Chinatown for a fraction of the price, a luxury version of the ma kwa jacket in heavy silk can add an edge to a long white tennis dress as well as being comfortable and

innately elegant.

(Photographs omitted)