Off the catwalk and into the office

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The Independent Culture
What will you be wearing in the office next summer? If you've been keeping even half an eye on the media coverage of London Fashion Week you're probably beginning to feel just a little uneasy about your working wardrobe for next spring. Is there an alternative to sheer? Yes, says Belinda Morris, in the form of sharp or slouchy tailoring and feminine suits

It isn't that you're remotely prudish, and you know exactly where the designers are coming from but ... what was there for working girls? In their enthusiasm to keep the creative kettle on the boil, and the international buyers as excited as ever about the wit and wonder of British fashion talent, one or two designers accidentally forgot to give the models bras (and sometimes even knickers) to wear when they brazened on to London's catwalks in jauntily unbuttoned jackets and bottom- skimming skirts - and naturally these were the pictures that some newspaper editors chose to print. No wonder you're worried.

But don't despair. For there, discreetly tucked away, was a healthy sprinkling of clothes that should pass muster in most offices. In a nutshell, executive dressing next summer can be distilled into two distinct moods: masculine and feminine. But within those general confines are a number of possibilities from the dead sharp to the dead relaxed. And a bit of judicious cross-fertilisation of silhouettes, fabrics and accessories can create looks that are more individual than mannered. If you want to wear two threads of Lurex craftily fashioned into a boob tube under your pinstripe suit, then go for it girl.

In a rare but welcome fit of constancy, the fickle world of fashion says that autumn's trend for mannish tailoring will not disappear. Either sharply- cut or softly slouchy jackets, usually single-breasted, are undeniably masculine in spirit, but manage to say serious and sensual at the same time - it depends how you wear it. Forget the white shirt and dark tie. The best interpretations (depending on your viewpoint and office dress code) are either pared-down with simple T-shirts and fine knits or in- your-face sassy - think fitted waistcoats, sashes, frills and sequins.

For both looks fabrics are strictly boardroom, though occasionally with a twist. Pinstripes, chalk stripes, Prince of Wales checks and crepes in ultra-lightweight wools are reassuringly dark black, charcoal, navy, brown - but for an added frisson these strayed from the norm.

Not suitable for every office, perhaps, but linen leads the mood away from obviously synthetic cloths and when mixed with fibres like Tencel becomes slightly more crease-resistant. It is also an obvious medium for the big easy look - in particular Betty Jackson's graded and chalk-striped linen trouser suits.

To some extent the choice of trousers dictates the precise essence of the masculine look, and we're talking an either/or situation here. Either narrow and sexy, or full and still sexy. This is where the line between masculine and feminine becomes blurred. Both shapes tend to be flat-fronted and can be hip-slung, but while the latter unforgiving trend continues (sorry) there's also a swing back to a higher waistband.

Another prevailing catwalk trend was to send every model, whatever she was wearing, teetering down the catwalk in strappy stilettos. It perpetuated the glamorous, provocative, 1970s/80s mood that underscored many collections (lots of wide, angular shoulderlines and broad, peaked lapels), but for the sake of practicality (like running for a bus) sensible flatties, such as the black men's brogues used by Sonja Nuttall for her urban and effortlessly understated, monochromatic tailoring, would be a sensible option.

Heels are a must, however, for the skirt suit, the unquestionably feminine option for the office wardrobe next season. This new take on the 1980s power dressing story is much prettier or raunchier than before. Here jackets are more shapely, often nipped-in to emphasise curves, and accompany pencil skirts snug enough to put a Marilyn Monroe-like wiggle in any walk. Lengths varied - short, very short and belt - but no doubt common sense will prevail when the order books come out (very few showed matching knickers). One or two (Bella Freud and Vivienne Westwood's Red Label notably) kindly included calf-lengths but length was often accompanied by thigh-high splits.

If your hips aren't up to such constrictions, the gently A-lined shape is still around for next summer and looks newest when asymmetrically wrapped around or when incorporating vents or box pleats. Shift dresses are a clean, modern alternative to the suit and can be worn with coats of the same length or slightly shorter.

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