PART 1: FASHION IN THE 21ST CENTURY - 2001, a style odyssey

Will silver be the new black? Will Nasa take over from Gucci and Prada? In the first part of a new series on life in the 21st century, the editor-in-chief of French `Vogue' looks at what the smart set will be wearing at the dawn of the third millennium

We look to fashion for a coherent idea of who we are supposed to be. We look back on fashion to remember the context of the time. We expect fashion to deliver the clear cliche about its era: Victorian crinolines and stuffed shirts, flapper shifts and jazz, Sixties style, sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. Fashion exists to address three needs: the need to attract the opposite sex by loud, suggestive clothing; the need to signal one's status; the need to escape from the constraints of immutable selfhood by the delicious pleasures of wit, glitter, and absurdity. (This last function used to be entirely fulfilled by hats. The death of hats in the late Fifties allowed fashion suddenly to become fun. As England had been the last stronghold of hats, it was in England that the fun fashion started.)

The present, which in French is gloriously called "the dawn of the third millennium", was supposed to be all spacesuits and horrible helmets. Instead, it's chaos: revivals of every past possible, with a preponderance of transparent chiffon - a throwback to the years just after the French Revolution, when those who wore the wigs and panier dresses of the court of Louis XIV had been beheaded, and the new class of Incroyables and Merveilleuses paraded in the gardens of the Palais Royal, the women in transparent high-waisted shifts often worn wet to further delineate the sexual attributes.

You can't style-date the present by any single garment unless it's a look composed of judicious pink tulle bits over white cotton blouses worn with jeans and stilettos. Actresses dress for premieres to prove in various ingenious ways that they are not wearing any underwear at all. Hip-hop fashion has been for years clothes cut so large that entire families can live in one pair of jeans, and you can park the bike in the sweatshirt. What is the message and what will tomorrow bring?

The trouble started 17 years ago in Paris when the minister of culture decreed that fashion was an art. History of fashion became history of art. Fashion itself morphed into a form of personal art worship that has embraced the very commerce that it is supposed to be avoiding. Whereas in the Sixties young girls could go to the Portobello Road and come back with 1910 Paul Poiret coats and Madeleine Vionnet dresses for 10/6 (you needed a good eye, but it was possible), today young girls and famous young girl models buy perfectly hideous examples of bad mass-production clothes from the Seventies and wear them as if they were art. Or Poiret.

The past is always a source of inspiration, but as that past has become a) younger, and b) more full of mass-produced objects, the contents of flea markets and thrift stores have gone down in quality. Now, Sotheby's and Christie's hold regular auctions of designer clothing; things that you could have picked up in the resale shop three or four years ago. We are recycling and honouring the mistakes. We are worshipping not Mammon but Malvolio.

Fashion exists on two levels, symbolic and practical, and it is where these two meet that you can have the most fun. By clothing and accessorising the naked body you are sending signals about that body. Clothes are obvious, and so are accessories. Think only of the humble handbag as a symbol for the female reproductive organs, and the appeal of very tiny, tightly shut bags will be clear. As will the passion for enormous, bulging satchels. And wonder then about the current craze, for sloppy, open, satin-lined holdalls that do not close at all ...

The next few years promise certain definite developments both on the symbolic and the practical levels. The rise in the number of rich people coupled with the demise of fiddly, unwieldy crafts means that there will be more mass-produced luxury goods - carefully mass-produced, we're not talking uneven hems on viscose out of Third World sweatshops. A millennial alertness has already started a vogue for watches, a luxury that can be justified as necessary. And since steel watches are more difficult to produce than gold ones, they will rise in value. Thanks to technology we already have steel faces in tender hues of pink like rose wine, like flesh, like petals.

There will be an increasing vogue for the custom-made; in the US Levi's will make jeans to your own measurements, which arrive weeks later a little too big because you will have forgotten that even custom-made Levi's need to be washed before they can be worn. Practical considerations have already had their influence. The noxious, narcotic air in airplanes means that travellers can no longer wear good clothes for long journeys, as they will in their dazed state dribble all over them. Increased awareness of exercise has meant that millions of people have dressed for 20 years as if in training for a marathon. A transit strike in New York in 1980 forced legions of women to walk to work, for which they doffed their spike heels and donned the huge, white running shoes that fashion people wear today for both irony and comfort.

The next century might bring an increase in the use of boats and waterways, and a corresponding need for waterproof clothes. Boats are already a better way to get from from La Guardia airport to NYC, bus-boats are starting on the Thames and the Seine because of the congestion from wheeled vehicles. Fabric will become even more intelligent, and thereby shinier still, which will affect cut. It will have to repel water and dirt; anyone used to cooking while wearing jeans and using the jeans as a dishrag will know the nasty shock of wiping your wet hands on your suede skirt because you forgot you'd changed. French Vogue has extensively reported the invention of fabrics that cleanse, soothe, deodorise, change colour according to heat, stretch, remember their pleats, etc. Already no woman really wants to wear any garment made without Spandex or Lycra; even the house of Hermes, the luxury of luxuries, mixes stretch in with its cashmeres and silks.

Ideas can get so worn that they wear out. The overuse of structured jackets in the wake of Saint Laurent's seminal 20th-century silhouette cheapened the idea of structure and jackets themselves. Now the overuse of black as both a fashion statement and a way to hide the dirt and mix unrelated clothing has cheapened black so that it no longer looks sexy, only drab. The logical prediction for the 21st century is softly draped knitted clothing, mass-produced in a First World country and costing a fortune, made in bright colours, worn with steel watches with pink faces. What I can't predict is the transit strike, political movement, natural calamity, or mass frenzy that will suddenly make everyone want to wear spacesuits and horrible helmets.

Tomorrow: Robert Winston on sex and reproduction in the 21st century

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