The Irritations of Modern Life: 35. Urban chic

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The Independent Culture
WALKING DOWN the street the other day, I did a double-take. Had the war spread to central London? A blonde babe wearing camouflage combat trousers and a fleece jacket was talking into her mobile phone, looking more Kosovo than Bond Street. A couple of Soho film producers in bright yellow Prada Gore-Tex jackets looked like they should be putting out a fire rather than enjoying a business lunch.

Urban utility wear, which started out as an anti-fashion statement reserved for the loved-up E generation, has come out of the trip-hop clubs and on to the catwalk. Cutting-edge fashion designers have gone Pac-a-Mac crazy. For its spring collection, Prada sent models down the catwalk in neoprene walking skirts and trekking boots, and those sometime purveyors of sophisticated style, Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren, have gone cagoule mad. Instead of smart jackets and lacy cardigans, it's Millets meets army surplus store.

Otherwise sensible girls with perfect hair and make-up swan around the Met Bar, China White's and other trendy watering holes in sleeveless Puffa jackets and shapeless track pants looking as if they're about to attend a militant feminist meeting rather than giggle and drink champagne.

What's happened to good old sex-on-legs clothing? Oh, you remember: plunging necklines and stockings from Agent Provocateur begging to be torn off in a frenzy of sexual desire? Am I the only Nineties chick without anything with storm flaps or a goose-down lining?

Of course, my hip sisters will say, I am missing the point. Nike walking boots and North Face Puffa jackets are not about denying one's sexuality, they say: it expresses the post-feminist nonchalant attitude to dressing. The modern urban chick is relaxed about her sexuality; she doesn't need to display her wares in an overtly sexual manner. Why teeter on stilettos when you can slouch in a pair of Birkenstocks?

Clothing to me means sexual power. On the Continent, no self-respecting woman would be seen without her figure-enhancing tailleur or four-inch heels. To her, part of being a woman is about dressing up and creating glamour.

Of course, unisex dressing is nothing new; women have been adopting male clothing since the Twenties when Coco Chanel encouraged women to wear loose-fitting trousers. But these were feminine and fluid, and flattered the female form. Similarly, the militant feminists of the Seventies swanned around with a copy of The Female Eunuch, dressed in mannish suits with wide-lapelled shirts and waistcoats (remember Charlie's Angels?). The aim was to reconstruct male clothing to show the female form to advantage.

I am not advocating a return to the prim and proper Fifties, when a woman's only assets were her petite waistline and cordon bleu cooking skills. But Girl Power is not just about the choice to wear what you want, but to be, you know, a girl.