Up tight : FASHION

Just when you thought fashion was comfortable, the tight pencil-line sk irt is back - and so are stilettos. Annalisa Barbieri tried out the look with d ifficulty
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As an impressionable child I watched a film called The Bare- foot Contessa. In one scene, Ava Gardner does a devastatingly sexy dance with a gypsy boy. She wears a pencil skirt, wide belt, tight sweater and heels. This simple outfit was stunning a nd inspiring; Gardner was all woman and proud of it, with no naked flesh necessary to underline the point. I naively thought that when I grew up I, too, would suddenly slip on this mantle of womanhood and become like Ava.

Sadly, this never happened, and while women may have dressed like that in the Forties and Fifties, today we prefer comfort to a look that amounts to sartorial bondage. But fashion would now have us return to the days when women were glamorous but still slightly prim. The spring/summer '95 catwalks were full of pencil skirts, twinsets and stilettos that added up to what vaguely approximated to the Miss Moneypenny look. The high street, ever quick to catch on, has followed suit. (Helena Christiansen likedthe Dorothy Perkins pencil skirt she wore for their ad campaign so much, she kept it).

Sure, it looks great on the catwalk, but does it work in life? This was what I was attempting to find out when, over 48 hours, I road-tested this latest fashion offering and became the woman I had always wanted to be.

I had two skirts to play with: one black and knee-length from Top Shop, the other also black but some 2in below knee-level and couture, made for me by Olney Originals. My stiletto heels consisted of two pairs of the ridiculously high - slingbacks from Faith and patent dolly shoes from Shelly's - and one pair of medium-high Ann Demeulemeester brogues.

Day one. My mission was to act as my father's secretary. For this I wore the Top Shop skirt, crisp white blouse, sheer tights (de rigueur), and Faith sling-backs. I scraped back my hair, put on my glasses and carried an envelope briefcase. The walk to the tube took 30 minutes, instead of the jaunty 15 it takes me in my biker boots. I felt instantly vulnerable. This is not an outfit that lends itself to a quick getaway, and were I a mugger I would assault a woman wearing a tight skirt and heels over one wearing trousers and flatties any day. I certainly got more looks than usual, but that could have been because I was treading with minefield caution; the pavement was icy.

The tube journey was a nightmare. It was a case of either standing and clinging on for dear life, or sitting and stoically keeping my knees together. Still, my father thought I looked very smart, although the heels were too high. A business associate of his asked if I could organise coffee, a request accompanied by a hand on my bottom. I had forgotten that there are a minority of men who think dressing like this is some sort of sartorial code-word for "Please touch my bottom, I shan't mind." This is where I discovered that stilettos have other uses .

By the end of the day I was exhausted and fed up. People were treating me differently. I seemed to be either invisible (for anything more complicated than ordering refreshments) or desperately needed (for ordering refreshments). I was also becoming violent towards the man who seemed to have made buttock massage his new raison d'etre. Back home I instantly changed into long johns and thick socks. Having been cosseted all their life in desert boots, my feet now hated me. Heels and sheer stockings may be sexy, but they chill your legs to corned-beef.

Day two. Here, I thought, I would interpret the catwalk look to suit me a little more, as all sane people should. So I wore my couture skirt, cream twinset, belt, gorgeous lace hold-ups (Elbeo, £6.50) and Demeulemeester brogue stilettos. I felt more comfortable, although my skirt cut my stride to some 6in. My schedule was thus: shopping, going to the supermarket, walking past a building site, travelling by bus, a visit to the library, and, finally, dinner at a friend's house.

With fake-fur-trimmed gloves and my mother's Hermes Kelly bag I visited The White House, the swanky store on New Bond Street (where two days previously I had been totally ignored). This time things were different. Doors were opened, "good morning madams"followed in my wake. I felt powerful and sexy. I was instantly served in shops where normally I have to hit assistants on the back of the head with my ruck sack to get any attention. (This is where a Hermes handbag helps: it screams "I have money to throw at you.")

The supermarket yielded no anecdotes, although driving there in stilettos was an experience. Remarkably, even though I walked slow-mo past the building site, nothing happened. But then this is sexy dressing at its subtlest. I did get chatted up in the library, however, by a man who said I looked "intense". Thus, in an act of sheer masochism, I boarded the top deck of a bus, negotiating the steps by inventing a quaint jump/hop combo. Very noisy and not very lady-like.

The best bit was the dinner, where there were people I had never met before. For this, I changed into my Shelly's patent needle-heeled stilettos for this (instant day-to-evening transformation). As I sank into the very low sofa I realised that this outfit required a radical change in the way I sat on soft furnishings (women 40 years ago never flopped but rather perched). Getting off the couch needed a run-up of several mad rocking movements and sitting down was no better - it involved strong thigh muscles taking the strain until about a foot from landing, when I had to go into free-fall mode.

The conversation was punctuated with sly glances at my shoes. In fact, one man addressed my shoes instead of my face with the same fervour with which some misguided souls talk to a girl's chest. Then something ironic happened. The television was switchedon and Equinox was running a programme on paraphiliacs. Showing a pair of shoes very similar to mine, it explained that people who were into such shoe furniture were very kinky indeed. The dinner guest with the shoe fetish listened, eyes shi ning. I hadto break cover and explain that this was just an experiment. His eyes dulled.

My 48 hours were up and I realised that dressing like a woman is hard work. It's fine if you travel by taxi, but not otherwise recommended for daily use. For those keen to take up the catwalk looks, I have compiled a few handy hints.

1. Make sure your pencil skirt is lined. This not only makes it hang better but the lining makes a great noise against stockings. 2. Make sure the stride enables you to get on and off a bus (avoid the top deck, people will think you are drunk) or tube train.You don't want to have to jump on. 3. Grooves on tube train floors were invented to wrestle your stilettos from your feet.

4. Make sure the nail on your heel has not worn through. This turns wearing stilettos into roller-blading. 5. Carry spare hosiery. Nothing looks worse than laddered tights when you're trying to look chic and unruffled. 6. Try to ensure that any form of upward mechanical transport is working at tube stations, to avoid having to climb 194 steps. ! WHERE TO BUY THE SKIRTS: Versace main line, prices start at £1,200 for complete suit in pastel linen and thin wool. Gianni Versace Boutique, 36 Old Bond Street, London W1; Istante pencil skirts in shiny pastels start at £150 from Versace Collections, The Italian Centre, 162 Ingram Street, Glasgow; Marie Claire, 138 New Bond Street, W1.

Gucci has a huge selection from £250 for one in ebony twill to £900 for red suede; Gucci, 33 Old Bond Street, W1.

Miss Selfridge (£24.99), Top Shop (£19.99), Warehouse (£29.99) and Dorothy Perkins (£14.99) all have good high street interpretations at stores nationwide.

Joseph have well-made pieces in gabardine and glazed linen from £90-£105, at 26 Sloane Street, SW1.

Agnes B has a particularly good selection in a variety of colours and fabrics from £48, at Floral Street, WC1 and Fulham Road, SW3.

Vivienne Westwood has super-tight offerings, starting at £80 in gabardine, mohair and cotton suiting in various colours, at 6 Davies Street, W1 and 430 Kings Road, SW10.

If you're more human-shaped, or simply like things to fit perfectly, consider having one made for you by a couturier. Prices vary, but Annalisa Barbieri's, in venetian wool, cost £140 including fabric from Olney Originals ( 0234 241440).

WHERE TO BUY THE STILETTOS: Faith, from £49.99, branches nationwide; Shelly's, from £34.99, mail order (081 450 0066). Russell & Bromley, from £89.50, branches nationwide.

Robert Clergerie's metal-heeled versions start at £229, to order (071 935 3601).

Jimmy Choo has a wide range of styles that he can make up in the size and fabric of your choice; prices start at £200 and it takes about two weeks (071 249 2082).