Fashion: The Style Police: A suit that suits

Fashion has called time on tailored jackets. So what is a working woman to do now? James Sherwood to the rescue

LAST SEASON, Style Police pondered the death of the tailored jacket. We came to the conclusion that the jacket was to working women what Margaret Thatcher is to Tories: no longer supremely powerful or significant but still a damned sight more effective than the mediocrities trying to take her place. But for autumn/winter, the jacket is as redundant as ice cream in a blizzard.

Women's reluctance to lose the jacket has thrown the proportions of fashion completely. With a maxi skirt, the sharp-shouldered, single-breasted jacket looks too Forties retro. With the knife pleated skirt it looks like the Eurostar stewardess uniform. Even with the on-the-knee pencil skirt, a tailored jacket detracts from the sexiness of the length. Try it with herringbone slouch pants and tailored tweed jackets and the look is lesbian Oxford don.

The writing was scrawled on the wall when Karl Lagerfeld reinvented the Chanel suit for autumn/winter. OK, so we know he's made a career out of reinventing the Chanel suit, but be patient. In black boucle wool with Chanel's signature white piped detail, the skirt fell to ankle length and the jacket shrank to a crop cardigan proportion with no discernible buttons and very little structure. It's a hybrid of the cardigan and coat. Meanwhile Prada have taken the jacket to knee length in bright red wool with a Peter Pan collar, and just about every Stateside designer is streamlining sportswear parkas and puffas into work wear. We're even seeing the kimono- cut jacket by Armani, tied at the waist with no collars, cuffs or buttons.

Working women have learnt their lessons from last summer's flesh fest. It was all spaghetti straps, crop cardis and short-sleeve tees. Wear all the above with a cardigan and you'll be mistaken for a temp. Put a serious jacket over pretty little slips and you look as if you've forgotten to put your skirt on. The designers have had to address the middle ground: professional without looking granite-tough, feminine without looking Lolita.

Looking at the shows for spring/summer 99, you'd find it easier to spot a Yeti than a tailored jacket as we know it. The shape may remain, but the stuffing has been totally knocked-out of the button-front jacket.

So where does this leave the working woman? There is an undeniable dynamism and dash to a zip-front jacket. There's a confidence in a woman who can wear the kimono-cut wrap jacket and still command a meeting. The Eighties saw the end of the skirt or pant two-piece built like a suit of armour. But don't stand in front of your walk-in wardrobe and weep. Instead, take half an hour out to look at Emporio Armani and the maestro will tell you how to finesse this frightening shift. There is always one designer who can decode the often confusing messages on the catwalk. Armani is the king of soft tailoring. Use him as your guideline. No buttons, no sharp collars and no hard shoulders. Abide by those rules and it's an open season.

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