Fashion: The Style Police - For pretty's sake

In spring, a young fashion designer's thoughts turn to florals and lace and other potentially twee things. Restrain yourself, advises James Sherwood
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What a washout the Golden Globes were this year. Style Police couldn't see the frocks for the condensation caused by Gwyneth Paltrow's heart-felt tears. Paltrow - all lachrymose face and baby blonde hair - looked almost saintly.

Gwyneth set Style Police thinking about pretty. There is little doubt that fashion is peddling pretty as something new for spring - demure Victorian lace-trimmed blouses, cutesy embroideries breaking out like a rash on denim and a full-on return to floral Liberty prints. At first we wondered why. Women surely don't want artsy-crafty cuteness as we hurtle towards 2000 in pearlised leather-go-faster stripes. The answer came as if from the Oracle of Delphi. Women may want pretty but they don't want pretty obvious. We're contemplating that knife-edge on which sexy and pretty pirouette.

This week, Woman's Hour matriarch Jenni Murray rightly said: "Fashion is politics, reflecting the changes in what women are and aren't allowed to be." We need more women like Murray on the front row at the catwalk shows. A fashion editor would see Yves Saint Laurent's pinstripe couture suit over a bow bandeau top and twitter on about the new femininity underlined by razor-sharp tailoring. Murray saw said suit and read it as an important statement: "Me Tarzan and Jane".

Fashion is politics. By bringing back an element of pretty, fashion is telling women pretty can be powerful. Sugar-coated pretty, a la Paltrow, is too obvious. But pretty mixed with sexy and urban just about sums up where women are at in 1999.

When you want to know where the women who understand the power of contemporary clothes are heading, you go to Susie Faux at Wardrobe for fashion straight- talking. "Pretty to me means sugary, and women just don't want it," says Faux. "But there's something so appealing about the half tones this spring: a hint of blue, a hint of pink, a hint of coral. Subtle works as opposed to frothy, pretty prints. You put on a print and it ages you by ten years. My definition of sexy and feminine is a fluid Richard Tyler Prince of Wales check pant suit with a single half-tone pink stripe and pink silk lining. It's not transparent prints."

Whatever your definition of pretty, it is a "story" if you care one iota for fashion. "You can look on prettiness as nothing more than the swing of the pendulum," says Woman's Journal editor Marcelle d'Argy Smith. "It got to the stage last season when you opened your wardrobe and you couldn't see anything. It was all black and grey. Frankly, every woman could have gone to a funeral wearing their office clothes. Like anything relating to women, action is underpinned by economics. They give women creches when they need us to work. They give us pretty when they need us to buy clothes. The pendulum swings and I find myself looking at a Joseph floral skirt and wanting to buy it. It looks appealing."

Extreme prettiness, rather like prints, is undeniably problematic (just ask Anna Sui), but extreme statements aren't going to be front-runners in the pretty offensive this spring. More relevant are the little touches of prettiness that hip kitties have already started to experiment with on the street: lace trim on the collar of a white shirt, blanket stitched hems on an asymmetric skirt or a sequin flower appliqued on to a patch pocket.

All the above are DIY pretty as practised by fashion chicks with too much time on their hands. The vogue for customising isn't so much pretty as twee. The thought of hip London girls stitching like Betsy Ross in Shoreditch attics is too disturbing for Style Police to contemplate.

So put down the macrame and let's talk about why and how pretty is going to work for us all this season. Susie Faux has got it in one about the half tone colours. Keep the cutesy but whisper pretty with smoky pastels. And make sure you keep the detail away from the clothes. If you're going to buy the pretty white shirt, then the detail is in a drawstring or a cap sleeve, not in piecrust lace on the collar.

The artisan touches are going to happen in accessories. As fashion's bona fide Oracle of Delphi, US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, says: "1999 is the year of the accessory." It's the embroidered scarf, beaded bag or topstitched mule that pretties up an outfit, not a floral print winding like poison ivy around your hips.

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