From body armour to tough leathers, menswear designers found their fighting spirit at the winter shows – and City-boy style was finally slain, says Adam Welch

The male ego has taken a battering in the past year. All those testosterone-fuelled, risk-ridden investments, oh dear – they seemed like such a brilliant idea at the time, but now the City's hot-shots have had to hang up their suits and limp sadly home. It's a time of uncertainty, of introspection, a time for life-changing decisions. In other words, time for a serious wardrobe overhaul.

Last year's staid, perfect-for-the-office power-suits seem a cruel joke now. What everyone was looking for at the menswear shows in Paris and Milan was something new, clothes that were wearable, comforting and not too ostentatious. Did the designers deliver? Well, they certainly tried.

Loewe's creative director, Stuart Vevers, summed up the mood this season when he said: "I felt like you had to think more. You had to be more clever and think about what was appropriate."

The most noticeable stab at appropriateness for winter 2009 was in the colours, or rather, the lack of them. Gloomy blacks and greys predominated, with almost entirely monochrome collections from Prada, Burberry Prorsum and Kris Van Assche. Thankfully, most designers worked inventively within their muted palettes. Louis Vuitton fielded informal outfits designed for easy travel, with fun, bright trainers designed by hip-hop fashionista (and tireless front-row pouter) Kanye West. Vevers' collection for Loewe was all about what he called "comfortable loucheness", and featured overdyed colours and unstructured, cosy cashmere trench coats. In several collections, including those from Loewe and Yves Saint Laurent (a typically exotic collection of gaping pea-coats and three-quarter length trousers), clothes were styled loosely and sexily, with knits and jackets worn over bare skin.

Mess was the rule rather than the exception, even in Cerruti's fairly conservative formalwear: shirts untucked, ties conspicuously absent. In many collections, leggings replaced trousers. Kenzo's thin jerseys and knitted long-johns riffed on the idea of bringing intimate male garments to the outdoor world, while Yohji Yamamoto recklessly paired pyjamas with suit jackets and styled boxer shorts over trousers.

Though that City boy staple, the pinstripe suit, was declared well and truly dead in last December's Tatler, its spectre hovered over the catwalks in some tongue-in-cheek reinventions. Comme des Garçons' pinstripes were mashed together with tweed and leopard prints, and paired with girly buckle-pumps. At Raf Simons pinstripes were combined with trashy trainers and neoprene boleros. The pinstriped trousers at Burberry had a second-hand feel, as scruffy, cloth-capped models wore them with mismatching blazers and pointedly chav-tastic Burberry print scarves.

Disordered minds and dissipated funds were also reflected in laddered fabrics and make-and-mend garments. Number (N)ine showed unravelling knitwear and ruched frock-coats, while Missoni's dizzying knits looked as if they'd been sewn together from a box of remnants. At Martin Margiela, clothes were marked with wine stains and peeling effects, while Gareth Pugh ripped jeans to the point of no return.

As a flipside to all this disarray, some houses went on an uneasy defensive, with severe, hard looks providing a brave front. Miuccia Prada fielded simple ensembles in grey and black that included leather T-shirts and minimal, lapel-less jackets. It was an uncompromising collection, yet the soft shoulders and rounded shoes also had an appealing air of vulnerability that wasn't quite exorcised by the armour-like studs dotted protectively over coats, trousers and shoes.

Similarly, Jil Sander's striking new hourglass silhouette was as graphically forceful as they come, yet in its high, womanly waistlines, curved shoulders and ape-like dangling sleeves it both undermined and over-exaggerated the natural shape of the male body. Alexander McQueen took his man to a darker place, with ghoulish red eye make-up, buckled knits, hulking shoulders and walking sticks creating a series of Victorian villains.

A recurring idea that promised warmth and comfort for next winter was quilting. Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani had a spat about whose idea it was originally to show quilted trousers, but the truth was that everyone was getting down with down, from Dries Van Noten with his stuffed grey peacoat, to Thom Browne in the ski tailoring of his Moncler Gamme Bleu line.

Other attempts at soothing the bruised male psyche had mixed results. Adam Kimmel's functional workwear made a lot of sense with its thick corduroys and comfortingly patriotic stars-and-stripes knitwear. The fantastic Lanvin collection – high-waisted trenches, shimmery chiffon shirts, knitted caps, hiking boots – was typically dishevelled, but finished optimistically, as a smiling Obama lookalike led the models out for the curtain call. Nostalgia was a less successful comfort: Dior Homme revisited the good times of the Eighties (and the not-so-good times of 2006's slogan T-shirt trend) while Jean Paul Gaultier mixed references to Mods, disco kids and old-fashioned family outings with slightly baffling results.

Ultimately, the most wearable collections came from houses that retained a good grasp on the essence of their brand, and offered something understated but positive. Gucci showed a solid collection of party gear that will sit easily on the bodies of its rich, slim clientele; Paul Smith's quirky tailoring in sandy browns and tans with high-intensity reds was also casual, fun and not too over the top; Hermès stuck to its luxury guns with some casual but opulent ensembles, accented by flashes of red and yellow. Nothing was too ostentatious, yet a crocodile suede trench coat showed that the house still means business when it comes to clothing the super-wealthy.

Though the Dunhill collection was Kim Jones' first for the label, it showed a similar clarity of ideas. The thick-set silhouettes in grey and blue clearly bore the hallmarks of Jones' distinctive, sporty style, yet there was a restraint that sat well with the traditions of the British brand. It worked because it was fashion, not therapy. As Jones put it simply: "I just wanted to be true to what the company was, and make it interesting enough that people will want to wear the clothes."