Bloomsbury belles at Burberry. Glamazons at Gucci. Utility chic at Prada. On the catwalks last week, Milan's fashion houses reacted to hard times with collections that returned to their core values, says Susannah Frankel

BURBERRY PRORSUM

If anyone understands the power of the reassuringly familiar, it's Christopher Bailey, who once again gave the slightly dishevelled English rose a gently gorgeous makeover. He was thinking of Bloomsbury heroines Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, apparently, and no one interprets this loose-fitting but always elegant style more beautifully.

The woman who invests in this label for autumn will be wrapped in cable-knit sweaters and roomy wool skirts. For evening, it will be a dress with fitted bodice, narrow sleeves and full gauzy skirt. Colours were muted, silhouettes soft, and the look was finished with one of many new interpretations of the trench coat. Lovely.

JIL SANDER

For the woman who would rather not wear her clothing budget on her sleeve, Jil Sander is quite possibly the most discreetly luxurious label in the world. The designer Raf Simons makes beautifully understated clothes for intelligent women who don't mind pushing at the boundaries where cut and proportion are concerned, but whose clothes must never overpower them.

In particular, pale-and-interesting coats and shift dresses with barely anything disrupting their ultra-soft surfaces made this a strong collection. The garments stood away from the body, more often than not, subtly suggesting the trace of a female form beneath them, rather than parading that female form for all and sundry to see.

ARMANI

Given fashion's current love affair with the Eighties, Giorgio Armani is in his element. The man who gave Richard Gere his style in American Gigolo, and dressed a million power-hungry females throughout the era in fashionably greige tailoring, is surely better placed than most to revisit that era.

Strong, high-shouldered jackets with nipped-in waists and neat tailored skirts that fell to mid-thigh were all neutrally hued this time around, just as they once were. Curvaceous black cocktail dresses came in inky black velvet (but of course!), and, lest anyone forget Armani's impact on the red carpet over the years, narrow beaded and embroidered gowns were all present and sublimely correct, too.

MARNI

Gorgeously opulent – surprisingly so, given the current mood – was the general impression of Marni's autumn/winter collection. It also achieved the rare feat of loading everything but the kitchen sink on to some garments without them ever looking overwrought.

Instead, the very simplicity of shape and proportion allowed the designer Consuela Castiglioni to run amok. There was nothing remotely flashy about the surface embellishment here, however, which boasted instead the charming appeal of ethnic and/ or vintage finds.

If the spirit is always likely to be predominantly bohemian at Marni, the challenge for the designer is to ensure it also looks modern – and it did.

DOLCE & GABBANA

Just when you thought shoulders couldn't possibly be broader... Leave it to Dolce & Gabbana to fly in the face of any economic downturn with a collection that referenced that 20th-century grande dame Elsa Schiaparelli – gloves worn as hats and scarves, more than a little shocking-pink silk – as well as their own audaciously feminine archive. If the sleeves were overblown, and so, too, occasionally the skirts – in particular, printed with photographic images of Marilyn Monroe – the silhouette was otherwise narrowly curvaceous and underpinned with corsetry, whether visible or not.

These designers place women high on a pedestal, and the result was both uplifting and empowering.

VERSACE

The rock chick in Donatella Versace rang out loud and clear in this collection, which, rather than revisiting her late brother Gianni's high-octane form of glamour, went for a look that was more obviously metropolitan and restrained.

Such things are relative, of course, and in Ms Versace's hands, restrained means skinny black combat pants (yes, they're back), shrunken butter-soft leather jackets, and shots of bold, bright colour – sea-blues and -greens, true red, violet and rose – for both cocktail and red-carpet dresses. There was fine draped jersey here, too, and plenty of metallic sparkle, although of a more subtle nature than is usual for Versace.

GUCCI

Va-va-voom! For autumn/winter, it was off to the late-Eighties/early Nineties nightclub scene for Frida Giannini at Gucci, and the result was a look so full-on glamorous that it brought to mind this famed Italian luxury-goods label's aesthetic in Tom Ford's heyday at the turn of the millennium. Short, single-shouldered jersey dresses trimmed with patent leather, the skinniest of tailored trouser suits, often with a metallic shimmer to them, spangly Lurex leggings, and even a jumpsuit...

The colour palette was dark (well, it would be, wouldn't it?), shot through with sizzling hot pink and cobalt – the colour of this season that will be carrying through to the next. And the heels were high, the hair slicked back, wet-look style, and the sunglasses were the biggest, darkest and most dangerous-looking of the season so far.

PRADA

Every other designer races to keep up with Italian fashion's first lady, Miuccia Prada. It is therefore not surprising that the crumpled, barely there burnished-gold looks of spring/summer gave way to an apparently contrary, covered-up silhouette this time around.

It would be foolhardy to attribute this to anything as obvious as, say, the weather – fashion is a global industry and the climate in China, for example, is not the same as ours. Instead, Prada said, she was thinking about rural living and feminine power. Certainly, she has her eye on the economy – this designer's ability to respond to both the cultural and sociopolitical zeitgeist is second to none.

With this in mind, an emphasis on outdoorsy clothing seems just the thing for now. If we can't all afford to go shopping, we can go for a lovely long walk in earthy, tweedy tailoring, whether our waders are designer or not.

Catwalk notebook: Key trends

Eighties

If you haven't noticed fashion's homage to the bad-taste decade, where have you been? The Eighties revival continues apace, with sexy suits, circle prints and wet-look hairdos at Gucci, where models looked worthy of a Robert Palmer video, and with black velvet (the fabric, not the song) and snazzy jackets at Armani.

Thirties and Forties

Tailoring at Prada and Moschino channelled the Land Girl ethos, while a Virginia Woolf look at Burberry, not to mention languid floor-length elegance at Bottega Veneta, had more than a little of the Bloomsbury Set about them.

Shaggy Coats

Usually goat hair, these have featured at a few shows so far in London and New York, and in Milan they appeared in hot pink at Dolce & Gabbana and luscious brown at Emilio Pucci.

Peekaboo Brights

Frivolity fights back: peeping beneath serious browns and sombre greys were flashes of fuchsia, yellow and scarlet. Jil Sander's sculptural dresses and coats had raised necklines and cut-outs with bright linings, while sensible tweed skirts were slashed to reveal saucy scarlet undies at Prada.

Rock'n'Roll Drapery

The rock chick got a classical twist at Roberto Cavalli and Versace, where clingy dresses and studded minis were finished with soft shapes and swathes of twisted cloth, giving a more polished edge.

Scarf Prints

Jonathan Saunders for Pollini referenced the brand's silk-scarf heritage, with shifts and skirts in paisley prints, while at Marni, the abstract checks and link prints were reminiscent of traditional neckerchiefs.

By Harriet Walker

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