Recycle, my arse, Jim Royle might say. All those extolling the virtues of the Princess Royal dragging out an outfit that she hasn't worn for 27 years may be missing the point. After all, it is only the upper classes that are ever likely to have the space to archive their clothing, and that's presuming they don't wear them until they, well wear out, and then buy something else like the rest of us. We are all free, however, to embrace the fact that it is fashionable to be frumpy just now – and this outfit certainly fits the bill where that is concerned.

The type of below-the-knee, broad-hipped skirt that was formerly the preserve of the British aristocracy was first decreed fashionable at the turn of the last century by Miuccia Prada, who loves a dirndl/A-line/carwash-pleat skirt. In the universe of this most stylish of women, these were designed to be worn with thick ribbed socks (preferably brown like Arkela's) and flat shoes that would make even the most lean of limb look like an extra in The Bill. Fashion isn't necessarily flattering – this is a case of entirely wilful anti-fashion, you see.

This autumn, the type of dowdy good looks that the Princess Royal and her cohorts favour are set to become the height of fashion once more. Dolce & Gabbana – hitherto home of the animal print and visible corset – say that no one more obviously sexy than our own dear Queen is the inspiration for their new collection – tweeds, argyle knits and brown, sensible shoes (well, a little more sensible, at least) will be the order of the day here.

Alexander McQueen has supplanted the hourglass silhouette he's known for in favour of New Look-line dresses inspired, he says, by the British couturiers Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell. This designer also suggests that we wear these clothes with distinctly challenging opaque-white tights, and shoes that are as flat as the proverbial pancake.

Why is this happening? If fashion is a barometer for society as a whole, the answer to this question lies in a respect for the power of tradition – the comfort of nostalgia and familiarity – which always seems more acute in politically and economically troubled times.

Most of us, thankfully, are not likely ever to feel frayed to the point of opting for a stiff frill that would look more at home in the soft-furnishings department at Harrods than anything designed to be worn by a human being, however. Neither is a pillbox hat covered in pale primroses ever really likely to avert any deep-rooted malaise.