Designers in Milan concentrated on the modern woman, proving that florals can be fierce and sweetness can be tough, says Harriet Walker

The grande dames of Milan are a bundle of contradictions: feminine and fragrant in their summer dresses and heels, but happy to push you down a spiral staircase if it means getting to the front row more quickly. It was this sort of woman that the Italian designers seemed to have in mind at the shows last week: one that was delicate but tough, sweet but fiery, and unwilling to compromise.

"It was about the impossibilities of women," said Miuccia Prada, of a characteristically inscrutable collection that featured minimal and sporty separates in cotton and duchesse satin, emblazoned with naive chalk-drawn and appliquéd daisies and dandelions. "The flower is a symbol of the poetic life of women, and the huge struggle that we have. It was about making sweetness hard."

This was especially apparent in Prada's final phase of pieces, wrapped-satin stole tops and tunics, in a palette of oyster, pale pink and pistachio green, finished with Japanese-style obi belts and samurai sleeves, as well as enormously stacked floral platforms that were worn with zipped metallic tabi socks. Space-age clean lines mixed with girlish hues and youthful quirks: it was womanliness, but not as we knew it.

What the Milan shows had in common was a feeling that clothing can be feminine without detracting from how seriously the wearer is taken. Nowhere was this message clearer than at Gucci, where Frida Giannini offered sleek and plain tunics and trousers, and column and shift dresses in a variety of blocked, bright hues – cobalt, fuchsia, grass and chartreuse. They were embellished not with simpering frills but with giant, snaking peplums and collars that wound around sleeves, waists and necklines like architecture rather than froth. The designer called it "aristocratic purism". "Evoking a strong allure with a clean, precise, defined aesthetic," she explained in her show notes.

Tomas Maier, too, at Bottega Veneta, developed the theme, pondering the ways in which womenswear can be at once floral and fierce. The answer here came in nostalgically printed silk tea dresses, with strong, padded shoulders and angular necklines, covered in panels of contrast prints, appliqué florals and subtle seams of studs – even the sophisticated butterflies which adorned belts were cut from metallic leather.

Bottega is a brand which never underestimates its customer, a woman of high earning power and even higher expectations, and the soft-but-steely message was underlined by the attention to detail and superb craftsmanship that the label, and Maier, have become known for.

Other designers blended this feeling for femininity into their label's established modes. Jil Sander's first collection under her own name for eight years clarified the point. Precisely cut and minimal tailoring was given fluidity with ingenious darts, planes and oversized patch pockets, while circle skirts were proof enough that the couture aesthetic of the house under previous designer Raf Simons had not been entirely overhauled. A palette of rust, midnight blue and bright, coral orange was hardly traditional in its prettiness, but set against stark white shirts and casual jersey, the shades were once again proof of designers working to give the feminine a new sense of strength.

"I wanted everything to feel light and fresh," Consuelo Castiglioni, of Marni, said after her show. "This collection is all about a new and very clear elegance." So much was apparent in the label's trademark "difficult" dimensions, which included higher than usual waists – at almost Directoire-era height – offset with trapeze lines, dropped waist jackets and even-further-dropped waist peplums. Skirts and dresses were pinned at the back to give a bustle effect, falling to mid-lengths with dipped and fluid hems. Print was used sparingly and was graffiti-esque when it appeared on coats, but otherwise colours were plain and jarring – bottle green with baby pink, oxblood and peach – and mono- chrome window-pane checks gave depth with tape jacquard.

Where Castiglioni found inspiration in Bauhaus, Karl Lagerfeld, at Fendi, also looked to modernism – in particular cubism – with graphic shapes that were printed on to silk and crepe separates and eventually morphed into the brand's famous "F" on knitwear. They trimmed skirt-shorts like panniers and yokes of dresses, while the shoes continued the theme, with scales along the top looking like mini Sydney Opera Houses. Lagerfeld called the peach, mustard and dove-grey hues "violent pastels", which summed up the clash of modern and meek.

"Women can change," Donatella Versace pronounced backstage at her show. "The collection was fluid – I wanted to show the tough and the fragile side." She did this by quite literally mixing masculine and feminine wardrobes, with lingerie lace and delicate black broderie detailing on mannish blazers. Similarly, the more youthful collection of dresses at her Versus label, overseen by Christopher Kane, married delicate pink silk with interlocking plastic chains. The masculine elements were still skimpy, but the Versace customer is no shrinking violet: cutaway silk minidresses, goddess gowns embellished with tinsel-like fronds and tie-dye pieces were suitably rock'*'roll for their usual base, while safer nods to the house's irrepressible obsession with skin and sex (a silk shirt inlaid with sheer lace, for example) should lure in the more pedestrian shopper, too.

This is what the new season take on womanliness boils down to. In trying times, designers need to find out what will sell. There are fewer women now buying fabulous one-offs – instead, they look for pieces that will continue to work for several years. And that means making informed choices about versatile clothing. At MaxMara, the label's trademark camel coat was reinvented as everyday blouses and utilitarian jumpsuit, complete with epaulettes and stormflaps. At the label's second line Sportmax, rich, bottle-green knits and leather jackets will fit into extant wardrobes. Missoni offered its signature wiggly weaves on blazers and tailored shorts; Moschino adapted pop culture and the Sixties into fun separates that could be worn as a whole look or slotted in with existing pieces. Shoppers want purchases that will retain sartorial value.

Giorgio Armani reprised the idea at both his mainline and his second line, Emporio, which was entitled "Neat". Easy separates for day and for night were minimal and in neutral colours, yet again blending the pretty and the practical. Roberto Cavalli, too, practised this, inlaying lace on luxe shirts for his main line, and teaming plain shirts and blazers at Just Cavalli with statement, Sèvres-print trousers to create an up-to-date look that made use of bestselling staples.

Then of course, there was Dolce & Gabbana, for whom femininity is all sun-roasted fecundity and Sicilian sensuality. The label's "Fatto a mano" or "handmade" collection was an ode to the glamour of their homeland – whether it fits into everyone else's workday schedule is irrelevant. While other designers are trying to ally their aesthetics to the worlds of their customers, Dolce & Gabbana conversely invite you to step wholly into theirs. For showmanship and opulent craft, there are few to rival them. The fact is, there is an audience for this sort of luxury – dresses printed with theatrical characters, corsets and bustier dresses made from hessian-style linen sacking and deckchair-stripe, retro beachwear – and she is all woman. But she might not be anybody you know.