Glad though many of us might be to see the back of the ultra-short, scarily bright skirt-suits of a year or so ago, we may not be entirely convinced by the mannish trouser suits that are taking their place. If a quiet voice in the hinterland of your fashion consciousness is whispering that braces, trilbies and ties look foolish on most women, then now is the time to stand firm and not be bullied into something you'd feel uncomfortable wearing. There is a soothing path between the extreme fashion cliches of gangster and executive tart; an alternative, non-retro way of looking smart and elegant during the day. It owes a great deal to the maverick US designer Zoran, and very little to the staple on which most women have come to depend - the jacket.

It consists of simple, unstructured pieces that look smart because of their luxuriousness. It first made its presence felt a couple of years ago, but was largely the preserve of women with a lot of money to spend. Then, alongside the legions of men's suits that came down the catwalks in March flowed a stream of knitwear and jersey. It didn't attract as much attention at the time, but it's proving to be a strong counter-force in fashion; many of the chain stores have been experimenting with affordable man-made acetates that feel wonderful and drape beautifully. It is also worth scouting shops for the growing number of lambswool and cotton knits that have been mixed with cashmere or angora.

Annette Browne, buying manager for Next, says: 'When we first saw the masculine suits we were worried that they would be too severe for most of our customers, so we also stocked up on suedes and silks that are designed to be layered, and on elegant knit dressing.'

Until recently, elegant knitwear sounded like an oxymoron, but the new soft, fine yarns and angora and mohair mixes genuinely merit the description.

Temptingly comfortable though the clothes are, these loose, layered styles take some getting used to. We've become so accustomed to wearing head-to-toe uniforms that any mode of dress that leans as heavily on separates as this one does is bound at first to represent a challenge. 'It's just a different way of looking at clothes,' says Richard Ostell, one half of Flyte/Ostell, the design partnership whose fluid, graceful and, above all, wearable clothing caused raptures at their launch last year. 'Office wear has become very hidebound. There's a certain school of thought that says if it's not a suit or a skirt, then it isn't appropriate for office. But why can't a pair of slim satin trousers with a crepe T-shirt be equally suitable for work? The biggest hurdle for most women is learning to live without their jackets. They always say they don't feel smart without them. But jackets just aren't that comfortable: they spend most of their time in the office over the backs of chairs.'

Flyte/Ostell's approach to clothes ('we like to combine simplicity of shape with interesting layers and textures') has clearly struck a chord with high- street retailers. Next, along with its angora and mohair knits, has silk jersey tunics and trousers; Laura Ashley has its Tundra collection, a 'luxury range' that includes merino wool bodies, lambswool leggings and fluffy angora mix roll-neck pullovers and matching cardigans (one way of making knitwear look smarter) and Wallis recently introduced W, a small collection of pared-down pieces in jersey, silk and alpaca. The tailoring is understated and what jackets there are have soft interlinings.

Lucille Lewin, of the Whistles chain, says: 'We're finding that really good fabrics now provoke a much stronger reaction in customers than used to be the case. The short skirt-suit completely died a year ago and the long skirt has meant a whole new way of dressing. For one thing it doesn't look great with long, boxy jackets, so we're seeing a big return to cardigan dressing.'

Making cardigan dressing appeal to women who only feel right during the day in tailored clothes is something Ms Lewin has become adept at. 'If your skirt or trousers are slim and well cut, you're halfway there. A neat twinset or cropped angora jumper then looks perfect with it. Another good option is the white shirt worn under a waistcoat.'

The designer Amanda Wakeley suggests gradual changes. 'Weaning yourself off skirt-suits takes confidence. Starting with softer jackets that can be worn with trousers is a help - and taking care over details. If I wear a loose shirt or tunic to work, I make sure it has really good buttons and I try to keep the outfit very pared-down. It's a way of looking quite disciplined that is somehow much more original than just putting on an aggressive-looking pin-stripe suit.'

Flyte/Ostell would like to see their customers abandon strict tailoring altogether. Most women, however, will probably keep their options open. 'The good thing is that the masculine styles are interchangeable with the softer styles,' says Ms Browne. 'A cable jumper looks great with tailored trousers.'

This is good news for realists: looking serene and floaty is all very fine, but there are some days when a good jacket seems to be all that stands between you and nervous collapse.

Charcoal cashmere jumper, pounds 325, at Whistles, 12-14 St Christopher's Place, London W1, and branches. Chocolate silk-satin trousers, Vogue pattern Donna Karan New York (DKNY) 2452, pounds 7.95 (currently, all Vogue patterns are reduced by pounds 2), from major department stores; silk-satin, pounds 19.99 per metre, from Liberty, Regent Street, London W1. Natural brown wooden bead necklaces, from pounds 10, at Whistles, as before.

Petrol/charcoal silk-satin tunic, pounds 305, lace charcoal tunic, pounds 400, and charcoal silk-satin skirt, pounds 305; all by Flyte/Ostell at A La Mode, 36 Hans Crescent, London SW1; charcoal/purple velvet scarf, pounds 45, by D & A at Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1. Navy velvet slip-ons, pounds 195, by Jimmy Choo for Amanda Wakeley, 071-249 2082.

Ivory angora jumper, pounds 34.99, from Next, 54-58 Kensington High Street, London W8, and branches nation-wide. Chocolate suede skirt, pounds 497, by Amanda Wakeley, 33 Ifield Road, SW10. Feather and shell necklace, from pounds 35, at Whistles, as before. Gold satin shoes with rose detail, pounds 125, from Russell and Bromley, 24-25 New Bond Street, London W1 and branches nation-wide.

Lilac cashmere jumper, pounds 390, and cardigan, pounds 350, by Joseph Tricot, 26 Sloane Street, London SW1, and 28.

Brook Street, W1; charcoal lambswool and angora leggings, pounds 32.99, from Laura Ashley branches nation-wide.

(Photographs omitted)