Fashion: The wearable lightness of being: In petite florals and soft flowing fabrics, the dress is making a comeback this spring. But don't be fooled by the image of sweetness, says Roger Tredre

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THE NEW dresses, in sheer and semi-transparent materials, have a lightness of being. They float on the body in ways that those brought up to wear puff-sleeved milkmaid Laura Ashley dresses would never have believed possible.

Long ignored by designers of high fashion, the dress is making a comeback at all levels of the market as part of a concerted move away from super-sophisticated fashion.

Designers have rediscovered the allure of this most basic of garments. And the spring collections are full of long flowing silhouettes and soft fluid fabrics.

The best of the new season's dresses have the feel of treasured family heirlooms, perhaps owned by one's grandmother in the Thirties or plucked out of a jumble sale. Martin Margiela and Jean Colonna, two of the most influential designers of the moment, like nothing better than wandering round the flea market at Porte de Clignancourt in Paris on Sunday mornings. They buy old dresses or scraps of fabric that they make up into new dresses. There is a double merit to this recycling: it is eco-friendly and it makes retro look modern.

Both the designers and the high street stores have opted for an abundance of petite florals and sprigs, seemingly scattered across dresses at random. The colours are delicate and muted, looking as if they have been mixed on a painter's palette.

The way the material is cut makes the best of these garments sing. Designers are cutting dresses on the bias again so that the fabric slithers flatteringly round the body. John Galliano puts it poetically. Bias cutting, he says, is 'like oily water running through your fingers'.

Vogue sees the return of the dress as symbolic of fashion's new spirit, focusing on the deliberate playing up of sweetness. But there is also something subversive about the new narrow-shouldered waif who wears these dresses in the fashion shots: she's no stereotype. Her cropped hair hints at androgyny; she's gawky rather than elegant; she runs around barefoot.

She will, predictably, horrify those who believe fashion is no more than a plot to persuade women to lose excessive amounts of weight. But there is a more positive way of reading the new waif-model. She represents a healthy reaction to years of overdressed, over-made-up models, and she returns modern fashion to the young, whence it originated in the Sixties.

And the young will want to give these dresses a subversive twist. Go grunge by wearing them with vests, leggings and boots. Go hippy by wearing them over bell-bottoms and adding bead necklaces. Our stylist did her own bit of improvisation, turning several pairs of tights into a vest, worn with a Katharine Hamnett printed chiffon slip.

But the hippest way of wearing dresses this summer (and one that will suit all ages) is to wear two together. Be bold and mix lengths - the issue of hemlines is, thankfully, taking a backseat this season. Mix clashing prints to pep up an old dress. Mix antique and modern, designer and high street. In short, make the most of the new spirit, the new sense of freedom running through this summer's fashion. Let's hope it lasts.

(Photographs omitted)