Fashion: You'll never guess what's underneath: Designers have finally cottoned on to that women do not want to show every curve

Rarely is there good news for real women at the Paris fashion shows - unless you are a real Christy or Linda or Naomi. The pictures you see here probably won't fill your heart with joy and gladness. But they should. They represent the first evidence of a much- needed shift in style.

Ironically, they appeared while many of the fashion pack weren't looking, their attention diverted by the actor pack; Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren, Tracey Ullman and Kim Basinger, playing reporters in Robert Altman's fashion movie Pret a Porter, which was being filmed at the shows. Still, you would have had to have been seriously transfixed by Tracey Ullman's bad hair days not to notice the seismic shift going on in the foreground.

Many of this season's clothes seem ugly because they are so unfamiliar. But the signs are that women - too long constrained by fashions created for teenage girls - will find in them something to love again. Ample clothes, forgiving clothes, the kind of clothes people write to newspapers begging for were being hinted at again in Paris.

I say hinted at because the journey is incomplete. I wouldn't wear the clothes you see here because, with the exception of the Yohji Yamamoto piece which happens to be the least photogenic, they are too wild for me. But they do signal a shift towards different proportions which, when filtered into the mainstream, will have more far-reaching effect than tabloid red herrings about nipple counts or a Hollywood movie about fake fashion folk.

Look at the Vivienne Westwood outfit. Ugly and daft, isn't it? What woman would want to slip a chunk of a Chesterfield sofa under her skirt? But wait a minute. One of the models in the show was Eva Herzigova, she of the current and controversial Wonderbra advertisements promoting padded bosoms. There have certainly been times when these would have been judged equally ridiculous.

History is full of examples of an artificially embellished female form. The waist's pilgrimage up and down the body has been charted by many, and, from the end of this month, is even the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, called Waist Not. Think of farthingales, bumrolls and hip pads. And before you rush to claim that today's mobile self-assured women would never put up with such interference with their body form, think of shoulder pads. These may have shrunk, but they haven't gone away.

Westwood's statement of the case will be too emphatic for most people. My bottom is quite padded enough without her help. But what showed up as jokey upholstery here recurred as more convincing and acceptable disguise by Orson and Bodil, Sonia Rykiel and Marcel Marongiu.

Fashion has been so pared-down, so simple and so utterly unforgiving that the time has come for it to bear more resemblance to the conventions of the female form. Perhaps the padding is merely the first step from odd and ugly to acceptable and normal in a new fashion dynamic.

Bulky textures from poodle wools to fur (too much of it real) dominated the shows. Cropped sweaters were so fluffy the real shape of an upper torso couldn't be calculated. Rough and hairy boiled-wool coats were so immense that you couldn't tell if the wearer was a solid Amazon or a superwaif. At Comme des Garcons models looked as if they were swathed in curtains, while Jean Paul Gaultier took his audience on a far-flung adventure above the snow-line. And what do they wear up there? Layer upon bulky layer.

'Who would wear any of that?' I wondered aloud. 'I would,' one reporter said. 'I would, too,' said another. 'It's liberating. No one would know what size you are.' And that is the point. For too long, we have played along with the decreed 'perfect' body size. Now women are saying 'enough' and the most innovative designers in the world appear to be joining the chorus.

Let's not forget how it once was, when designers created for women rather than girls as a matter of course. Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972), probably the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century, showed rigorous haute couture on short stocky women. The current fashion icon is Bjrk, the curvy and delightful Icelandic singer. She opened the show of JP G, who used to worship Madonna's taut, trained body.

The smartest commentators are already equating the importance of this to the Youthquake of the Sixties, the enormously influential shift that led to our 30-year period of worship at the temple of youth.

Let's call this new one the Womanquake. It should be a big one.

(Photographs omitted)

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