Tall and skinny men have got it made - and they can show off their softer side, says Tamsin Blanchard. Photographs: Chris Moore and Heathcliff O'Malley
Last week, the world's most fashionable eyes were turned to haute couture - a closed parallel universe in which designers and their handful of clients are allowed to fantasise to their hearts' content over billowing frocks, 12ft trains, mountains of ruffles and frivolous bows. But the six days of haute couture were the sandwich filling between the menswear collections for autumn/winter 1996, in Milan and then in Paris. While women are allowed to dream, menswear is a serious business, especially in Milan where the first thing you see when you land at Linate airport is a bright red neon Emporio Armani sign, looming out from the fog and smog.

There have been moments, however, when men were given the chance to dream as well. Vivienne Westwood made her debut on the Milan menswear catwalks, although she has been designing menswear for as long as our greatest menswear export, Paul Smith, who showed in Paris last week. Her newly expanded collection gave men the opportunity to explore their feminine side. Most men regard crying at the end of a movie as a good enough show of their femininity, and only the brazen few will dare to go all the way with gold earrings, foppish high-heeled shoes, lacy handkerchiefs, jewelled chokers, and long hostess dresses. In public, at least.

Among the models who, if they had it, allowed their long hair to be backcombed and teased ("I wanted them to look like they had a hairdresser at home," said Westwood after the show) was the designer's dentist. She must have been taking revenge for some extremely painful fillings: he made his catwalk debut with a leather harness buckled round his head and a crown perched delicately on top.

Westwood's historical references were all there, from a 13th-century jacket originally intended to be worn underneath plate armour to a more recent episode in the history of menswear, punk. As an alternative (indeed the antithesis) to the long, lean Sixties looks that have continued to make their mark, and to the corporate dressing of labels like the German menswear giant, Hugo Boss, there were tweedy suits with voluminous Oxford bags. There was traditional Argyll knitwear. And there was tartan which, if you are not prone to wearing a kilt, was made into jaunty jackets and trousers that would not make you a laughing stock over a pint of ale at the local.

The lines between feminine and masculine were also blurred in Paris by Katharine Hamnett (she put 2-inch spiky kitten heels with her Mike Flowers-style bow-tied kitsch suits) and Yohji Yamamoto, who knitted up tunic dresses in sombre colours to be worn over trousers.

If high heels and dresses don't float your boat, there are always army uniforms, which appeared like clockwork on almost every catwalk. In Milan, Armani, Valentino and Versace all showed their version of an army jacket. But why, oh why, would anyone pay designer prices for a pair of camouflage fancy pants by Valentino when the army do them so much better and sell them off by the tankload to cut-price surplus shops in every town and village up and down the country?

Military epaulettes were one of the few details that interrupted the pure lines of the clothes at Gucci, where the designer Tom Ford continues to weave a magic spell over buyers and press. There was not an interlocking G in sight - and also little to offer the moneyed businessman who might have worn Gucci in the past. Shirts were fitted to the body and tucked into hip-hugging pants that flared out at the ankle. Fabrics were typically sumptuous, and if you are in the mood for a camel-coloured cashmere coat or a shiny pony-skin jacket, start saving now. Next autumn is only eight months away.

So how, you are asking, are you going to be updating your wardrobe next autumn? You might look for a tie printed with an early-Seventies wallpaper print from Costume Homme (or Oxfam), to wear with your new ultra-skinny pencil suit from Dolce e Gabbana. Or a long Edwardian high-buttoning drape jacket that reaches almost to your knees, courtesy of Versace or Valentino.

If you feel like a punch-up and a severe bout of pneumonia, Versace's Istante line will provide you with a sheer chiffon shirt to be worn with shiny PVC trousers. A velvet suit is a must (whether from Paul Smith, Versus, Dolce e Gabbana, Gigli or Gucci), but you may choose to wear the trousers and jacket separately.

But be warned: if you have anything wider than a 36-inch chest and a 28-inch waist narrowing to two legs that are so thin they threaten to snap when you walk on them, you might as well count yourself out of fashion's fray next winter. Unless of course, you are a fan of W.&L.T, designed and modelled by the rotund Belgian, Walter van Beirendonck. The collection was not as wild as it has been in the past - commercial wool jackets and strong ski-influenced knitwear - and Walt is not a man to cut clothes for skinny men. Either that, or start dieting now.