What single outfit defines 1996 fashion for you? A pair of Gucci velvet flares, a Diesel jacket as worn by our Liam? For The Independent's fashion editor, Tasmin Blanchard, asked to choose for Bath's Museum of Costume, there was no contest ... Photographs by Sheridan Morley

It's not the first time the Bath Museum of Costume's Dress of the Year has not been a dress. In 1969, Prudence Glynn of The Times chose a trouser suit by the late Ossie Clark; in 1991, Liz Tilberis, then editor of Vogue, chose a Chanel jacket and denim skirt suit; and in 1992, Liz Smith, then fashion editor of The Times, chose a Ralph Lauren pinstriped city trouser suit. And for 1996, the choice made by The Independent, and presented to the Museum last Wednesday, is a pair of shiny red builder's bum "bumster" trousers, complete with a red-and-black brocade tunic, by London loud boy and Givenchy couturier, Alexander McQueen.

The museum's collection has been growing since 1963, when members of the Fashion Writers' Association chose a Rex Harrison cardigan dress by Mary Quant. This year the choice was easy: the designer had to be McQueen. It has been his year, after all, with two highly acclaimed collections in London, a show in a New York synagogue on a snowy night last April, and the crowning glory when he finally accepted the job as chief designer at Givenchy in Paris - not to mention his recent Lloyds Bank British Designer of the Year Award. Not since McQueen's mentor Yves Saint Laurent was appointed chief designer at Christian Dior at the tender age of 21, has one designer achieved so much in so short a time.

The decision for a man's outfit (because men wear clothes, too, and have been undergoing something of a fashion/ shopping revolution over the past few years) was less straightforward. Should the choice have been a pair of Gap jeans and a polo shirt? Or a velvet suit with flared trousers, by Gucci? Or even a Liam Gallagher quilted jacket from Diesel? I opted for a single-breasted Paul Smith suit, in shiny Yves Klein blue, from his spring/summer '96 collection. Unlike McQueen's, Paul Smith's clothes have universal appeal to men around the world. With his jeans line, his underwear and his tailoring, he has become one of our greatest fashion exports, with more than 165 stockists in Japan alone. And while becoming an international fashion name, he has maintained his own particular, sometimes peculiar, Englishness.

So it was that I settled down for a full English breakfast on the 8.40am train to Bath last Wednesday with Tizer Bailey, the model who wore the brocade-and-bumster outfit on McQueen's catwalk at London Fashion Week more than a year ago, and her partner, Jimmy Pursey. The Sham 69 punk rocker has a part-time career as a model, appearing on the very same McQueen catwalk as Tizer. Since then, he has been photographed for Uomo Vogue for Katharine Hamnett and by David Sims for The Gap. With a new album in the offing, he likes to carry pockets full of safety pins, punk fashion accessories he will gleefully pin on unsuspecting victims.

Tizer turned up at Paddington Station dressed from head to toe in Vivenne Westwood, complete with a hat from Westwood's 1981 Pirate collection which is a now a museum piece in itself. It is strange that Westwood has been overlooked, and has not once been chosen for Dress of the Year over the past 20 years.

Tizer and Jimmy were to model the outfits by Smith and McQueen for the last time, before they were assigned an archive number and put on to their specially commissioned Adel Rootstein mannequins for posterity. As Tizer pirouetted around the grand ballroom of the 18th-century Assembly Rooms in her cheeky bumsters and closely tailored tunic with hanging sleeves, Jimmy pondered whether to tuck or untuck the matching blue shirt. They both looked and felt quite at home in their museum pieces. "It's a shame it's going into a museum," said Tizer, "I'd have got good wear out of it."

Local journalists who came to the museum to cover the event were predictably fascinated by the bumsters slashed along the inner thigh seams, with Tizer's pert bum cleavage peeking over the top. "Who on earth would wear these?" asked one bemused reporter. When Liberty put its summer stock of 10 pairs of wool bumsters on to the shop rails last spring, they sold out within a week. Anyone proud of their rear end - and with a fair streak of exhibitionism - would kill for a pair. And since McQueen first showed his pubic bone huggers three years ago, the catwalks and indeed the chain stores have been overflowing with hip-huggers.

The Dress of the Year programme is the Museum of Costume's way of keeping its collection up to date. The clothes chosen are supposed to represent the newest and most influential ideas in contemporary fashion. The museum has more than 30,000 pieces of clothing and accessories in the collection, dating back to the 16th century, most of which - including the Dress of the Year collection - are in storage. Appointments can be made to see pieces not on display, and there is a steady flow of designers and students camping out in the Fashion Research Centre on research missions. Go there to see the Dress of the Year and you may well be rubbing shoulders with the designer himself

The Alexander McQueen `dress' and Paul Smith suit will be on display from Thursday at the Museum of Costume and Assembly Rooms, Bennett Street, Bath. Open daily, Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, 11am-5pm. Admission pounds 3.50 adults, pounds 2.20 children (enquiries, 01225 477752).

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