The 'new' mini is a very different animal from its Sixties cousin, writes Tamsin Blanchard. Photographs by Ben Elwes
Hold on to your hems: this autumn, the micro-mini is back. You've heard that before, I know. But this time it really is. On the catwalks, clothes - for women at least - seem to be all but disappearing. As far as fashion designers are concerned, women are now so liberated, they don't need to wear clothes anymore, just a pair of high-heeled stilettos, a swathe of lace held on by a hairline strap, and a slick of red lipstick. Knickers are optional.

It's not surprising: first, so-called quality men's magazines, once interested in cars, watches and useless gadgets, become obsessed with scantily clad babes. No men's magazine cover is complete without one. Then, Penthouse relaunches and every fashion photographer in London wants to work for it. It's not porn, they say, it's hip. Meg Matthews, Noel Gallagher's wife, turns up at Number 10 bearing her mid-riff. Princess Di is photographed sunning herself on board Dodi's yacht, strapless and as good as topless.

The Nineties will be remembered as the decade of scanty lace shifts, "nude" clothes that you might as well not be wearing, plunging necklines, and dresses pulled together with just a handful of safety pins. The erogenous zone has become more important than the fabric that reveals it. Little - or nothing - is left to the imagination. Fashion designers are obsessed with sheer fabrics, worn with or without underwear. As we approach the Millennium, the trends look set to get shorter and skimpier. "The leg" will be the new season's focus. The longer the better. Donna Karan has even written the foreword to a book called simply Leg, to be published this September.

When Mary Quant slashed skirt lengths more than 30 years ago, London was swinging (sound familiar?), girls were "birds" (now we're babes) and the Union Flag was the greatest fashion accessory, (Liam Gallagher has just invested in three Union Flag cashmere jumpers by Brit designers Clements Ribeiro). Jacqueline Kennedy was cavorting on yachts with her rich playboy, in skirts that fell a few inches short of her knee. (Look out for Diana's take on the micro-mini this autumn, with or without her playboy's yacht, in a tabloid near you). Then, as now, there was a youthquake. Fashion was not for those who could afford it, but for those who were young enough to get away with it. Is this 1967 or 1997? I wish someone would help me out of this time-warp.

Of course, nothing in fashion is ever the same as it once was. This autumn's mini skirts are, in fashion speak, "new". In the Sixties, there was a certain innocence to the "mother of the mini," Mary Quant's invention. Then, it was about freedom, dancing, stripy tights and winklepicker shoes. In the Eighties, the short-skirted power suit was about the label inside it. Now, the mini is an altogether more sophisticated animal. Gone are the playful innocence and the status symbols, to be replaced by a knowing sexuality. This mini is about power games; designer tights and Gucci heels; flirtation as a means to an end, rather than simply as a means to getting a man.

On the right woman with the right legs and enough self-confidence, the micro-mini is the embodiment of sex and power, as seen on the catwalks of Givenchy, Gucci, and Chanel. It doesn't matter if they are skin tight, or flighty and pleated, as long as they are thigh-high. Not content to be knicker-grazing, some of them feature splits as well. At Clements Ribeiro, the mini is a kilt. Vivienne Westwood's are so short and saucy, they don't even cover your stocking tops. At Christian Dior, it is sugar almond coloured and worn with a nipped in jacket, bobby socks and platform shoes worthy of Betty Grable, the star whose legs were famously insured for a million dollars and were shown off at every opportunity. And who could blame her?

In 1968, fashion commentator James Laver called the mini skirt "the final word in the emancipation of woman - in proving her economic dependence. Long, hampering skirts were fetters to keep a woman home." Thirty years on, I can't remember the last time I was fettered by a long skirt or, for that matter, a pair of trousers. I don't need a glorified belt of a skirt to walk, run, climb flights of stairs and earn a crust. Nor do I want to flash my knickers as I do so.

Mini skirts have in turn been reviled and celebrated by women's movements. We just don't seem to be able to make up our minds as to whether they exploit the wearer, or the man the wearer is exploiting. And as for the parallels all too often drawn between skirt lengths and the economy, I'm sure Gordon Brown has more pressing matters on his mind than how his economic policies will make girls' skirts yo-yo. I hope so anyway. One thing is for sure however: if your legs measure anything less than 5ft from waist to stockinged heel, don't even think about it. The most important difference between 1967 and 1997 is that women now have a choice. You will not be regarded as a frumpy old maid if your skirt doesn't skim cellulite-free thighs.

If you like to show you are abreast of the trends but your legs are not smooth and slender pins, take the post-feminist, post-post modern, post- backlash option as designed by the young genius, Hussein Chalayan. It's called the skirt-trouser, a pair of narrow pants with the shortest, crotch- skimming skirt attached across the bum, all-in-one. You can bend over all you like and whether you are wearing knickers or not, no one will be any the wiser.