Marion Hume found clothing reality in short supply on the Paris catwalks this week. Photographs by Peter Macdiarmid and Ben Elwes The approach of the millenium appears to be causing confusion The word `fashion' has rarely been synonomous with the word 'clothes"
Do you believe in fairies? Fashion designers would like you to. The clearest signal from the Paris shows was that designers are not sure what to believe in any more, and so they are indulging in a retreat from reality.

It started to happen last season, as designers caught retro fever and hallucinated about what women might want to wear. But how many women have you seen wearing crinolines since? Now designers are hoping that the consumer is ready to dance the light fantastic. Somehow I doubt it.

Yet fashion fantasy can be enchanting to watch. John Galliano, the talented British designer who is now so hotly tipped for the soon-to-be vacant Givenchy Haute Couture job that his fingers must be burning, presented one of those shows that makes the heart tremble. Every one of the 23 outfits was exactly fitted for the supermodel curves. The craftmanship was beautiful. But don't look to Galliano if you want something to wear in real life.

Galliano has his own vision. He is a leader, not a follower. But it appears other designers are floundering. Not surprisingly. If I knew the answer to the question "Where is fashion going?" I would be making thousands as a consultant to fashion designers who clearly haven't got a clue. The approach of the millennium appears to be causing creative terror, confusion and, in some cases, hilarity (witness the neon nylon blow-up survivalist ballgowns from Jean Paul Gaultier). Meanwhile, other designers are proposing that we all follow Galliano through the wardrobe into Narnia and forget the demands of modern life.

Throughout the Paris autumn/winter 1995/96 shows, stories were being spun in clothes. At Yohji Yamamoto, our heroine was a particularly glum Anna Karenina in a lot of heavy wool ankle-grazing coats (how many weighty wool coats does a damsel in distress need?) At Vivienne Westwood, our heroine was a grande horizontale, all heaving, corseted bosom and provocative, padded derrire. At Sonia Rykiel (usually a practical old bird), our heroine had walked straight from The Great Gatsby, heavy with tragedy and all wrapped up in a fake-fur trimmed cardigan. Myriam Schaeffer at Nina Ricci had Degas's little ballerina, fleeing from the stage with her jacket slung over her tutu.

In the past, one used to come back from Paris with the "trends" for the following season. These days, as few women obey what designers dictate anyway, these are less easy to spot - what with ballgowns looking as if they once appeared on the set of Amadeus getting in the way.

But if you do want to know what to acquire for next winter, here is your shopping list: a grey flannel suit cut either just above the knee or to shin level; grey flannel Oxford bags (yes, at Chanel, Christian Lacroix and Valentino they staged a comeback); something in magenta mohair, a colour that has not been hot since the end of the Seventies; a pretty pastel dress (the best were of layers of floral net at Comme des Garons); plus, if you are feeling frightfully twee and are thoroughly fed-up with that utility Prada bag, the new option is the "twin" handbag combination, which looks like Mummy and Baby handbags, attached to a single strap of sherbet-pale satin.

What is happening in fashion mirrors what is happening in the movies (where the stakes are even higher and insiders even more terrified of the present). Hollywood is either retreating into fairy tale and myth (the imminent Legends of the Fall, Rob Roy and First Knight are but a few examples), or it is embracing a tricky, hi-tech possible future (think Tank Girl). Fashion, too, is doing fantasy. But then, the word "fashion" has rarely been synonymous with "clothes".

And yet, how attractive real clothes for real life can look when one sees them on the catwalk. The best right now are from Yves Saint Laurent. I could have done without his Greek waiter's gold-trimmed waistcoats for evening; but for day, his classic grey flannel suits, with just a hint of the Forties fitted shape, were desirable; so, too, were trouser-suits that you could chair a meeting in, without having to act like Lauren Bacall. Here were clothes to fit into one's life, rather than costumes that demanded one played a role.

So, too, at Rochas, where Peter O'Brien did not try to take his predominantly tailored-suit- and-evening-wear customer anywhere she didn't want to go. Here were suits one could wear without needing a Fifties-style cockfeather hat and snood to go with them, plus evening wear that was relaxed yet luxurious, so one would not have to act the Hollywood star.

Fashion fantasy is fabulous, if the designer - and the wearer - has the imagination, the wit and the bravery of John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood. But most clothing consumers don't want to go to Rada before they feel happy in what they wear. The pretty and the practical was in short supply on the Paris catwalks. Yet the collections will look very different by the time the store buyers, their eyes fixed on the bottom line, have edited and tweaked them into what you will see in the shops come autumn.