ON the cover of this month's Elle magazine a neon-pink headline proclaims the 'New- Look Powerdressing'. Sharp- suited models fill the pages. The skirts are short and tight, the jackets fitted, heels high and lipstick red. The shoulder pads seem to have gone, but otherwise these suits look exactly like the ones everyone was wearing in 1988. Oh goodie, many women will have thought, because I still have 1988's clothes hanging in the wardrobe. All I have to do to save myself a lot of money is take the shoulder pads out.

Wrong. Read that headline again. This is new-look powerdressing. Nothing whatsoever like your old suit, despite the evidence of your eyes. Completely different. If you can't see it, poor old you. Everyone else can.

But can they? 'It's a softer animal,' says Kathryn Flett, editor of Arena, struggling to put her finger on it. 'It's not about accentuating or putting on masculine armour and broad shoulders. The new suits don't walk into the room before you, they move with you.'

Other fashion pundits are equally insistent that the new look really is . . . well, new. 'I just don't think the silhouette is the same for the Nineties suit,' says Elizabeth Walker, executive fashion and beauty editor for Marie Claire magazine. She will definitely not be attacking her old shoulder pads with a QuickUnPik. 'I have a perfectly wonderful Versace jacket that I just can't wear anymore, the shoulders are wrong, the whole shape is different now. It starts from the shoulders, goes in at the waist, there's more humour - it's an altogether more casual look.'

Retailers are equally keen to emphasise the exciting new qualities of this season's merchandise - and to scotch any last faint vestige of hope that your old suit might be revivable. 'The new suit bears no relation to the powerdressing suit of the Eighties,' says Debbie Beaumont-Howell, of Harrods' fashion floor, who expects to shift a good few of them. 'The customer welcomes a return to tailoring, certainly, but the emphasis now is on softness, a longer knee-length floaty skirt and no shoulder pads. We're looking at a wide spectrum of colours, from lovely, soft pastels to bright jewel shades - there's certainly no beige this season. The new suit is a far softer line and nothing like the structured style of the Eighties powerdressing look.'

New Suit buzz words are 'fluidity' and 'softness' - the technically minded may home in on high-cut arm holes, while shoulders are 'tiny, tiny, tiny' (Karl Lagerfeld). So now you know.

Caryn Franklin, style journalist and presenter of The Clothes Show, puts it rather differently. 'It's about making money by marketing a so-called new look and relegating the perfectly serviceable items we already have in our wardrobes to old news.' Franklin is one woman who isn't updating her wardrobe unnecessarily. 'Fashion journalists always make sweeping statements about styles of dress being in or out when really they all know the issue to be more complex. It's the way the fashion industry works, selling us clothes we don't really need.'

(Photograph omitted)