Frumpy, dumpy and lumpy. Spring's orthopaedic chic may be comfortable but, by God, it's ugly. Now fashion editors are coming out of the closet and admitting it, says James Sherwood
In a FIT of social consciousness, designers are turning to OAPs for inspiration this spring. Mrs Merton's fashion moment has finally arrived. On supervamp Shalom Harlow, big black knickers worn under a flesh-coloured chiffon shift were Dolce e Gabbana's homage to the Forties Betty Grable bathing beauty. (Never mind if they make mere mortals look like Beryl Reid in Entertaining Mr Sloane or, more precisely, mutton dressed as lamb.)

Once you are trussed up in your big knickers, why not slip into a sensible, below-the-knee skirt from Prada, a cardigan-coat with a ratty piece of fur tacked on the collar and cuffs from Anna Sui, and Patrick Cox's beige, block-heel, sensible brogues? Follow the fashion rules for this season and you'll be all the rage at the whist drive, darling.

Madonna, no spring chicken herself, was spotted lunching with Goldie Hawn at London restaurant Nobu wearing the aforementioned cardi-coat and a nice pair of clumpy shoes with a T-bar to show-off her flesh-coloured tights. Madonna is, in short, a model of Orthopaedic Chic. As Lily Savage says, "You know you're getting old when you find yourself in Marks & Spencer saying, 'Look at those beautiful slacks!'" We can't blame Madonna for eschewing conical bras and bondage heels in her new role as single mother. But does she have to dress like Coronation Street's Emily Bishop to display her maternal instincts?

"When I challenged the Prada Granny style," says Vogue fashion features director Lisa Armstrong, "I had more response from readers, colleagues and designers than for any other report I had written."

On a working trip to Russia, Armstrong photographed the archaic swirly carpets and garish wallpaper in her hotel, because they looked exactly like Miuccia Prada's offensive Seventies-print collection two seasons ago. It is Vogue's duty, as undisputed fashion-industry bible, to present the most important themes each season. "But most people have an instinct for their own style," says Armstrong. "If you think something is ugly, then don't buy it - even if it is photographed in Vogue."

Brenda Polan, style director at the Daily Mail, has also blown the whistle on Miuccia's "ironic" granny prints. "So powerful is the lure of the Prada label," she wrote, "(and in particular its discreet little black and silver triangular logo) that those under its sway were not leaving without buying something, anything - however ill-fitting, unflattering, tacky-looking and overpriced."

Prada may have gone minimal for Autumn/Winter, but that still means a Spring/Summer of what has been billed the New Femininity. Frilly blouses and floral prints? We're getting dangerously close to Mrs Merton country again. The good news is, as Armstrong says, women have so many choices in fashion now that Orthopaedic Chic can be almost universally ignored. Communications analyst Wendy Abrams says, "Designers don't take young women's figures into account with below-the-knee skirts. They aren't flattering for your calves. And women under 40 just won't buy big knickers."

"You only wear big knickers if they are the last thing in your underwear drawer," says interior designer Columbine Strickland. "A friend of mine did veer towards the Granny-style. She had a below-the knee, tweed skirt that looked as though she was wrapped in a blanket whenever she sat down. When I told her to accessorise it with a hot-water bottle and half-moon glasses, she got the hint."