style police: I'll huff and I'll puff...

Why are sparks flying over fashion and fags? asks James Sherwood

Fashion has always been treated like a naughty schoolgirl by the establishment. Her skirt is too short, she wears too much make-up in class and has a sharp tongue when told off. So, it came as no surprise when the Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, took her to task for puffing on a B&H behind the bike sheds. Models who smoke on the catwalk are "disgusting", he sniffed.

Supermodels and cigs, Dobson would have us believe, are as fatal a cocktail for the youth of today as Alcopops. Cigarettes are used to inject (unfortunate fashion phrase) a frisson of danger to catwalk shows - catwalk shows circa 1972. Not since Helmut Newton in Seventies' Vogue has the cigarette been in fashion. In the rare instance that a Versace or Dolce e Gabbana stylist thrusts a smouldering cigarette-holder into Claudia Schiffer's hand, it only makes fashion editors in the front row drool. It never makes headlines.

"I haven't seen a cigarette on the catwalk for seasons," says Daily Telegraph fashion editor Julia Robson. This is not strictly true, as her colleague Hilary Alexander - affectionately known as Madame Cigarette by the Paris Tabacs - always leaps onto the catwalk brandishing a fag and notebook after the show. "It is a non-issue as far as fashion is concerned," she continues. More to the point, never have there been more photos of models with cigarettes in the national newspapers than since Dobson's outburst.

Dobson's biggest ticking-off was reserved for Schiffer, who was photographed with a cigarette even though she doesn't actually smoke. Anyone who saw the shot of Schiffer - silly, sheepish smirk on her doll-like lips - would know that she doesn't smoke. She holds the cigarette like a stick of dynamite with zero finesse or guile. Hardly an endorsement for fags. It takes real party girls Kate, Stella and Naomi to really work that ciggy. But they don't get the chance, because you'd no more see a cigarette on a Nineties fashion page than you would a sequin ra-ra skirt.

The atmosphere backstage at any catwalk show is tense to say the least and hairdressers, stylists, make- up artists and models all smoke like navvies to calm their nerves. It just so happens that the world's press is on hand to film and photograph. What they see are professional people privately easing stress with a ciggy - a scene you might just as easily find on the pavement outside most office buildings.

We all know Betty Boothroyd enjoys a fag after Question Time, but I don't hear Dobson calling for her resignation. Maybe because she is on his territory - not in the glamorous, untouchable world of fashion. Got a light, Naomi?

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