This is the season of the drawstring. Prepare to wear them on hems, necklines - even seams, says JAMES SHERWOOD
Who decided drawstrings were compulsory for spring/summer '99? Every summer, we can pretty much rely on a rash of drawstring linen palazzo pants which make many a derriere look as fat as Cartman from South Park. But this season we're seeing drawstrings on necklines, waistbands, jacket and skirt hems, dress side seams and sleeves. Before you sign up for St Martin's nightclasses in cat's cradle, let's look at the why before we tackle the why-bother.

The themes this season may be diverse - and you're probably sick of hearing them chanted like a mantra by now: romantic, utility, Victoriana, gypsy. But every mood lends itself to the drawstring detail.

Designers like the divine Elspeth Gibson and Ghost have always played with floaty, ethereal shapes only, this season, they - along with Jean- Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and John Rocha - have gone into overdrive with pin-tucks, smocking, ruffles, ruches, broderie anglaise and lace trim. The drawstring is a key element of romance.

The romantic theme feeds the vogue for Victoriana: Veronique Branquinho's Mistress Strictly white-cotton, high-ruffle-neck blouses and severe black skirts, for example. In an age where exposed flesh in fashion is leaving us with fewer options for a "new" erogenous zone, we may be wise to return to an era when a woman's ankle would make men stand to attention. The drawstring itself - as opposed to buttons and zips - is an erotic, easy means of undressing. It is a gentle riposte to Velcro (which makes undressing about as romantic as ripping off a plaster).

But the drawstring is also a staple in sportswear. So we've seen the detail in sport-inspired collections by Jil Sander, Julien MacDonald and Marni. The gypsy look? Well, no drawstring no dice on that score. In short, you're not going to escape the drawstring whichever trend you turn to in a diverse, eclectic season. Naturally, none of this was lost on the British high-street designers. It's a no-gamble trend. Whereas copies of Gucci flower-power prints may turn out to be the high-street cheat turkey, drawstring is a safe bet.

How to wear it...

Style Police shudders to think of y'all trussed up like Sainsbury's frozen chickens with a drawstring on every seam. It's not a look. Let's start with the basics. Drawstring on the hem of a blouson jacket? You'll look 6lbs heavier. Drawstrings on the hem of a dress? Superfluous detail. There is no point unless you want to make your own puffball. Don't, please, even go there.

The function of a drawstring is to gather. It ruches fabric in much the same manner as a Venetian blind. So bulky fabric plus drawstring is basically asking for the Buckingham Palace curtains effect. The total winner is a white stretch cotton top with the drawstring on the sleeve by Paul Costelloe Dressage (pounds 95). The delicate ruche on the cap sleeve is the one no-danger zone on every woman's body.

How to get the look on the high street

On the gypsy trip, there's a cute milk-maid top by Etam (pounds 20) with the drawstring under the bustline and smocking on the neck and puff sleeve. On the neckline, drawstring is like putting two oranges into one of those supermarket mesh bags. Etam's smocking gives greater control.

Look out for the faux drawstring, like the little tie ribbons on the neckline of Oasis' pretty pink linen camisole (pounds 49.99). It's not meant to gather on the neck and - try it for yourselves - it's a kinder option.

All, and we mean all, of the mags feature River Island's white three- tiered cotton gypsy skirt with a drawstring waist (pounds 14.99). At first Style Police wondered where the merit was in increasing the volume of a skirt at the waist, the hips and the knee. Then we had to admit there are women out there with long enough, slim enough legs to adore flouncing round like Carmen with a crop top, tan and pair of strappy sandals. For those of us who can't, let's not be bitter.

When it comes to utility, Style Police thinks you all know how to wear a cagoule with a draw-string hem. So let's leave it at that.

One final note: if you do fancy the idea of those drawstrings shooting up the side-seam of a dress then fine. The threat of uneven ruches from armpit to thigh is completely removed by Cultura. Its cerise-pink sheath dress (pounds 95) has the ruche stitched in from bust dart to abdomen and it works.


Left: White stretch cotton top with drawstring sleeve, Oasis (pounds 95).

Cultura: 0171 278 4843.

Etam: 0171 636 5747.

Oasis: 01865 881 986. River Island: 0181 991 4500.