Where mid-period Princess Di meets Angela Rippon... Susan Irvine deplores rich British 'style'
YOU'RE really rather rich. You have a professionally decorated house in W8 and send the boys to the right school. You bus in a cook for dinner parties. You attend all the right events, Ascot, Henley. Gallery openings. Cocktail parties. Balls. Yours is a life of privilege, the life that other people dream of as they slog away on the assembly line or behind the till. And, of course, you wince a little at people like that. It's their - clothes. Essex-girl stilettoes. Spice Girls result-dresses. Shell suits. But then, let's face it, people like that can't afford designer clothes. So it isn't surprising, is it?

What is surprising, though, what is absolutely gobsmacking, is what you yourself, Mrs Well-To-Do, choose to bedeck yourself in for an evening out on the town. Polka dots, big mothers of polka dots in white on pillar- box red. Suits that make you look like your head's coming out the top of a turquoise box. Jolly scallop-edged cocktail dresses maybe cinched with a jaunty bow. Bold sweaters with baby animals appliqued across the bosom. Hipsters? Yours are more like boobsters, and usually teamed with shiny court shoes sporting stitched-on leather decoration in contrasting colours.

What is this strange conundrum whereby those who can actually afford exquisite Galliano tailleurs and Dolce dresses eschew them in favour of "smart" outfits featuring big, gilt buttons by non-fashion designers like "Emma Somerset French Dressing"? It's a horrible irony that the rich, the customers designers dream of, live in a parallel universe to Prada.

Flick through an issue of Tatler and there are fashion pages showing Alberta Ferretti, Jil Sander and Prada by the yard. Now flip to the "Bystander" pages at the back to see what the readers actually wear and the stark realism hits you like the upper-lass equivalent of a Ken Loach film. These readers love big bows, these readers love straw hats, and boy, do these readers love taffeta. Pity the benighted fashion editors at Tatler, making a stab at a fashion education by putting what they call Tatler-Type People (TTPs) in ravishing garb for photoshoots. Only to groan when they spot the very same TTPs nipping into Escada for a nifty emerald skirt suit. Like any other member of a clique, these people want, above all, to belong. If you're a Hell's Angel, you follow the head of your chapter. If you're a TTP you follow an elevated being who is a cross between Princess Diana and Angela Rippon.

Bond Street may be a fashion-lover's heaven, but snuck in between the designer dream shops are a series of non-fashion nightmares. Witness Robina, a favourite shopping stop for the fortysomething well-preserved and well- heeled. Here, alongside the Escada and Renzo no-nos are clothes from Christian Lacroix's Bazaar line. Great. Only the clothes have been carefully picked from the Lacroix equivalent of a bad acid trip. Even when rich British women do dare to buy designer clothes, they always go for the wrong designers, or the things good designers dream up on a hangover.

The whole phenomenon is galling. Galling for those of us who moon over the pages of Vogue just aching for a fat bank account. Galling for the talented designers these women overlook in favour of a "little show-stopper in a nice strong pink please". Galling for anyone who loves bad taste, even. For this is not bad taste, this is a sartorial anachronism. Bad taste provides an essential piquant tartness to the fashion vocabulary as seen in the style of Gianni Versace's sister and muse, Donatella. Fronting it in acidulous stretch dresses, killer heels and a George Hamilton tan, Donatella is a fashion victim's version of Bet Lynch.

Perhaps then, dream dressing being as remote as the Eleusinian mysteries to them, the cocktail set should take another long, hard look at those Essex girls. They may not have the money for designer clothes but they at least have great bad taste. Sartorially speaking, a shot of Dagenham's finest could be just what "smart" women need to boot them back on to Planet Fashion.