The Style Police: It won't be long

Fashion magazines are full of maxis. But it's the knee-length skirt that has captured hearts and minds this season, says James Sherwood

THE PAST has a nasty habit of catching up on you. Ask General Pinochet. Well, Style Police is currently under house arrest and Lady Thatcher is peeling a consolatory grape at our bedside. You see, when the maxi skirt made its comeback for 1998, Style Police practically wrote a love letter to the new shape. It was looking good in bias cut black jersey; slit thigh-high at McQueen's Bladerunner collection for Givenchy. It looked darling at Chanel with a cropped jacket and a cloche hat. It even looked appealing when freckly models like Maggie Rizer wore the heavy tweed, floor-sweeping maxi while romping through corn fields for Harper's Bazaar. But after all that golden prose in praise of the maxi, you simply aren't buying it. Yet. Instead, it's the on-the-knee styles that have proved more inspiring.

Here are the problems with the maxi. Extreme fashion takes on the heavy tweed floor-length maxi look dreadful. At the shows, even the fashion girls looked like extras from Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Spend a night in Soho wearing the maxi and you'll pick up a nice collection of fag butts, chewing gum and dubious stains on the hem. So for starters we need to lop at least four inches off the hem before they work for real life.

Next, we need to perfect the fit. Loose and slouchy is fine on a stick insect. On a girl with "a shape", loose tweed might as well be a potato sack. And as for the pleated, A-line versions: box pleats that kick like a tiller girl into an A-shaped skirt make the lower half of the body resemble a dalek. Don't listen to all that "For women with thighs like the clashing rocks, an A-line maxi covers all sins". Nonsense. Look at all those pasty- faced, i-D-reading girls who hang round photographers' studios in Old Street wearing tweed below-the-knee A-lines. It ain't pretty. Drop it to ankle length and you're talking Victorian nanny in a Hammer Horror B-movie.

As a guideline, think about clothing that follows the line of the body. Your body. With the maxi, take time and try on. If you're not 100 per cent happy with the choice, then wait until the next winter season when everyone else will be wearing the right maxi. For now, follow the body. Think about straight, slimline skirts. Kick up your kitten heels when you see one of those poor unfortunates struggling with flat Moroccan slippers and a floor-length maxi. Come next winter, these design faults will have been rectified.

It's a question of timing. The catwalk shows for autumn/winter 98 are in March. The designers deliver autumn/winter stock as early as July. You're only just buying for the new season in October - or not, as the case may be. Think of the catwalk shows like The Truman Show. They are observed by everyone but, unlike the Jim Carey character Truman, the fashion industry knows we are watching. The front row "girls" - who are invariably 40 if they are a day - will have been wearing the maxi since March, come blazing heat or howls of ridicule on the street. It looks like you won't be wearing them until autumn/winter 99.

Thus, the real hits of the season were introduced last winter: the fine wool slouch pant, the grey flannel combat pant, the sharpened pencil skirt which brushes the knee like a Siamese cat. After a year, the high street has them all down pat and the designers have continued the people's choice pieces. The pencil skirt has endured for four seasons now. It will not go away. Designers can knife pleat it, elongate it, A-line it but you all know the straight-up pencil skirt is right.

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