The Style Police: Will we wear it?

Huge, bell-shaped skirts look great in period dramas. And there they should stay, warns James Sherwood

NO, REALLY. Say it isn't so. Just when you thought it was safe to give the slimline maxi skirt a miss for winter, here comes another shape. Or should we say here it comes again. At the start of each season, fashion editors have laid pretty safe bets on the catwalk themes that will come through. After a month or so, we see what people are really wearing and report accordingly. And at this point in the season, it is also entertaining to look at those styles, hyped at first as the season's big stories, that the great fashion-buying public has seen fit to eschew. Top contender for this season's catwalk cold turkey is the big, bell-shaped skirt.

Let's look at the prime suspects here: Yohji Yamamoto's chunky, loose- knit rug skirts which share proportion with knitted toilet roll dollies, Hussein Chalayan's knee-length circle cut "New Look" skirt and Jean-Paul Gaultier's Frida Kahlo Mexican gypsy flounce skirts with Tibetan knit sweaters. Let's talk proportion and practicality first. Then, in deference to these undeniably directional designers, we can talk about concept.

"These are shapes that look beautiful in pictures. The full skirts are a pretty, romantic shape. But for practicality they are a nonsense," says Harriet Quick, editor of Frank magazine. But in fashion's grand scheme, she points out, these things do have their place. "These extremes are signifying a move away from body-conscious, skin-tight lines of the past season. It's about clothes that will stand away from the body; complimenting the body shape but not following the body line. Helmut Lang has been playing with the dirndl shape for the past few seasons. The real story is the new emphasis on the waist and a move away from the cleavage and the bare back."

Certainly, many is the woman who has seen Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth and yearned for the rustle of taffeta and the romanticism of skirts that look as if they've been pumped full of air. It was said of the great couturier Cristobal Balenciaga that he sculpted to fit the air around a woman's body. It is a concept both Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake play with.

But none of this is very helpful when you have a life to live. Fashion became more body conscious and enclosed because we were effectively streamlining for a faster life. The days when 15 yards of wool crepe can be gathered into a Dior New Look skirt are gone. One of Yamamoto's coarse-knit bell skirts does indeed look romantic and rural when Maggie Rizer is romping through the Scottish highlands and Paolo Roversi is taking her picture. In a contemporary context - for example, downtown New York - you'd be mistaken for a Hungarian refugee.

So why does Yohji do it? And why does American Vogue give Hussein Chalayan's cherry red prom dress a double page spread in the November issue? Of what use is it all to you and me? Let's call it an extreme fashion forecast, an indicator of the way shapes are going. Harriet Quick is quite correct in her reading of the catwalk smoke signals. Clothing will move away from the body. We can all smugly snuggle into our quilted nylon zip front tanks and already be on top of the trend. But already nylon skate pants (by Aura Dimon), floor-length quilted jackets (at McQueen menswear) and skirts (by Elspeth Gibson) are padded with the finest layer of wadding, giving them a life and movement beyond the body.

Nobody is suggesting you will be investing in a 20-layer gauze petticoat to stuff under a circular-cut skirt; not unless you are auditioning for The Ronettes' comeback tour, anyway. No, what we have seen already is a move away from the straight-up pencil skirt. There's an asymmetric hem, a side split or that bit of volume in the designer versions already. Maybe the skirt will pretty up into the circular cut. But judging by the abject failure of the knife-pleated skirt for autumn/winter 98, I don't think modern women are ready for skirts that explode from the waist and sit uneasily on the knee. The full skirt and skinny rib sweater for evening is, however, a way of reintroducing a little bit of extravagance and luxe to the winter wardrobe. After dark, full is fine. Before twilight? We'll take a rain check.

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