Trews are stranger than fiction

Style police: Fashion's latest lunacy? Trousers under a skirt. If you must layer, think salwar kameez

You would think wearing a dress over a pair of trousers was a sign of chronic indecision. Can't decide between the pinstripe flannel pants and the Ghost dress? Wear 'em both. Or is it a sinister plot hatched by the designers to make you buy twice as many pieces next season? Actually, it's neither. Under the banner headline, "New shapes for a new season", fashion has decided it is hip to layer like your life depended on it. It was the Guardian's fashion editor Susannah Frankel who featured "the look" in her pages. "Last summer," she explains, "fashion was frilly, it was pretty, it was feminine: great in pictures but women didn't buy it. Wearing a pair of trousers under the dress defeminises the frock. It's a sharper look and it's pro older women. They don't want to wear girlie dresses on their own but may be tempted by the extra cover of a softly-tailored pair of pants underneath."

The layer look started with young London clubbers wearing sari skirts wrapped over frayed blue jeans. Bjork took the look a step towards mainstream fashion by wearing Hussein Chalayan's apron dresses over jeans and trainers. None of this, however, endeared frocks over slacks to women whose night- club days are over. "I don't think it's a particularly designer look," says Frank's features editor Harriet Quick, "even though the silhouette came from Martin Margiela and Dries Van Noten. I'd call it the urban vagrant look. It's DIY, it's for girls who want to throw a dress over jeans and be confrontational. It is the opposite to the Spice Girl cleavage, thigh and navel femininity. Fashion has always been enchanted by the gypsy, vagrant, ethnic style. It's strong for spring 1998."

If we really want to talk influences, then the salwar kameez is where the traditional tunic top over harem pants is at. Sherald Lamden, designer of Seraph, has made the sari wrap in navy stretch tulle and attached it to wide navy pants (pounds 120). Last season's net seraph "fairy dresses" have gone black and diamante (pounds 150) and Lamden brought the black and indigo jeans from street style to give her dresses what Harriet Quick would call "a bit of whip". Evening Standard fashion writer Angela Buttolph says, "I saw Sherald this week wearing faded cords under her net dress with Converse boots. She looked fabulous. I couldn't pull that look off. I believe dresses over trousers is a very cool i-D kind of look. Having said that, a Ghost dress over a fluid pair of pants is pretty fool-proof. Unless you are super-confident, I'd make sure you got your colours right rather than clashing extreme fabrics like denim trousers and georgette dresses."

The bottom line in the trouser/frock debate has to be whether this is the return of grunge. We all remember the Nineties vagrant chic multi- layers and we don't want to go back there. Jeans under cocktail frocks are all too reminiscent of Courtney Love before she had her Hollywood makeover. Well, breathe easy, kids, because grunge is as dead as the sainted Kurt Cobain. The ethnic embroidery of India, the salwar kameez chiffon pants and tunic and the clever wrap-and-fold Japanese origami fashion are the key to wearing trousers over frocks without looking like a bag lady. Keep the layers thin as spun sugar and avoid denim. Simple as that.

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