But we don't know what to wear: It may have been politically incorrect to tell women how to dress, but some have confessed to Roger Tredre that they miss that kind of guidance

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DO WOMEN want to be told what to wear? At a time when fashion is going through a period of dramatic change it is worth posing the question again.

I used to think the answer was no, that women grew out of being told what to wear years ago. According to received wisdom, they started thinking for themselves at some time during the Seventies. By the mid-Eighties, the job of a fashion editor had changed beyond recognition. She no longer laid down the law to her readers. Her task was to encourage or to suggest new ways of dressing, but she dare not appear to be high-handed. She knew that her readers were independent spirits, sure of their own judgement.

For feminists, this was a good thing, too. The dos and don'ts of fashion magazines were part of the oppression of women. The disintegration of fashion by diktat was a welcome sign, a defining moment in the struggle for liberation.

But where does that leave us today? Many of my women friends confess they are mystified by current developments, freewheeling through umpteen different looks. Everything goes, say the fashion editors, but perhaps that's not what the reader wants to hear. Should she risk wearing a pair of flares? Should she splash out on a jacket by one of those strangely named Belgian designers?

This post-modernist free-for-all does not make shopping any easier. In recent seasons, designers have ransacked the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and Sixties. Now we are into the early Seventies, and the word is that the late Seventies will be next: punk and all. But it is becoming more complicated than that because all these retro influences are beginning to interweave.

High street stores are no better. Too many are like supermarkets: bewildering rows of products that make your head spin. Oh, for a few more little independent shops with strong- minded proprietors who tell you what looks good on you. Men are happy to be told what to wear. For the most part, we crave guidance and accept it with gratitude. Designers and retailers understand our insecurities, so they keep the message simple. Menswear stores are full of mini-dictators, making up their customers' minds for them. It does make clothes shopping easier.

Paradoxically, the freedom of modern fashion has sparked anxiety. We are living in an age of sensory overload in which one could argue that every garment is in vogue. My guess is that, while no one wants to return to lemming dressing, there is a genuine desire for guidance.

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