Leading Article: An eternal passion for the latest fashions

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THOSE WHO think fashion will one day go out of date need look only at Pompeii's wall-paintings to appreciate its enduring attraction; or compare the dowdiness of Henry VII's court with the exuberant European styles around his successor, Henry VIII. Human delight at new forms of dress is plain.

The fashion caravan that pitched camp in Milan at the weekend will defy the puritans and moralists as it travels on to Paris, London and finally New York. Haute couture will remain elitist - serious money distancing itself from the herd that constantly threatens to catch up. Some creations will look ridiculous. Cynics will echo Oscar Wilde, who described fashion as 'a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months'.

Yet despite public protestation at the outlandishness of it all, within a couple of years the fantastic will have become, for a moment, the norm. By a process of osmosis the once outre will insinuate itself into the lives of conformists. The anointment of new trends by the icons of the catwalks is irresistible to all but the most strong willed. For although every generation laughs at old fashions, each religiously follows the new. Nostalgia for the Seventies has taken this truth one step further: even while platform shoes and flares still evoke mirth, the style-conscious are buying them in obedience to fashion's latest commandment.

This religion is not all oppression. Fashion is often reassuring, an opiate for the insecure. Instead of having to rely on their own taste, shoppers are spoon-fed new looks. Those who keep up with the times can feel a glow, confident of peer approval. It is said that a fashionable woman is always in love - with herself. However, those whose physiques fall short of fashion's cruel requirements face a challenge to their self-esteem.

Their only hope is a robust faith in themselves, well-defended against the onslaught of the day's style demands. Alternatively, those who aspire to meet the expectations of their time may prefer to take comfort from Coco Chanel. The French couturiere liked to say that fashion was made to be unfashionable. So the wheel may turn in favour of those out of step: grunge proves that even the drabbest may have their day.