Fashion: A season of quiet elegance

IF YOU'RE Lady Gaga or Daphne Guinness, turn to the crossword now - there's nothing here for you fabulous creatures.

Sorry to lose two readers, but you might as well set this paper aside, and get back to tending your closets of bonkers couture gowns and fantastical armadillo-like shoes. Everyone else, gather round, I have important news of fashion's next big thing: reality.

Summer is over. Even although we're only tip-toeing into July, all our leading stores have long since red-penned their finery. In fact, initial reductions of 40 per cent and 50 per cent have already given way to even more drastic cuts in the hope of accelerating every less-loved-than-anticipated fashion treasure off the racks and out through the main exit - in a carrier bag.

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You might be lucky. Perhaps you'll stumble across that Lanvin frock of your wildest dreams, now marked down to a price that makes it vaguely feasible. And any 80 per cent reduction can certainly give fresh appeal to your second-, third- or fourth-best options. But style-savvy women are already bored by summery leftovers - drastic sale-time reductions merely underlining the dubious appeal of the season's playsuits and micro-shorts. Even a prolonged spell of warm weather is unlikely to revise their opinion.

They suspect "sale bargain" and "must-have" are mutually exclusive terms. So right now they're either lying low, relishing this mid-year lull in temptation - or they're plotting how to cope with the much simpler shape of things to come.

Many are going to find the future challenging. For, in contrast to the vividly coloured prints that have made headlines during the past six months, fashion is hurtling into a reality-checked autumn of elegant sobriety. Consider unadorned, fuss-free silhouettes in restrained shades of grey and camel, as shown here. Elegant and ladylike of course, but most certainly not Lady Gaga-like.

If you anticipated that, in tandem with the threatened cutbacks on public spending, there would be a clampdown on fashion's mindless extravagance, indulgence, frivolity and sexy-excess, well, you've been proved right. For, although Daphne Guinness will continue to dazzle us with her flamboyant style, most women will probably be opting for something much less outr. And they're likely to find the coming season's minimalist elegance fits the mood of these uncertain times as snugly as a pair of silk-lined gloves.

Sometimes, appearances can be deceptive. Consider the simple shift dress that you might find yourself wearing over bare arms - or working, pinafore-like, over shirts and sweaters. Although modest and unshowy, it's very likely to be fashioned from supple nappa leather. And most of autumn's very simple wear-anywhere knee-length coats (even from high street brands) will be enriched by a healthy measure of cashmere. Although the new silhouettes are understated, and the colour palettes decidedly low key, you'll find the fabrications discreetly indulgent.

Leather, of course, gives any garment an edge. In fact, it's not so especially discreet at all. Even when cut and tailored into the most refined garment, leather can't escape its connection to fetish. This may ensure any woman dressed neck-to-knee in leather will be regarded as purposeful - in a bossy Margaret Thatcher meets Bree Van de Kamp sort of way. But you'll note that the coming season's must-have bags are simply not big enough to accommodate all the paraphernalia of a fully fledged dominatrix.

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However, there's little doubt that our tastemakers believe these are times for a stricter dress code. The market for escapist fantasy is shrinking. After seasons of dressing women as flower fairies, gypsies, vagabonds and not-so-ancient mariners, fashion has wised up and settled on a look that does the business.

This is a pragmatic response to economic fact. Folks who lose their jobs clearly won't be shopping. But folks who remain employed will be making every effort to look as if they take their responsibilities very seriously.

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Although neat, tidy and focused, the new pared-down elegance is no guarantee of job security. And any HR professional will have good reason to doubt that smart clothes signify an exceptional skill set or guarantee competence. But, at the very least, the coming season's reality-checked fashion diet should inspire confidence.

You're already fretting over the cost of re-stocking your wardrobe? Glorious as it must be to snare the very first pick of the coming season's definitive collections by Celine or Jil Sander, you'll be thrilled by the number of high street brands addressing the new fashion mood.

Even the most discerning shopper may be amazed by M&S's leather skirt, Next's soft leather T-shirt, or the supple leather shift at Dorothy Perkins. They'll surely love the marly monochrome tweeds and camel tailoring at Hobbs, Next or Debenhams.

Given that Samantha Cameron has been buying her shoes at Next, while Michelle Obama is said to be ordering from the Boden catalogue, it seems that high-profile women are already snaring style without the slightly hollow kudos (let alone ruinous price) of a luxury brand.

In fashion's new reality check, the smart money will be going on clothes that look the part but don't cost the Earth. Unless, of course, you're Gaga or Guinness.