On the catwalk, sharp looks are giving way to gentle, flowing shapes and fabrics. Laura Campbell reports on how to dress like a lady without overdoing the ruffles. Ladies who like to look, well, ladylike have had it tough in the past few seasons. Just think of the adjectives fashion journalists have used when trying to describe the recent year's collections. Shapes have been "aggressive"; tailoring has been "slick" or "razor-sharp". Shoulders have "attitude", and heels have been "fierce" or "killer".
But the hard core zippered, studded, slashed and shredded looks of late have given way to a softer, distinctly more feminine style. For spring/summer, it's time to get used to "pretty" and "girly" looks in "floaty" and "delicate" fabrics in "sweet" and "subtle" candy-coloured shades. This should be viewed as a good sign. Perhaps now that the economy is picking up, we can let our defences down. The first place to spot these new, gentler, romantic styles is in eveningwear. Designers have changed tack quite remarkably. The mood is definitely less edgy and much more playful.
Take Alber Elbaz's last collection for Lanvin. His sober, mainly black, wrapped, knotted or belted dresses meant serious business. No larking about there. In contrast, this season he is offering feminine, fun-time frocks - immaculately pleated, ruffled and ready for a spin on the dance floor. Marc Jacobs was also in a cheerful frame of mind. Talking about his latest show, he said: "If last season was a trip back in time to the Eighties, this season was a trip to the theatre, the ballet, the opera." There was chiffon, handkerchief dresses decorated with pearls, ruffled and tiered shifts and long, full silk skirts partnered with cropped jackets.
Stella McCartney's boyish styles have given way to a more romantic mood, with pleats and ruffles and colourful prints. ("Summer is not about aggression," she said when asked about her spring/summer collection.) Lace, leopard print, macramé, chintz and satin adorned the Dolce & Gabbana catwalk. Prettiness also prevailed at Christian Dior, Fendi, Gianfranco Ferre, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent with spiralling ruffles, fanned pleats and scalloped edging in gossamer, featherlight, flyaway fabrics such as chiffon, tulle, voile and satin. We can expect more feminine colours from the catwalk, from the palest oyster and blushiest pinks to red hot shots of flamenco heat and zingy greens. Prints appeared in traditional gingham and polka dots as well as vivid florals, geometrics and bold ikats (a style of weaving similar to tie-dye).
We are long overdue a romantic revival. The last whiff of prettiness we had was a decade ago, so it should be a welcome change. But how to wear it without looking like Blanche DuBois? Anyone unsure of wearing ultra-feminine styles can counterbalance frivolity by keeping accessories simple and bows and frills to a minimum. A pretty blouse partnered with a pair of well-cut trousers is a good start. Or take the Marc Jacobs approach and wear a wispy chiffon dress under a tailored jacket. At Etro, any overtly chichi look was brought down to earth with no-nonsense, unfussy accessories: chunky footwear, rope-tied belts and shoulder-grazing earrings. Keep hair natural and make-up simple, and you will soon get the look right.
One thing that will need to change is the way we carry ourselves. Dressing like a warrior has an effect on the way a woman moves. Look at previous shows for evidence: all those architectural and aggressive looks made models stalk down the catwalk with a "don't mess with me" attitude. Put a girl in an ultra-feminine fairy-tale dress and she's more likely to glide. It's no good adopting the gait of a gibbon. It's time to stop stomping and power-walking and start learning how to walk gracefully again.