Borrowing from the boys
In fashionspeak, "style steal" is a much-overused phrase that refers to a bargain, a rip-off or a catwalk copy. Alongside a photo of a celebrity wearing a designer item you find the "steal": a cheaper, similar piece usually photographed as a still life. And you just know in real life that it's going to be disappointing. Now there's a real sort of style steal, one that involves the battle of the sexes and looks pretty good whether it's high street or designer.
What began with the boyfriend jacket has grown into a trend that's not so much about androgyny as looking tough, a trait we traditionally associate with men. If a muse were needed for right now, it would have to be Kate Moss (again). Blame her for the greatest style steal of all. What we think of as being "very Kate Moss" is, in fact, very menswear. She's stolen men's shirts, shorts, trilby hats, waistcoats, ties, caps, ties, men's-style sunglasses and, of course, jackets, and made them her own.
What is perhaps far more clever is that despite her boyish figure, there is never anything masculine about the way she wears these pieces: shirts unbuttoned over a slip of a skirt, caps or hats turned askew like a naughty schoolboy, ties worn to the navel like a St Trinian's sixth former. The petite model has perfected the balance between masculine and feminine so well that even when she wears something that appears roomy, she ends up looking more vamp than tramp.
How ironic, then, that Kate's current beau, the skinny Jamie Hince - whose wardrobe was possibly her initial attraction - is being branded as a copycat for wearing clothes seen as being identical to his girlfriend's. While holidaying together in St Tropez, Hince wore cut-off denim shorts. Whether they were his or hers (or started out as his and became hers only to become his again) remains their secret.
Hince has also been photographed wearing a grey, two-button cardigan and Sprouse for Louis Vuitton graffiti scarf identical to the one worn frequently by Moss. But here is the rub. While women can be snake-hipped and flat chested and pull off the Mick Jagger look, menswear trends are all about having long curly hair and wearing mannish suits. Russell Brand was laughed at, remember, for donning his girlfriend's Sass & Bide leggings.
No wonder that Coco Chanel is having a moment. Two films about the fashion legend are coming out and high-street fashion is about to mount a homage to her in terms of tweed. This is the designer who turned fashion on its head, making womenswear less about curves and frills and more about practicality and functionality, the two vital ingredients of menswear. Did you know that the contemporary menswear wardrobe is entirely based on clothes that you can ride horses in? Most features, from cuffs to darts to waterproof fabrics, stem from equestrian know-how rather than dressmaking aesthetics. Is it any wonder that leggings, the linchpin of the current look and hardly what you'd call feminine - they look more like your grandad's undergarments - continue to make a seasonal statement under skirts and dresses?
Along with this season's ubiquitous biker jacket, with its inflated shoulders and nipped-in waist, leggings along with brogues masculinise the current silhouette. (Trousers, funnily enough, don't feature on the fashion radar at all right now.) Leggings are the perfect layering tool and allow womenswear to attempt casual, something that menswear has always excelled at. How clever of Marks & Spencer's latest Indigo women's range (the company calls it "lifestyle dressing") to steal iconic menswear pieces such as the lumberjack flannel shirt (quintessential macho stuff) that women have been pinching from their boyfriends for decades and translate them into something stylish that a woman can wear. Their boyfriend jeans also have just the right amount of slouch.
I'm also seeing a common thread behind the glam-rock eveningwear trend inspired by Balmain and Lanvin. As well as big shoulders (masculinity personified), there's the tuxedo jacket, black leather (how macho can you get?), accessories such as geeky black-framed glasses and salaryman satchels. When it comes to menswear, women clearly wear it better.