Four seasons into the new millenium and no clear fashion direction has yet emerged. Strongly defined trends like retro, minimalism and the luxury ethos that characterized fin-de-siècle fashion have yet to appear. Instead, each 21st-century season has produced mini-trends, many of them half-formed plot lines rather than novellas.
One nascent theme is a sort of storybook regionalism; in particular, an amalgam of Orientalism and a Latin/Gypsy flavour with the occasional touch of Soviet style. All these elements could be seen in recent couture shows. The most recent ready to wear collections for autumn 2001 - fashion seasons are notoriously out of sync with nature's calander - were awash in a sea of black. Inspired by black holes, the Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf produced an all black collection presented on models body-painted black - the only 'colour' was the whites of their eyes.
Some journalists read the season's sombre palette as a reflection of economic uncertainties, but it is perhaps more a symptom of floundering design direction: a non-committal safe bet - the little black dress, after all, is a wardrobe essential.
Among the mini trends was a series of trompe l'oeil looks by disparate designers, including Marc Jacobs, Moschino, and Clements and Ribeiro at the French house of Cacharel. Trompe l'oeil was also seen in the spring collection of the French couturier Pascal Humbert, and also that of Matthew Williamson.
Potentionally light, potentionally ironic, trompe l'oeil plays with perception, posturing at being something it is not. The least interesting renditions of this visual mockery mimic earlier designs, like those popularized by Roberta di Camerino in the 1960s. More interesting were the male/female ensembles at Moschino, displayed on pairs of female models, which touched on gender role-play as well as the construction of the garments themselves.
At Matthew Williamson for spring and at Cacharel for autumn, tops were printed with trompe l'oeil jewellery. At Cacharel, these pieces were further festooned with paper jewellery constructed out of laminated photos of real (but not for sale) jewellery created by the designer Lars Sture.
Luxury and luxury goods, which currently drive the business of fashion, are being toyed with, along with the appearance and construction of clothing itself. Trompe l'oeil reminds us of the artifice and mask that clothing can provide. It also allows a brief pause in the relentless forward drive of fashion.