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ALTHOUGH I don't have daughters, my sons are of an age when girls have become an obsession. I get a regular view of spray-on T-shirts, skirts like a strip of gaffer tape, platforms or high, slim heels on which they teeter and mince with remarkable agility, and faces where eyes are made enormous with rims of black kohl and lips pout gleaming scarlet red or sugar-candy pink.

So what is going on? Are we seeing, embodied in the Spice Girls, a return to cutesy femininity, the dolly bird offering herself up on a plate for male delectation? Or are we seeing an assertion of a new kind of female chutzpah?

Young women, and indeed a good many older women, too, who enjoy their bodies and enjoy dressing them up in raunchy, playful clothes because they feel good in them.

Personally I applaud them for doing it. Of course, I know the arguments against women dressing in overtly sexy and seductive clothes.

They are a symbol of women's oppression, a throwback to the days before real equality was even a glint in society's eye.

Days when women dressed and made themselves up in order to snare and seduce men, because having a husband who came with a meal ticket was one of the few ways women could get security and reasonable social standing.

The American feminist writer Judith Thurman put it well: 'We were fantasy girls . . . We devised costumes and competed in them, like so many circus acts, for male attention.' I was fashion editor of The Guardian in the mid-Seventies and the arguments about clothes as oppression made a good deal of sense.

We were not taken seriously hobbling around in miniskirts and dagger heels; our pouting red lips were certainly read as an invitation, not showbiz-style sassiness, and the chances of proving you had a brain behind your decolletage were virtually nil because no one thought we were halfway equal.

So, I joined other women in battling for greater equality with men, for ways to replace wolf whistles with job interviews so that we could become psychologically and economically independent - and I used my fashion pages to raise the issue about the meaning of overtly sexy clothes.

It was revolutionary stuff at the time and the kind of about-turn many of us found ourselves making was vividly described by Emma Tennant in her novel The Bad Sister, where her heroine Jane flees from a party to carry out a ritualistic massacre of her carefully constructed, feminine image.

THE LONG, highlighted hair is hacked to near stubble; the slinky, clingy dress and high-heeled sandals are replaced with heavy boots; her face is scrubbed clean of makeup.

This incident is the climax to Jane's identity crisis: the warring between her submissive, compliant feminine self of many years and a burgeoning alter ego, all militant rage and feminist consciousness.

So what are today's young women up to? Aren't they simply letting go of all the work done by us sisters for their own good?

And isn't there the other serious point raised by writer Ros Coward in The Guardian recently, that women dressed in clothes seen as provocative are not only probably at greater risk than women in baggy tweeds of being sexually assaulted or raped, but if such a case gets to court they may well be condemned for their style of dress?

There is an important point here at a time when rape is on the increase and, yes, I think women do have to be careful about where and how they wear sexy fashions - although to suggest rape usually happens because of what someone is wearing is a vast oversimplification.

But if women feel they must forget the pleasure sexy, sensual clothes give them because these clothes may be misread, then we lose the war for women.

Enjoying our bodies and dressing in a way that reflects that seems to me to be an important

and enjoyable form of self-expression. …