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Brass monkeys

The freezing weather has made me add another coat to my collection.

Land's End coatLand's End coat rearHas anyone noticed it's FREEZING?

Jeezy Creezy. Today it's mostly snowed but yesterday in the glacial wind the DH and I spent the day doing the delightful task of shopping in Mayenne, something marginally sweetened by the buffet at the Palais de Bonheur Chinese restaurant, but heck, what do you wear on days like this?

It was alright for him - he climbed into the usual ski thermals, topped with fleece layers and then his navy super-insulated parka from Land's End, and he's away. 

It's different for a girl. Given that my winter get-up at the moment is ski thermals, fleece layers and Ugg boots, and the past few nights I've been sleeping in our 9-degree bedroom in fleece PJs, an alpaca wrap and a massive cowl wrapped round my head, I thought it might be good to take the opportunity to look - you know - nice.

I shouldn't complain, I know. It's been a mild winter on the whole, for all that it's chucked it down almost every day and at least I'm not a blue tit trying to eat my body weight in fat balls every day, but having decided to be girly and wear a skirt for the first time in months, I found myself in the following: big thick knee-length mohair socks, fleece-lined tights from Japan, a turquoise knee-length wool sweater dress from Land's End, a long, thick jade knitted wool skirt from John Lewis, a thick primrose vintage cashmere cardigan, a blue vintage leather 1960s coat, blue corduroy bucket hat, magenta pashmina, vintage turquoise leather gloves, vintage black leather riding boots and fleece wellie socks. And I was just about warm enough. Just about. As long as I kept moving.

It's nice, said the DH, that you're wearing turquoise because of your eyes and your yellow cardi to match your hair. This was an accident, I had to admit - I'd just fancied something a bit brighter than my usual navy bomb-proof getup.

In to town we went. A Chinese meal, a wander round Noz (for me), where consumer goods go to die, and I get to rummage through the detritus that is Western civilisation, picking out must-haves like pickled peppers, travel deodorant and a chiffon scarf; then Lidl, since ours is closing down, dammit; then SuperU for the main shop; then Intersports for a fruitless search for a swimming mask (they won't be here till April, apparently). 

Home again home again, jiggity-jig, where the house was so cold I unpacked the shopping still in my coat and hat while the DH lit the woodburner and I then swapped the coat for a thigh-length fleece parka, as I could keep my head covered. I was wearing more bloody clothes indoors than I was outside! Even several hours after the fire had been put on, it was still cold. 

Walking round in the cold in 'posh' clothes is very taxing. Really, I would rather have been in my trekking gear, which is really designed to keep the cold out, and I seriously regretted - not for the first time - not getting my Land's End fleece-lined parka in a darker colour. Mine is screaming daffodil yellow - great for trekking, and for walking the dog down our narrow country lanes, but it makes you look a bit of a dick in town. 

Land's End Squall Stadium coat

I felt another purchase coming on and it didn't take me long to succumb. In theory, the last thing I need is another coat - I have some great winter warmers. But they are all wool or skin, not the kind of thing to stand up to the endless rain and filth and mud we have endured this winter. So welcome to my new coat, the Stadium Squall from Land's End. Not the most stylish rig in town, I grant you, but the waterproof outside, fleece lining, fleece-lined handwarmer pockets, button-down pocket flaps, fleece-lined hood and storm-flap pockets are persuasian enough, along with one crucial detail - it's machine-washable, which I'm certain will prove invaluable over time.

You can get this coat in a more stylish cut (see the purple version above), but mine (which I got in black, not aubergine) was £59 in the sale, as opposed to £140, so I am willing to forgo a little taste in favour of not breaking the bank, and since I want it primarily for practical reasons, I want to be absolutely sure it has the features I'm looking for.  


London Fashion Week

London Fashion Week has so far been curiously grown-up, which is very good news for the over-40s babe

Kane dressI've been looking at the Fall collections from London Fashion Week to pick out what might be suitable for the over-40s babe.

Well, quite a lot, is the answer. Leaving aside the micro minis, etc, there were quite a few usable looks strutting down the catwalk and the whole ethos so far has seemed very grown up, classic and - quite often - countrified. I wonder if this is a sign of the infant terrible, London, finally becoming an adult?

Kane jacketFirst up, from Christopher Kane (probably set to be the lead influence this season), came some interesting florals, usually on a black ground. If you like this look, you could track down a black tote bag with a big, bold floral design and that would update your whole wardrobe for the season. Alternatively, a scarf would do the trick. One other option that might be fun is to take a black coat or jacket to a professional embroiderer and have them treat the collar, revers or cuffs with some big, bold floral designs. 

Erdemerdem lace dressFrom Erdem came some interesting dark florals and other prints such as these swallows, again often on a dark background. I love prints with a dark background, which were de rigeur for women in the 1930s and 1940s, because they are both practical and slimming. I'd snap these up while they're available, along with the heavy laces in black, taupe and grey that also featured in this collection. Heavy lace of this kind - guipure and its ilk - are one of those revolving wheels in fashion: buy correctly now and you could wear your pieces for the next 30 years. I'd go for a sleeveless vest and a long, v-neck top with sleeves. 

Nicole coatNicole jacketFrom Nicole Fahri, who produced a nice grown-up collection, came lots of classic looks in beige and black. I like this kind of thing because it's pretty much how I dress (right now I'm in a long black pencil skirt and long beige v-neck cardi with pockets, which could have been lifted straight off her catwalk) but she also showed another trend - plenty of black patent.

Patent was something that also turned up at Kane's show, so I predict the shops will be full of it, and pretty good knockoffs too, by autumn. I'd go for boots, shoes, belts or bags rather than whole coats, and certainly not leggings. 

Fahri also showed quite a lot of asymmetric garments - like Comme des Garcons but not as hostile, so if asymmetry is your thing (and it is mine), that's another trend worth exploring.  Asymmetric garments suit intellectual women who want to be noticed for their difference, not their sameness and are a great design thread for women over 40. 

JulienIf you like to spend winter in big fluffy cableknit sweaters and grey tweed, there were plenty to be found at Julien Macdonald's show, along with some very nice tailoring in dense black wools and camelhair.  Since camelhair also turned up at Fahri, that could be a go-to colour for the winter (time to get out my camelhair car coat with black chenille embroidery). Macdonald also showed lots of black chiffon, and black lace over nude chiffon - a great colourway for lingerie or sexy eveningwear. My major complaint about his show, though, was the use of some of the most anorexically thin models I've ever seen - one of the girls looked frankly like a corpse. 

Pringle dressThere were more cream cableknits and grey tweed over at Pringle, along with gorgeous cobweb knits in black and camel colour. Apparently this uses a new technique involving soluble fibres, which washes away to reveal the cobweb pattern. Very pretty anyway. 

So, overall, classic but not in any way sombre, with lots of food for thought for next winter. But how about we get this one over with first?


Beyond fashion - vintage style

We all have to wear clothes, but not all of us are in love with fashion. That's where vintage comes in.

blog imageDon't get me wrong - I love clothes.


I love what they can do for you - make you look perky when you're feeling down, soothe your body when you've had a tough day, hide your bad bits and accentuate your good bits. In particular, I have a love affair with fabrics - with real silk lingerie and soft kid leather shoes; with cashmere and fluffy angora knits; with scratchy Harris tweed and butter-soft suede.

But I am not, at all times, greatly enamoured of fashion.

One of the reasons is that fashion often sucks. When the trend turns to sack dresses with shoestring straps, where's a girl to turn? But another reason is that I'm a tightwad. If I buy a thing, and I love it and I look good in it, and I enjoy wearing it, I feel seriously aggrieved when fashion moves on and I can't wear my lovely item any more because it's 'old fashioned'. Keep it long enough and doubtless it'll be in fashion again, but you can't wear it a second time because it only reminds people how long you've been on the planet.

What are the options? Get it out once a year, stroke it and put it away again? Give it to someone younger? Chuck it in the bin?

One way to avoid that obsolete feeling is to wear vintage.

blog imageVintage isn't for everyone but it greatly appeals to a certain type of woman - NOT being in fashion takes a bit of courage and it sometimes means you'll attract attention. It's not for shrinking violets. When you wear vintage, people often ask you where you got your clothes, or to turn around, or they feel your fabrics. When you wear it, you make yourself public.

Nor is vintage for people who are squeamish, worrying about whether someone's sweated into this clothing, or broken wind into it, or - good grief - died in it. Dear readers, if you had ever worked in retail and seen the filthy sweaty women who try on the clothes that are then sold as so-called clean and still have their tags, you would be less worried about this. The first thing I do with my new clothes is get the things dry cleaned...

Anyway, about a third of my wardrobe is vintage, and here's why:

* Vintage enables you to find fabrics that don't exist any more. Fabrics come and go in fashion and those of the Victorian era through to the end of the 1930s are simply no longer made. Fabrics like peau de soie and peau de peche and vintage satin bear no resemblance to their modern equivalents. 1920s and 1930s silk velvets are so fine you can pull a whole garment through a wedding ring, and come in the most wonderful colours - saffron yellow, emerald green, devores of all shades. Pre-1960s cottons have a higher thread count per inch than modern cottons and remain crisp and cool in the summer heat, while the gold and silver metallic laces and lames are beyond description.

blog image* Vintage enables you to find techniques that are now rare outside the couture market. Fully-beaded dresses, fully-sequinned dresses, handknits with beading on every stitch, knitwear lined with organza or dupion. If you're really lucky and keep your eyes peeled, you might even get genuine couture at bargain-basement prices. I own several genuine couture items which would be well beyond my pocket if they were modern - my favourite is a trapeze-shape 1960s alpaca coat with nutria collar and cuffs, which cost £15. A similar one costs about £3,500 from Alexander McQueen.

* If you're petite, you may find the fit is much better. I am a shade under 5ft 2inches, which means I don't fit well into modern ranges other than petite (limited ranges and expensive). Luckily, I am handy with a needle, but reaching for the vintage racks means I don't have to be. In particular, garments from the 1950s fit like a glove, especially those with the three-quarter sleeves which were so popular back then.

* The quality of cut and tailoring can be superb. Even in day dresses of the 1950s and earlier, the seam allowances are enormous, making the garment more sturdy, the sleeves are properly faced, bodices may be fully lined and you tend to find French seams and clipped pinked seams rather than serged. When it comes to jackets and coats, the differences are enormous - properly weighted hems, Hong-Kong finishes, organza interfacing, prick-stitching.

Who can't wear vintage

Vintage won't work for everybody. In particular, it can be a problem with taller women unless they're thin and fine-boned. If you have a model's figure, the world is your oyster, but if you're broad shouldered or carrying any weight, your choice is more limited. Women have gotten bigger over the past 100 years and clothing before the 1960s was also worn over some form of corsetry, which shaped the figure from an early age. My friend M was slender but she couldn't even get her arms through the sleeves of one of my 1950s coats because the cuffs were so tightly tailored and her arms were inches longer than the fit of the coat. Nor would her broad shoulders or wide ribcage fit into my tiny jackets.

blog imageA tight fit doesn't apply to all items - the loose, untailored garments of the 1920s will fit many modern women and Victorian underwear is voluminous and fits almost everyone. 1950s 'trapeze-style' coats, which swing out from a narrow shoulder also fit most women - but broadly speaking, clothing of the rest of the 20th century can be problematical if you're over 5ft 6inches or above a UK size 10 (US 8). Pay particular attention to sizing if you're buying online.

The vintage market sells its goods by decade, so here's what to look for in each era.

Victorian era

White cotton, often hand-embroidered, especially voluminous nighties (good for full-figured women), bloomers and petticoats. Hand-made blouses with lace inserts (you'll need a tiny waist). Travelling costumes in wool or linen. Avoid anything black, especially silk - black silks were 'weighted' with iron salts which make the the fabric rot.


Pretty day dresses in cotton batiste or lace (very delicate). Tailored items in wool, especially gabardine. This was an extremely feminine era that used delicate fabrics and many of the clothes have not survived.


blog imageEvening gowns in beaded silk or cotton (store flat, never hang), lame items, devore velvet and silk velvet jackets. T-shirt-shaped blouses in silk, with beading. Evening coats and capes in velvet. Avoid gelatine sequins, which can't be washed. The average woman in the 1920s was not especially thin or small-waisted and designs are often quite forgiving.


Bias-cut evening gowns in lame or silk tissue, velvet gowns, velvet jackets, 'peignoirs' (negligees) in chiffon or velvet. Fairisle handknits. You HAVE to be thin to wear 1930s dresses - this was the era of the great slim-down and gowns made so tight you could barely sit down in them.


Tailor-made suits, CC41 (official Utility wear) items, including suits and coats. Evening gowns and jackets, often in black and shocking pink, with big shoulder pads. Avoid items that are overworn - clothing and fabric production was tightly regulated during the war years and many fabrics are of poor quality and have not worn well.


Suits, coats, tailored dresses. Day dresses with full skirts, especially in cotton prints. Mexican-style circle skirts. Cropped knitwear with three-quarter sleeves. Beaded knitwear. Sequinned knitwear. Trousers and capris with side zips. The 1950s was a very feminine era and generally requires a small waist and a largish bust. You can always pad the bust if need be, but modern women tend to have thicker waists than in the 1950s, when women routinely wore waist-cinchers.


Shift dresses and coats of a similar shape, usually in stiffish fabrics, including some synthetics. Beaded and sequinned knitwear. Ribbon knitwear. Capes. Avoid the cheaper synthetic items, especially nylon that has been washed many times.


Maxi dresses in bold prints, original-era Laura Ashley frocks in dimity prints, embroidered ethnic items.

I'm stopping at the 1970s because that's moving into an area when most of us either were, or became adults, and if there's one golden rule about vintage, it's don't wear it now if you were an adult when it first came out. It's borderline if you were a child, as I was in the early 1970s.

Where to find them

If you want to try wearing vintage, you can't beat visiting a clothing store and trying things on. Pay no attention to sizing - this has changed over the years and the label is unlikely to tell you anything you need to know, such as whether the garment will fit your ribcage.

It's very hard to get a good idea of vintage by buying online, and I'm wary of it myself even though I've been wearing vintage since the late 70s. If you do decide to buy online, make sure your vendor has a good returns policy, and pay close attention to the measurements given - most vendors give extremely detailed measurements. Err on the side of caution, if need be, and buy overlarge, and take the garment to a tailor for retailoring - you can always take a thing in, but don't expect to be able to let an item out.

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