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A rare evening out

We went out for the evening on Saturday - I can't think of the last time that happened.

Pink velvet coat

We went for a slap-up meal at the weekend, to celebrate the DH's birthday - but, Lord how things have changed. We nearly cancelled it because we're just not used to going out at night any more. How weird is that?

When we lived in London, I was 'out' a lot in the evenings, because although the DH worked from home, I worked in town - mainly in areas like Soho - and didn't finish work till late. Add to that all the PR functions one attended, or evening press do's, or drinks after work, and 'after-work' clothes constituted quite a big slice of my wardrobe. Carrying in an evening dress in a bag was something I seemed to do on a regular basis. 

But getting changed to go out this Saturday night felt incredibly alien. So alien, in fact, that we only confessed to each other in the car that we'd both had the same thought about cancelling before setting out. The total blackness of the countryside - no house lights from the shuttered houses, and no street lights - is something I'd almost forgotten, as we ploughed 40 minutes to the chateau where we were dining

OK, admittedly, some of this is that we, like the French, now have our main meal at lunchtime, so we're just not used to going out to restaurants in the evening any more. We lunch out about once a week, but these days, our evening meal is more likely to be cheese and crackers or a cup of soup. And round here, there is a little else to do. 

The DH has never liked going out anyway (nor having people over either, being a solitary man), and most of my evenings here involve having the girls over for girls nights in (nobody else holds GNIs, so I don't get to go anywhere else), the new book club meeting, or meeting my friend E for swimming, which is over before 7.00pm. The vibrant social life we once had in the evenings has died a death in the recession, when nobody has the money to have friends over any more (not to mention all the Brits who've gone back, or split up, or died), and it's not as if there's anything much else here in the boonies, in the way of pubs, theatre or cinema etc. The occasional English-language movie would entail a 100km round trip to Tinchebray. 

The yoga class I used to do got cancelled, and I can't afford to do both chi kung and swimming, so that's out. Our French teacher ran off with a British friend, so no more lessons. And the local camera club and patchwork classes we tried proved less than sparkling. No wonder all we do these days is work, eat, crash out for an hour in front of the telly and head for bed at 10.00 like boring old farts. That is what I call a rut. 

crimson velvet dress

So, having decided to go out, what to wear? Last time we went for a posh meal, for my birthday in the spring, we did it as a lunch, so I wore a silver 1960s sheath dress and a grey cashmere cardi - the kind of casual/dressed up look advocated by Inès de la Fressange, which works brilliantly, I must admit. But for Saturday night, I took the chance to go the whole hog - crimson velvet dress, floral silk velvet 1920s jacket, a fringed and beaded wrap I made from black silk fabric, and a magenta velvet 1950s coat. Top that with a gold 1960s box bag and green suede stiletto boots, and I was by far the dressiest person in the room (the local French don't dress up at all, as far as I can see - not for restaurants, funerals or anything else: all people ever wear is teeshirts and jeans). 

It's nice sometimes to frock up, but the problem round this neck of the woods is that you never know what the temperature will be. The parking area was gravelled and very dark, which made me glad I hadn't bothered cleaning my boots, as they got caked in mud anyway. And the restaurant - all Louis Quinze furniture and mirrors - was pretty nippy, too, so I had to wear my voluminous wrap for the latter part of the evening. Luckily, no-one could see the massive thick mohair socks inside the boots. 

black silk with crystal beads

I do notice the lack of warm evening wear or evening wear with sleeves. In the 1940s, sleeved evening wear was very common - presumably because fuel was rationed. But since then, I think it's generally assumed that venues will be warm or hot, so bare flesh and sleeveless is the name of the game. Well, not round here, it isn't, and I shall be lining my next wrap with some wool challis for an extra layer of warmth. And wearing it over a sparkly cardi. 

That's if we ever go out in the evening again, which at the moment, I must admit, is looking pretty unlikely. It must be three years since our last 'proper' evening meal out, but the DH was so unsettled by this one, and by our 1.00am finish, that he was poleaxed most of Sunday, as I was I - though the stiff kir royale, half a bottle of Medoc and free champagne might have had something to do with that.

If the economy doesn't improve soon - and I see some commentators think this crappy situation is going to go on till 2020 - my evening clothes are going to be truly consigned to something I 'used to wear', along with my business suits and court shoes. Which I guess is the end of one more scene in life's rich pageant.

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Twinkle, twinkle, little dress

If you can't dress up at New Year, when can you?

blue lurex dressA bit of glamour never did a girl any harm and this new year, I had a rare chance to really dress up.

Christmas, all in all, has been a bit flat this year, what with our internet going down for a whole month, one party on Christmas Eve being cancelled, and myself coming down with a cold on Boxing Day, and thus unable to go to a second, so it was nice to get an invite for New Year, if only to remember what other people looked like.

I enjoy frocking up, as it's such a change from my gumboot life, which is normally spent in jeans and sweaters. But the requirement for 'ballgown', along with the knowledge that the ballroom itself might have no heating at all, while the dining room would probably be sweltering, certainly meant getting my thinking cap on.

My normal evening attire is pretty easy - since most of our socialising involves dinner with friends or an occasional dinner in a restaurant, I tend to go for a skirt, dress or pants in black wool or velvet, coupled with an interesting top. But 'ballgown' is another matter.

Galloping to the rescue came a vintage dress I bought last year from Ebay without any idea of when I'd actually wear it - a fabulous thing in tooled blue irridescent lurex. It's totally over the top, but how many opportunities does a girl get to doll up with some real sparkle in the course of a year? 

More importantly, it was also a: roomy, so I could get serious thermals on under it, and b: princess-seamed, so there was no waistband - nothing's worse when you're sitting down to a seven-course gourmet meal than to find yourself sliced neatly in half. As you might guess from my red nose, the temperature was an issue, but luckily, only I needed to know that under my dress and warm shrug was also a long slip, fleece-lined tights, thermal socks and knee-length boots.

All the other girls looked splendid, I must say - H in her black lace 50s gown and pink shrug, looking like a Dresden shepherdess; a fashion designer in a vintage 70s green gown and wrap; and even two friends in identical 30-style black and white draped halterneck gowns, exhibiting considerable cleavage (brave indeed for women in their 50s, but one was so perishing cold that I ended up lending her my wrap for the evening).

Oh la, back to normality...today it's the usual ski thermals, poloneck sweater, gilet and Uggs. Time to pack the girlie frocks away until next Christmas...

 

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Ladylike glamour at the Golden Globes

The 2010 Golden Globes showcased some beautiful and grown-up designs that the over-40s babe can easily emulate.

Demi mooreCan't let the day go by without mention of the Golden Globes frocks.

Susan SarandonLooking out for best-dressed women over 40, Susan Sarandon did us proud, as ever, this year in a luxurious black velvet 'le smoking' trousersuit. A tuxedo trousersuit like this should be in every woman's wardrobe once she hits 40. Paired with a camisole, a halter-neck top, a vest, a blouse, a waistcoat, you can endlessly ring the changes with it, and it's perfect for evenings when you're not quite sure of the level of formality, or whether the venue will be warm or cold.

Gowns were generally very elegant and understated this year, which was nice to see - Hollywood often equating allure with being drop-dead obvious. Many of the gowns were strapless but there was no strong trend emerging, though Sandra Bullock wore the 'in' colour of the night - purple, with a slightly sheer skirt.

Sandra BullockI really like this look, as it is one that can be reproduced fairly easily at a lower price point, and it is beautiful without being in any way trashy. Most women retain pretty necks and shoulders well into later life and a strapless dress, properly fitted, can showcase them to perfection. The key for many of us is the tricky armpit area, where the upper breast meets the arm - correct fitting here is crucial to avoid nasty skin pucker.

Glenn CloseHelen MirrenWhen women opted for black they often did so with sequins, such as Glenn Close's strapless number from Oscar de la Renta, and Helen Mirren's fishtail gown - note the sleeves, which Mirren almost always wears - one of the advantages of having clothes made to order. It is an easy enough fix for any competent dressmaker, if you ever find a strapless dress that you like, which would be just perfect if it only had sleeves. Separate sleeves can be made from organza, tulle or chiffon, and you could even have several sets made to ring the changes. 

A bit of colour never comes amiss on the red carpet, where every man is wearing black. Laura Linney looked soft and pretty in an unusually coloured dress - almost a mustard creamy yellow, and this, along with Bullock's, was my favourite of the night.

Laura LinneyKyra Sedgwick Kyra Sedgwick's red gown (a satin with just the right amount of sheen) and Demi Moore's nude-colour boudoir chiffon (top left) were also lovely. 

 

Party perfect

When you have functions to attend, it pays to have a uniform

When reading The Englishwoman's wardrobe recently, I laughed once again at one interviewee's assertion that she had no clothes for 'sudden lunch with a colonel'. She was, she said, 'no good at clothes for the halfway thing' as she owned only scruff clothes and ballgowns.

I kind of know what she means. We normally lead a pretty quiet life but this Christmas was one of the busiest in years, and being faced with an unexpected invite can leave you realising the gaps you have in your wardrobe. In my case, I could hike, go fishing or chop wood until the cows come home, but a country Christmas party is another matter.

When we attended functions in London there was a mixture of events: occasional visits to the opera, theatre or classical music concerts; cocktail parties run by PR companies; office parties; dinner with friends at their houses; dinner out at various kinds of restaurant. They all entailed their uniform, from long gowns to cocktail dresses to whatever you happened to be wearing at work that day plus a bit of extra lippy.

Here in the countryside, though, when you get a party invite, practicality is the first thing you have to think about. Something like a strappy cocktail dress would leave you freezing your ass off (not to mention shoeless, having trudged up a muddy lane in your stilettos). Combining warmth with beauty is rather tricky and I am starting to feel the need for a good tuxedo. 

Also, nearly all our events entail sitting down and - usually - eating, which is also limiting. You need first and foremost to be comfortable - no point in boning yourself in so much that you can't enjoy your meal, and also no-one really notices your bottom half when you're sitting round a table: you need to keep the interest on your top half. 

Our first invite, on Christmas Eve, was to a formal dinner at a friend's who is a cordon bleu cook. I chose a long black velvet skirt (from Asda, of all places), with suedette boots (the kind of pull-on black jobbies beloved of Trinny and Susannah), and a zap-pow scarlet embroidered silk Chinese jacket. 

This is a vintage piece I picked up many years ago and it often gets trotted out at Christmas, partly due to its cheery colour, but little did I know that I'd end up wearing the skirt for every single function. This is a new acquisition - picked up at a clothes swap - and it has proved fantastically useful provided I wear it backwards to put the long split at the back rather than the front. 

With most of our houses heated by wood here in the boonies, and no real way to know how warm you're going to be, a long skirt gives you a degree of flexibility. Under it, as I did, you can wear thermals, woolly socks and boots to be on the safe side.

Spanx high-rise smootherSuch underpinnings obviously add a bit of bulk, however, so I also fell back on my Spanx high-rise smoother. This may be the ugliest thing known to man, but it really does take about 10 pounds off you, and also helps support your back through the course of a long evening. I got mine from Figleaves.co.uk, and though I don't wear it all that often, when you need it, nothing else will do - if you want real control, Spanx is the brand to choose.

For Boxing Day (another gourmet meal), I ended up wearing the same skirt with a 1950s cream sequinned jacket lined in green shantung (very beautiful but also very warm).

For our black and white party on the 28th I fancied a change and chose my 1950s wool and satin cocktail dress, which is a fabulous item, but it's for standing around in, not for bending and stretching and riffling in cupboards, as you must do as hostess. After walking about in it a bit, I realised it wouldn't work. So out came the Asda skirt again, this time with a 1950s sequinned cardigan in black, pewter and silver.

For our last big party on New Year's Eve (four parties in eight days...), I once again wore the skirt, teaming it with a 1960s sequinned cardigan in dark, iridescent peacock colours.

Never has one skirt done so much mileage in so short a time, which just goes to show what a fab bargain a supermarket item can be. I doubt this skirt cost more than a tenner even when it was new, but the stretch, the deep blackness and lustre of the velvet and the perfect length mean that it might do me good service for a decade.

It also made me realise that the six evening 'bottoms' that I wear the most are all black: a long, crushed, A-line black velvet skirt, a black suedette flirty skirt with beaded hem, a black wool flirty skirt with an embroidered hem (all of them with clean lines and long enough to wear with boots). In addition I wear black lambswool knit trousers from Pringle and black poly jersey fluid trousers, though these require a slightly longer top, as I like to cover my backside.

I am feeling the need now, though, for a proper 'smoking' tuxedo suit. Preferably with both trousers and a skirt, the jacket should be a feminine tuxedo with a pinched waist, satin shawl collar, welted pockets and long enough to cover my bottom, in a fine wool, rayon or even a subdued lurex etc. The hunt is on...


 

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