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The definite dozen

If you have these items in your wardrobe, you'll always have something to wear.

When it comes to getting dressed, I like to be quick, as a rule. I can't be bothered with faffing about trying on this and that, so over the years, I've narrowed down my choices to things that all work together and can be put together as a no-brainer, leaving me more time for a G&T.

Some years ago, I wrote a list of 12 essentials an over-40s babe needs to keep in her wardrobe. If you keep all of these in, you'll always have something to wear. I've discovered other brands since then, so today, that updated list looks like this: 

1 Microfibre shorties. Go for a slightly low waist, and nude for the colour so that it goes under everything. Shorties give you a better line under clothing than a thong or brief and if your tummy or bottom are starting to sag, look out for those with butt-lift and tummy panels built in. The best are made by Jockey and Hanro but I because I live in France, I mostly buy Dim.

2 Nude-colour microfibre bodies or long camisoles, or a thermal camisole in silk jersey. If you choose the camisole rather than the body, make sure it's long enough to come down to at least your low hip, then it won't budge under clothing when you bend or stretch. If you choose the body, consider one with a built-in bra to minimise bulk and strap-show. Wearing underwear of this kind allows you to don low-waist or sheer clothing secure in the knowledge that you're properly covered up. It also has the secondary effect of smoothing over a bra that has lace or other additions, which many of the best support bras do. Check out Figleaves for ideas, or Winter Silks for thermal camisoles.

3 A decent bra. This becomes increasingly important as you age and the breast tissue softens, so keep your ideas updated - what suited you last year may not be right now. Wearing the right bra can take 10 pounds off your silhouette, so get properly fitted and when you find what you like, buy three of them (one to wash, one to wear and one to rest). Nude-colour is more flexible than white, then white, then black, then coloured items. If you're a C-cup or above, choose strong, wide straps that hoick your breasts forward and whatever your size, make sure the support comes from the band, not the straps (take your arms out of the straps and jump up and down to check). After 25 years of underwires, lately I'm a convert to the Doreen bra by Triumph, which is the best-selling bra in the UK. Sadly not the most attractive item to look at - though the Luxury option is an improvement - it gives a great shape under clothing, complete security as you move around and is so comfortable you don't know you're wearing it. I am also partial to the Grace bra by Royce and a very comfortable bra with padded straps by German firm Spiedel, which I found on Ebay. My latest purchase is a pack of three Ahh Bras to wear at home, when I don't need to hoick the girls up. 

4 T-shirts.  Only choose short sleeves if your arms are toned: long-sleeved tees are infinitely more wearable for most women and they cover a multitude of sins. When they appear in the shops with a neckline that suits you, snap them up, or order from a catalogue. I now rely on firms such as Lands' End and Gap for my cotton tees. Winter weight tees are usually better quality than summer tees - don't waste your cash on anything see-through unless you're aiming to wear it under a dress, in which case you want as thin as possible - American Apparel is a good place to look. A crisp white tee is as useful as a white blouse and can be dressed up or down accordingly, but almost any colour is wearable. Avoid logos and designs though - keep them plain if you're above an A cup, or you'll never make eye contact again. By and large a scoop-neck or v-neck is the most flattering neckline unless you're very thin, and cotton with some stretch - say 5 per cent - wears better than pure cotton.

5 Fitted white cotton shirts. Have a bunch of these in various styles - here's a good place to echo current trends, if that's your thing, or indulge a personal fetish for lace or embroidery. A shirt ending at around hip length means you can tuck it in or leave it out - keep it fitted, not tight nor too loose and baggy, so that you can layer both under and over. Vertical detailing such as pintucks, seams or pleats will lengthen your torso, making it looks slimmer - only choose items with horizontal details if you're small-busted. Whether you prefer collarless or collared is up to you, but generally, an ageing face benefits from a bit of tailoring and a shaped open rever or a standard shirt neck flipped up at the back are very flattering. Wear the neck open to give you a long, slimming, vertical line. Just above your bra is a good level, but if you feel this is too revealing, fill in the gap with a camisole or light t-shirt. White shirts are available everywhere, but Gap do good cotton ones and George at Asda do fab poly-cotton ones if you're short of cash. For investment pieces, consider Shirin Guild or men's shirtmakers such as Hilditch and Key.

6 Sweaters. By this I mean thin 2-ply cashmere or merino if you can stretch to it, something like Courtelle or a soft viscose if you can't. Choose crewneck for the most mileage, v-neck to be flattering, or poloneck if you're the chilly sort, and always buy them long-sleeved and at least hip length. These thin jumpers should be close-fitting - loose enough to get a blouse or tee underneath but still tight enough to go under a jacket. You need at least three - one in black, one in a paler neutral such as cream, beige or grey, and one in a colour that really makes your complexion sing - but having more won't hurt.

7 Well-cut black pants. Follow the style of the day, but not slavishly - avoid fashion extremes such as parachute legs and fiddly details like cargo pockets. Most women are well-served by a slightly low waist (ie: just under your belly button, not a low-rider), no pockets and a side zip to minimise bulk. This style of waist is very clean and allows you to wear your tops either tucked in or layered on top. Keep the leg bootcut, straight, full or flared. For fibres, anything matt and with some stretch is useful - wool/poly blends, microfibre and stretch velvet are all good options. I buy mine at La Redoute, from the supermarket, or from Lands' End.

8 Jeans. Choose a slightly low waist for minimum bulk, some stretch in the denim (2-10 per cent), dark indigo dye and a boot cut hemmed to the right length for either flats or heels. This type of jean will take you almost everywhere except formal offices and functions and it practically never dates - for this reason, avoid acid-washes, stonewashes, cropped legs, zips at the ankles, paper-bag waists or anything 'trendy'. A bootcut is not only flattering on every woman with hips or a backside, it also gives you the option of wearing long boots underneath in cool weather. You can wear these jeans with a t-shirt every day, with a jacket to smarten them up, with a white shirt, a sweater or a frilly blouse. When the denim starts to look tired, chuck it in the wash with a pack of Dylon dye and follow the instructions. Don't allow your denim to get stained, messy or faded unless it's strictly for casual wear - only young, thin people can get away with looking scruffy. After indigo blue, neutral colours such as black, grey and beige will give you the most mileage. Personally I favour Boden, which has a choice of bootcut width, and Lands' End.

9 Knee-length skirt. Somewhere around your knee, from slightly above to slightly below there is a length that is perfect for you. Take the trouble to find it and your legs will magically slim down and lengthen. Once you do find it, have all your skirts altered to fit (this might entail a visit to the tailor, as if you shorten skirts you often have to narrow them too). The knee-length skirt is always appropriate wear for business but you can wear it to work all day and still go out in it in the evening. Black woolmix with some stretch is probably best, followed by a neutral with some texture, and pair it with dark tights and shoes or boots. I have skirts this length in wool flannel with a lace hem, microfibre with a beaded hem, wool crepe with a wrapover front, velvet and cord. 

10 A classic coat. You can't go wrong with a trenchcoat or fly-front polo-coat of the Burberry type in a dateless colour such as beige or navy. Bought with a zip-out lining it will take you through at least three seasons each year. The real thing is always worth the investment but cheap knock-offs can be found in microfibre with poly linings and they will go in the washing machine. If you're looking for a winter coat, the most flattering shape on women remains the classic wrapover camelhair with a standard or shawl collar, worn to the knee or calf, belted or unbelted. In a good colour like beige, navy or black, it will take you from office to night out to a weekend in the country with nothing more than a change of accessories. Wool-poly blends will last you 2-5 seasons, while a good cashmere will last a lifetime. Incidentally, this is the coat that has consistently tested as the most appealing to men, if that might sway you.

11 Black leather footwear. Shoes are a very personal thing. One of my friends has over 65 pairs and favours leopard-print stilettos; I have about 10 pairs and favour stack-heeled boots. One thing we're both agreed on, though, is that the black leather ones are the ones we really wear. However full your wardrobe is of spiky-heeled satin numbers, pink suede peep-toes and diamante-studded boots, the fact is that streets are dirty, driving takes its toll and your feet can get cold nine months of the year. Good-quality footwear is a must, whether it's Footglove sandals, Chanel slingbacks or Shelley's boots, and black leather requires the least upkeep. Decide on your style - flats, court shoes, spike-heel boots - and maintain them well.

12 Accessories. Here's where any woman can dress up her basics and really make the most of colour and trends without breaking the bank. So if there's a season's colour that you like and it suits you, buy it in a scarf or belt rather than something expensive like a jacket. If there's a fussy trend in bags or belts, such as studs, fringeing or crochet, consider carefully whether it works on you - nothing updates an outfit quicker than a change of bag, but nothing dates it quicker either. Also, few things date a woman of a certain age more than an unwise belt (my once-favourite 4-inch deep black elastic belt with gigantic double peacock bronze clasp doesn't look quite so good now that it's not teamed with football-player shoulders and a big swirly skirt...) Trends apart, you'll still find that the accessories you wear the most are in good quality materials such as silk, wool and leather, and in neutrals such as brown or black, or cosmetic colours that flatter your skin. This means items such as leather belts half an inch to one inch wide, silk foulard squares, long velvet scarves, dark leather gloves and classic hats such as berets and fedoras.

An Englishwoman in Paris

If you're planning a visit to the capital, wear comfortable shoes...

Trish in ParisWhen I was headed for Paris recently, for a business meeting, the one thing all of my friends kept asking me was: "What are you going to WEAR?"

It is interesting, and kind of amusing, that armouring oneself with the perfect outfit is something all women understand (I'm hoping they just all assumed I'd do my research, prep the vocab and come up with a decent question list...). And the truth is, I did arm myself with some options for outfits, including a shocking pink couture silk coat, a magenta satin 1960s dress suit, a 1960s silk and wool suit in blue and a magenta cotton vintage dress, none of which I wore.

Lemon linen suitEven my eventual choice of a 1960s lemon linen dress suit with hemstitching and a bow on the waist, I jettisoned at the last minute in favour of trousers, which for some reason make me feel more confident. I also didn't want to wear high heels, because of the heat (it was about 27 degrees in Paris) and I feel you can get away with low heels more easily with trousers. 

Grey Boden chinosIn the end, I wore grey flared chinos from Boden (my interview was conducted on a purgatorially uncomfortable Moroccan chair, only inches from the ground, so I was glad of the trousers which saved me waving my big fat knees at my interviewee), a plain white t-shirt and the jacket from the lemon linen suit, which has three-quarter sleeves and three big, covered buttons. It also has lovely hemstitching, which you can't see in these photos.  

pink pashminaI always wear a hat and took this raffia one (see top pic). Earrings were made by my jeweller friend Suzy, in silver fused with gold, and went with a pink pearl necklace; a cheap Hong Kong Cartier-tank-style watch from Ebay and some lemon leather vintage gloves with hemstitching, plus a screaming magenta pashmina tied to my bag handles.

I hate my hands, so I only ever wear a wedding ring (also made by Suzy), and I went for nail varnish for once, in iridescent pearl (as soon as I got home again, I clipped all my nails off, as I loathe long nails, which strike me as nasty and unhygienic).  

Mint bagtan laptop bagMy handbag was a big mint-green mock-croc leather tote with neon stitching from Di Cristina (I love this thing - it's like a giant sweet and it holds all my junk), and I had a beige mock-ostrich laptop bag for my computer and papers. Lucca notebookMy notebook was magenta hand-made Italian buffalo leather with hand-marbled cream paper (a present from the DH from The Online Pen Company) and my pen was a cream and black marbled Parker Duofold fountain pen he bought me nearly 20 years and which I was shocked to find recently is now worth a small fortune (something to do with the rareness of the acrylic). I did also, of course, record the interview, with a small and discreet recorder that I set going well in advance, but it's always useful to be able to make notes as well.

Shoes, as I've mentioned before on this blog, are something that drive me a bit crazy generally, and I ended up wearing a pair of 12-year-old almond-toed courts in pale blue and gold brocade, with silver leather 2in Louis heels. I've worn these to several events such as weddings and parties, and I know I can stand all day in them if need be. 

Interview over, elsewhere in Paris and for travelling, I felt very comfy in my pale blue linen Jasper Conran sundress (v-neck, v-back, fully lined and an asymmetric skirt), and a pale grey cotton cardi from H&M, teamed with navy Fly-Flots, or Boden chinos in navy, worn with Nike low-tops on which I've coloured in all the pale bits with a black marker pen.

With temperatures up in the high 20s, I didn't need my Burberry polocoat, other than to lie on it in the Tuileries. It is ancient now, and there are holes appearing everywhere, so when I got back, I splashed the cash on a vintage trench from Aquascutum. 

The French are marvelously stylish and I envied their nonchalance, but, I looked every inch the Englishwoman in Paris. Which is fine by me - because, believe me, the French find the English every bit as chic as we find them. 


Ladies' day at Royal Ascot

Royal Ascot recently tightened the dress code in the enclosure, which has only served to make women more inventive than ever

blog imageI love watching Ladies' Day at Royal Ascot. It's one of those completely British, mad, eccentric traditions where the usually frumpy British briefly look at their best.

There's been much talk this year about the tightened dress code. Fed up with orange legs, strapless dresses and micro-minis, the powers that be have issued a new set of rules. Maximum shortness of skirt is rumoured to be two inches above the knee (it's actually at the discretion of the organisers and it's been noticed that Princess Eugenie broke it but wasn't chucked out). All dresses must have shoulder straps at least 1 inch wide (no halters, strapless, shoestrings or off-the-shoulder items allowed). No bare midriffs, and no fake tan lines either. Break any of it, and you can be turned away at the gate - unless you're a royal, obviously. You must also wear underwear - Royal Ascot does not want Britney-style crotch shots, thanks very much.

blog imageThe rules only apply to the Royal Enclosure, of course. Outside of it, as more than one commentator has noted, there was a flurry of pink strapless mini-dresses, usually, in that hopeless British way, with plenty of back fat on show.

The code is equally strict for men, of course, but it has never changed - morning dress only, which means tailcoat, pinstripe trousers, top hat and weskit - de rigeur for posh English weddings. At Ascot, the tailcoat is traditionally grey rather than black, and in theory you can wear an 'ascot' - a cravat - but most men prefer a tie because then you don't have to wear a wing collar.

One rule that has relaxed over the years and looks set to remain is about hats. Ladies' hats used to have to 'substantially cover the crown', but that was relaxed some time ago and this year a hat need only be a 'substantial fascinator'. Fascinator, what a great word. Model Jackie St Clair's poppy hat, above (one of a series of flower-themed hats she's worn on different days) certainly qualifies, though, sadly Gertrude Shilling is no longer with us to model her son's mad millinery.

For more 'substantial fascinators', including the bathroom hat and the Stilton cheese hat, click here.


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