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Remembrance of clothes past

I can remember these clothes, but not this event.

Brown Jaeger jumper

I've been re-reading The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant lately. I love this book. Not only is it beautifully written, it's a passionate defence of the love of clothing, the love of fashion, the power of clothes to transform, and women's biggest paramour - shopping. 

In the Victorian era, Grant, points out, the great department stores were the first places that respectable women could go out and about without a chaperone. Denied entrance to the bars, universities, clubs, coffee houses and brothels that constittued men's public life, women took to shopping (for the first time as a gerund) like ducks to water. 

And yes, shopping is trivial, says Grant - so much more trivial than male interests like driving enormous cars very fast around a track or kicking a pig's bladder from one end of a bit of grass to another, activities that doubtless are weighty and important and worthy of note.

One thing she mentions that strikes home very much with me is how, when you look at a photograph, you may have forgotten the people, the place, the event and everything else about it, but you usually still remember the clothes you are wearing.

This happened to me recently when an old work colleague from the 90s posted some images that included me on Facebook. I loathe Facebook and am not especially happy at having unsolicited images of myself up there, but that is by the by. What I did notice is that I have absolutely no memory of the event - but I remember very clearly the clothes I am wearing, just as I remember my old hair style and colour and my old, rimless spectacles.

In one picture, another colleague, L (clearly a bit hammered) is snuggling up to me (clearly slightly taken aback). Now I remember that L and I worked in the office, but I would have sworn that we scarcely overlapped and if pressed, would have denied that we ever went to a social occasion together. And yet, here we are. 

But the sweater I'm wearing - now that, I remember clearly. I can feel it between my fingers even now. An Aztec pattern in shades of brown and rust and green and ochre, purple and blue and yellow and black, it was made from dull rawsilk that looked like cotton, with embroidery in chenille. It came from Jaegar, and - like many of my best things - it was a present from my husband. I wore it absolutely to death, until my endless patching could no longer stitch its multiple holes together, and even after that I kept it in the sewing room, periodically searching for a solution. It had the most perfect drape and came down to just above my knees. I have never again found a jumper I could wear so readily and in which I felt so comfortable.  

I can even tell you what I am wearing under it. Although not visible in the picture, I know that it was almost certainly my brown jeans from Fenn Wright and Manson's sale shop in Clerkenwell, in thick cotton jersey brushed like moleskin. I had two pairs of these, one in brown and one in taupe, and again I wore them absolutely to death. So much so that one day at work when I went to the loo, I looked down at my ankles and realised I could see daylight through the crotch of the trousers.

Garments, like lovers, are enjoyed and loved and lost, and it is lovely, in photographs, to meet with them again.

But who WERE those other people?... 



Back to basics

When it comes to clothing, maybe basics are really all I need....

I was stooging around some websites the other day and found this article on Real Simple.

basics 1

It's a pretty good guide to the basics that a woman needs in her wardrobe (tees, shirts, trousers etc), though as ever, I still find it a tad too smart for my life - I recently chucked out two black suits, for instance, as they had hung unworn ever since I bought them. But the thing that really struck me was the pictures. 

basics 2

In their 'basics' (see left and right), I think all these women look great; in their 'staples', I think they look OK; but in their 'statement pieces' (see below), I think they look terrible.

Interesting. In fact, the more statementy and special occasion-ish the clothes become, the worse the women look, IMHO (OK, they get a pass for the cocktail dresses, which are very nice). 

The black vest, the white tee, the black tee, the indigo jeans, the chinos, the denim jacket, the white shirt - you can't really go wrong with these, can you? Virtually everybody looks great dressed like this, provided you pick the right cuts - the neutral, solid colours go with everything, and you can dress each piece up and down.  

statement 1

It's when more choice begins to creep in that people begin to make mistakes. The patterned jacket, the patterned dress, the brighter shirt, the graphic sweater. Quite quickly, these women who looked comfortable, casual and happy in their clothing are now overcome by clashing patterns and unflattering styles. It looks like the clothes are wearing THEM. 

Looking at this article also made me realise that I could pretty much spend the rest of my life in basics (well, with maybe the odd staple, such as a skirt with pockets). I have virtually no need of statement clothing these days. I never wear a dress except in summer (too cold), or for lunch out with the girls (maybe once every couple of months?) and my modest skirt wardrobe of black pencil, black stretch A-line, black stretch velvet fits nearly every occason when I want to be a bit dressier than trousers. 

statement 2

For 'dressing up' I used to love a bit of sparkle - when we lived in London, we liked the theatre, the opera, and the South Bank, which could stand a bit of glitter. But I now favour matt stretch fabrics that can be dressed up with a sparkly bag or shawl, rather than full-blown bling. You gets too old for it, love, and sparkle would be a bit much for lunch in a country restaurant. 

statement 3I turned 50 recently, so I now have to think about what clothes will take me through to 60, and I have to say, it's the clothes in the pictures at top left, not the ones that follow. This is pretty much me - the black vest, the white vest, the black tee, the white tee, the white shirt, the black polo: simple, wearable clothes that make me feel comfortable in my own skin. 





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.

When jeans won't cut it

We all love a great pair of jeans but if you can't find a comfy pair once you hit the big 4.0., here are some other options.

There are few greater staples in a woman's wardrobe than a well-fitting pair of jeans, but what do you do if you can't find a pair that fits?

It can be especially hard to find well-fitting jeans once you hit your 40s - particularly if you suffer from bloat, weight fluctuation during a period, or have fibroids, or are simply an apple shape where you carry weight on your middle, as many women do after the menopause.

A lot of women in mid-life and above prefer a higher waist, which has become a rare beast, and there is also the question of how your jeans feel. I know, for instance, that I like my jeans to hold my legs and backside tight but there are particular times of the month when I really don't want any constriction at the waist - I'm sure this comfort aspect is one of the things that sends many women screaming back into leggings. 

Well, the answer is, you can easily cheat. Here are four good options.

Bootcut denim leggings

bootcut leggingsThese are my go-to 'jeans' for everyday wear - they look pretty much exactly like jeans as long as you wear your (long enough) t-shirt or blouse outside your pants. Evans do navy bootcut denim leggings (£18) with elastic all the way around from size 16 and above, and BHS do flat-front straight-cut or bootcut denim leggings (£16) in navy and black, with a flat front but a more gathered back. Note, btw, that these leggings are extremely cheap compared with jeans because they lack construction details - they don't have pockets and there are no flat-fell seams down the outside leg, for instance. As ever, our US sisters are much better served - these Metroland leggings pictured come in seven different colours from whereas over at, Brits have to make do with skinny leggings that make you look like a pig on stilts. 

Maternity jeans

maternity jeansA secret boon for post-menopausal or apple-shaped women, but one you might not have thought of. A pair of maternity jeans and a long top looks perfectly normal from the outside - correct stitching, proper pockets, bottom of a fly etc - but gives you a huge amount of comfort at the waist. If you're handy with a needle, you can even adapt your favourite jeans using an old t-shirt and the results are equally professional.

Knitted jeans

Knitted jeansFor a larger budget (though still cheap compared with 'name' jeans such as Levis) these knitted jeans from Orvis look exactly like normal jeans, with the fly front, half pockets, etc, except they're knitted and therefore incredibly comfortable. £42 reduced from £69. I assume that these jeans won't haul anything back into place, though, given their amount of stretch!

Make them

Vogue jeansMost of us have never thought of making our own jeans but there are lots of patterns for jeans available from all the leading companies - those shown are from Vogue. If you're not up to making your own, check out having them made by a dressmaker. This is not a cheap option (though a LOT cheaper than a named brand) but the advantage here is that if you get the fit right, they could be the most comfortable jeans you ever own, and you can have them customised, such as no pockets, different pockets, elastic in the back, etc. You can also have an endless selection of fabrics, including fashion denims in a huge colour range, or with prints or sparkle, or jeans in other fabrics such as linen twill.


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