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Wonderous Wall

I have been stocking up at one of my favourite vendors.

Wall plum jersey dress

As I promised myself recently, I have made another little trip back to Wall London. 

Wall is one of my favourite companies for quality clothing. I tend to go for the pima cotton clothes, as I can wash and dry them at home - not only is dry-cleaning expensive, it's bad for the environment, so I avoid it as much as possible. Also, I am trying very consciously these days to upgrade my basics, since basics are what I dress in most of the time. It's pointless to spend money on evening wear when I never go out and life here is very casual, for instance, so I am, these days, choosing much higher-end teeshirts, trousers and knitwear. 

Wall's pima cotton separates are very easy to wear. The jersey is thick and substantial and has a lovely drape, and furthermore they had a sale on, as if anyone could resist that...

Wall wrap top

Although I would dearly love a limitless budget, I plumped for just three items in the end: this plum-coloured plain jersey dress, which can be dressed up or down virtually endlessly. I fancied it in grey but it was sold out, but the plum is interesting and will stretch my winter wardrobe a little. I tend, like many women, to wear rather too much black in winter, so this winter I'm keen to see if I can add in a bit of teal and plum and chocolate brown to liven things up.

Pima cosy twin

Second up was this wrap top in Lobelia, above. I'd ummed and ahhed about this earlier in the season, but now it was half-price, so I bought it straight away, and in this pink colourway too. Again, I would have preferred it in a quieter colour such as marled grey, so I hope they introduce it again next year in different colours. The wrapping style strikes me as very forgiving of a bit of a gut, which I am certainly carrying at present. 

Pima cosy twin

Finally, and not in the sale, but I was fearful it would sell out so decided to get it now, I got this pima cosy twin in midnight blue. I just love this thing and the different ways it can be worn, and it will go brilliantly with my knitted merino pencil skirts, black jersey pants and Wall baggy pants. Note to Wall, incidentally, I would definitely buy this in more colours if they were available - luckily, this shade of blue is right up my street.    

Wall pima cosy

It's my theory that when you just see an item like this and it calls to you that you should go with your instinct - the clothes you love, within reason, are the clothes you wear. I'd been looking at this top and keeping my fingers crossed it hadn't sold out, for some weeks now, and that told me that I should get it.

Wall pima cosy

Well, I say finally, but it wasn't entirely finally because I was still on the hunt for a pair of wool trousers, preferably crops, for winter and, not finding what I wanted on Wall, I hit Ebay and found last year's Wall trousers on sale there, so got them in grey wool. With a 26in inside leg, they are meant to be crops, but sadly, I am such a midget that that is my inside leg measurement, so on me they will be pretty much full length.  


Dressing for grown-ups, part one

Your 40s is the decade to upgrade your choice of fabric and cut.

Beige Trench

Dressing well shouldn't be simply a matter of weight, and it shouldn't simply be a matter of age either. We're all aware that a 40 or 50-year old can't dress like a teenager - that's just plain sad. But once you hit 30, I reckon, you can start developing a personal style that can take you, with annual updates, through the rest of your life.

So what should it be based on? Here are some handy 'rules' - rules in the sense of 'for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise women'...

1 Dress like a grown-up

You are not a little girl any more, so knock off the ruffles and bows and all the cutesy, ditsy stuff. Shorty ra-ra skirts, itsy-bitsy little tops, girly prints, t-shirts with bunnies on or 'sexy' sayings. These are no longer for you. Instead, look for reserved, adult clothing with some structure and shape to it. Long sleeves on tops, long legs on trousers, whatever necklines are most flattering for you personally, clothing without bells and whistles, classic block colours - black, white, navy, cream and good neutrals. Build your wardrobe around these items and then add your own twist and flair.

Beige shift dress

2 Keep it covered

I don't mean nun-like, but in general, follow the 30 per cent rule - only show 30 per cent of your body at any one time, even for evening. Now is the time to look like a woman who's actually getting sex, rather than desperately looking for it. If you've got great arms, by all means wear a sleeveless top, but keep the neck high for maximum impact and cover your legs. If you're wearing backless, keep the front high: if you're wearing a plunge front, keep the back high... The fact is: if you reveal your flesh, you are going to be compared with every 20-year-old who does the same - it is far better to leave people guessing about how gorgeous you are than to show them you're not.

3 Keep it simple

There's a good reason I've banged on endlessly in this blog about 'classic clothes', and that's because they work. And one key thing that differentiates classic clothes is that they have simple lines - their design is pared down to the essentials. Whatever you're wearing, seek simplicity and avoid exaggeration. Don't wear things with 25 colours and added bits of gewgaws all over them - contrasting appliques and heavy beading in clashing colours. Avoid big shoulders, poofy skirts, huge floppy collars and lapels, and weird sleeve designs. These don't do anyone any favours - even teenagers, but teenagers have a right to look stupid if they want to. Grown up girls need to raise the bar a little - aiming for elegance and class. Keeping it simple works with any type of clothing - blouses with small collars, t-shirts with scoop or v necks, blouses with clean French cuffs, pencil skirts, clean-lined jackets with vertical seaming....

Built-in blouse

4 Keep it clean

When I say clean, I do mean physically clean. Being scruffy is the prerogative of the young, the rich and the mad, but the rest of us have to conform a little even if we may not like it. Going out with chipped nail polish, undyed roots, a moustache or clothes covered in dog hair just screams middle-aged rut, and don't think that people won't notice because they will. Grown-up girls have to look groomed. Not polished necessarily, but soignée, as the French say - cared-for, put-together. A clean, crisp, groomed appearance always works, no matter what your lifestyle.

Yes, it takes a little application, but the effort repays itself a hundred-fold. Choose a haircut that you can maintain easily (or pay to have maintained). Keep your clothes clean (if you can't afford or don't wish to undertake dry cleaning, buy clothes you can wash at home). Do running repairs once a month - sewing buttons back on and taking your shoes for re-heeling. Iron things properly and treat stains before they set. Overall, treat your clothing as if it cost ten times the price.

Linen tunic

5 Keep it quality

Quality wears better than rubbish, and whatever the item, quality cloth, cut and finish will show. Buy quality items wherever you can, even for basics - pima cotton t-shirts, Egyptian cotton blouses, cashmere and merino knitwear in plain colours, decent wool-rich suiting (a little stretch here can work wonders), a fantastic pair of jeans with the outside seam brought slightly forward to slim your thighs, and correct pocket placement. Watch out for the sales and stock up on basics from good manufacturers. It is better to have a smaller wardrobe of quality items than a large wardrobe of tat - the age of 40 is a good signal to upgrade your choice of fabric and cut.

When I say quality, this is quality at every level, so if you're strapped for cash, go for the best of a type. Rather than buying low-end fakes of high-end items, look for high-end democratic items at a lower price level. Instead of tinny gold-plate jewellery, buy handmade wooden beads; instead of a plastic leather-look handbag, buy a good-quality canvas bag; if you can't afford cashmere, buy merino on sale rather than a cheap acrylic sweater. In the long run, it will pay dividends.

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.


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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