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What your clothes say about you, part three

How will you deal with your fashion future?

Part three of the intial questionnaire in 'You are what you wear: what your clothes say about you' by Jennifer Baumgartner covers your future. Obviously, depending on your circumstances, your future may either long or short, but however long you've got, you'll still need to get dressed every day. I'll be 50 soon and can reasonably expect to live to 75 (83 would be normal in France) provided I'm not felled by something along the way. That means I have to think about how I'll dress for the three, maybe four decades to come - a scary thought. 

Here's the questionnaire:


* For every decade of your life, how would you like to dress?

* Do you have a style icon for each stage of your life?

* What major transitions will you make in the future?

* Do you have a wardrobe to match these changes?

* What would your ideal wardrobe look like?

* What changes would you like to make to your wardrobe in the future?

* When would you like to complete the change? 

* What is keeping you from having the perfect wardrobe? 


And here, for interest, are my answers:

* For every decade of your life, how would you like to dress?

Elegant, sophisticated, a little arty, different. I don’t think it would change from one age to another.   

* Do you have a style icon for each stage of your life?

No. I can’t think of anyone I admire. It is very hard to even find images of women my age in the media. My style inspirations are much younger than me and often from different eras. I suppose I could say Helen Mirren, Lauren Bacall as older women but I’ve only really seen them in Oscar frocks. 

* What major transitions will you make in the future?

Probably working less, but otherwise I expect to remain pretty much the same - I can’t retire as I have no money. Widowhood and living alone, unfortunately, given the statistical probability. Old age, illness, disability, death. I’ll probably be moving house in the future, to something smaller and will have far fewer animals but I hope to always live in the countryside. 

* Do you have a wardrobe to match these changes?

Yes - my current wardrobe works pretty well on a practical level and I’ve already switched from tailored waists to pull-on styles, and from heels to flats. 

* What would your ideal wardrobe look like?

Black jersey pants and skirts, white silk blouses and tunics, long, flowing layers, beautiful stoles with metallics in. Soft tweeds, cashmere and Aran knits. Whisper-thin linen. Really beautiful and elegant flat shoes in coloured leathers and suedes. Beautiful flowing coats with lots of colour. Slightly mad hats - I've always worn hats. 

* What changes would you like to make to your wardrobe in the future?

I’d like to find jeans and cords I feel comfortable in and that look good - I once had some by Boden but they don't make them any more. I’d like to find knickers that actually fit, and I'd like French knickers to come back into fashion. I’d like to find tees that don’t disintegrate in our water. 

* When would you like to complete the change? 

Now! But realistically, in two years. 

* What is keeping you from having the perfect wardrobe?

A cold house, a country life, mud and mess, the woodburner and the animals, not enough money, (currently) my weight, the dificulty of finding many of the clothes I’m looking for. 


Well, after filling that section in, I found it interesting to realise that I have no, or few, role models for how to age stylishly. It's bad enough when you're young and the models are all six feet tall and thin as a rake, which is, to say the least, nothing like my shape or size. But as you get older, the complete invisibility of women becomes really noticeable. Those I do see - characters in dramas, newsreaders actresses, etc - don't lead my kind of life. What I want and need are beautiful country clothes, not smart, urban clothes. I need to cast around more for inspiration - come to think of it, Country Living magazine quite often runs the kinds of clothes I'm after. 

I have been trying to track down a film called 'The Grass is Greener' starring Deborah Kerr because, if memory serves, she wears some beautiful country clothes in it. I also like the way women dress in the Marple series - really good tweeds, proper knitwear that keeps the cold out, etc - the sort of thing you could get back in the 50s before everyone got central heating. The urbanity of fashion clothing isn't just a question of style for me, it's a question of substance - a modern fashion cashmere knit may look lovely but it doesn't have the thick, insulating quality of the old stuff. I think I need to focus more on finding good country retailers. 

I have also decided to invest more in my basics - merino teeshirts, coloured leather boots and the correct style of underwear, as what this little list tells me is that I need to have nicer everyday clothes - really good jeans (I like velvet, moleskin and soft corduroy for winter), maybe some nice pull-on wool tweed trousers, better-quality teeshirts etc. 

I've taken a look at Toast, and Wall again, and found some bits and bobs, and also found velvet jeans on Lands' End, so have ordered a couple of pairs in the sale. But I think I'll also be getting out my sewing machine and running up a few pairs of pants for winter (since it is apparently going to be winter until May, for Christ's sake!). How about bias-cut pull-ons in soft wool tweed, full leg, with pockets, fully lined, machine washable? I could even line them with silk or cashmere, for a touch of real luxury. 

Oh well, onward and upward....  


How to recognise a quality garment - part three, finish

It's worth paying a little extra for quality finishes on garments - here's what to look for

There are three things you should look for in a quality garment - fabric, cut and a high standard of finish. In the last article in this series of three, I'll look at finish. 

Finish is where cheaper manufacturers really start to cut corners because every element of finish costs money - seam allowances, proper interfacing that enables collars, belts etc to keep their shape, seam finishes that enclose raw edges, correct pressing, and applied techniques such as beading or pickstitching. 

There are two types of finish - those that are connected with the construction of the garment, and those which are purely decorative. Construction finishes prolong the longevity of a garment - with poor finish here, your garment will simply fall apart. Decorative finishes are the little touches that are worth paying extra for - pretty buttons, beading etc. They aren't necessary to the solidity of the garment but they are often the little details that make it worth buying. 


The most important aspect of finish in any garment is the stitching. If this is poorly executed, in the wrong thread etc, nothing will be able to rescue the piece. Some stitching, such as top stitching, is meant to be visible and may even be executed in a contrast thread, but the majority of stitching in a garment is simply what holds it together. Whenever you're considering buying an item, turn it inside out and look at the stitching. Are there loose and hanging threads? Is anything ravelling?  Does the thread colour change partway down a seam? These are all very bad signs. Stitching should be clean and neat and except for when it's deliberately meant to be in contrast, should sink almost invisibly into the fabric. Usually the thread should be the same shade, or one shade darker, than the cloth.


Seams on a good garment should lie absolutely flat, with no puckering and rucking where the fabric pieces join together. One area to watch out for is bias-cut garments at low-end prices. Bias creates inherent stretch in the fabric, and you need to let the pieces hang for 24 hours or more in order to 'relax' before stitching, which many manufacturers neglect to do. If the fabric isn't fully relaxed, or isn't sewn with enough inherent stretch in the seam (usually accomplished with a slight zigzag stitch), a bias skirt will ruckle right along the seamlines, usually at either side of your thighs, right where you need it least. 

Certain seams are more complicated to sew and therefore only appear on quality garments. One is the French seam, where the seam is sewn inside out, then outside in, enclosing all raw edges. This obviously takes at least twice as long to sew as a simple seam, doubling the construction time. It's usually seen on women's dresses and skirts.  

Another complex seam is the flat fell seam, which most of us are familiar with from our jeans. From the outside, it looks like a double row of stitching, and the raw edges are contained inside it. This results in a seam that is a little bulky but very strong (the reason it's standard on the outer leg of your jeans, while the inner leg is usually simply serged). On a good shirt, such as those made by Hilditch and Key and other Jermyn Street makers, the majority of the seams on the garment are flat-felled, including the armscye (armhole), side body and under sleeve. On cheaper shirts, the seams are usually just simple seams with serging on the inside. Shirts get a lot of wear, so look out for ones with flat-felled seams. This doesn't apply to blouses, which are more lightweight than shirts in construction. 

Seam allowances

Quality garments tend to have larger seam allowances inside the garment (turn them inside out to have a look). You can particularly see this in vintage garments, where seam allowances are routinely as much as three-quarters of an inch whereas nowadays, on a chainstore garment, you're lucky to get even a quarter of an inch. Tight seam allowances of this nature considerably increase the strain on the garment, and if one of them 'goes', there's not enough fabric left for you effect a repair easily. 

Vintage garments also often have the seam allowance bound with bias binding or satin tape, to prevent fraying. Today, this is only seen in high-end assembly such as clothes by Ralph Lauren. The same applies to seam allowances that are 'pinked' with pinking shears, or oversewn by hand - all this handwork costs money.

Cheap garments usually have 'serged' edges inside, which has been sewn by a serger - a kind of sewing machine that cuts, sews the seam and binds the seam all in one step. The advent of the serger revolutionised clothing production, but it does result in a rough finish inside your clothes which many of us now think is normal - 50 years ago it would have been seen as shockingly shoddy. In order to cut steps, this type of seam is also rarely pressed open where it should be, such as on the long side seam of dresses and blouses, but to one side, resulting in bumps and rucks under the fabric. Again, this is something many of us are used to and don't realise is a sign of poor quality. 


Quality garments are more often lined than equivalent garments at lower price points, and more of the garment will be lined (a full lining for a jacket, for instance, rather than a half-lining that only covers the shoulders). Linings are important because they help a garment to keep its shape and reduce strain on all seams, as well as protecting the outer shell from sweat and skin oils, and providing some slip when one garment goes on over another. Linings are particularly crucial in tailored garments such as jackets and coats - here, look for full linings, and slippery linings to sleeves, in particular. Burberry's coats, for instance, have a cotton lining to the body but a very silky sleeve lining that enables you to get the coat on and off very easily over a wool jacket.

Trousers that are lined to at least the knee will not bag and sag at the knee like unlined trousers, while quality dresses from companies such as Jaegar are usually lined throughout to keep their shape, though this does also introduce a greater formality that you may not be comfortable with. Skirts that are lined, at least at the back, will not 'seat' with wear as easily as unlined skirts, nor will they cling and grip onto your tights. Look for lined skirts for work if you're office-based, especially if the skirt fabric has any wool content.

If you can't afford garments with full linings, consider wearing a full slip underneath instead - this produces many of the same effects of slip and hang. 

Linings should be as good a quality as possible, made from thick, sturdy, antistatic fabrics with a lot of slip, and at the hem on coats, they should be attached with bar tacks - long threads of stitching, spaced at intervals, allowing the lining to move independently of the outer garment without pulling on the hem. Jacket linings should either be loose at the bottom or sewn in but with a little slack - this is usually pressed into place with a little horizontal pleat.

Also look out for garments with an extra, zip-out or button-out lining. This is most often seen in coats and jackets and extends a garment from one or two seasons to three or four - my Burberry polocoat can be worn pretty much all year round because of its zip-out wool lining. 

Relining a quality coat is expensive, but can give it an extra 10 years of life, so if you see a good quality designer coat on sale with a torn lining, this is an option worth considering, if you have access to a good tailor or dry-cleaner. 

Stay tape

Stay tapes are are put into stretch garments in order to stop them stretching where it's not desirable, for instance at the shoulder of a cardigan. Quality knitwear is where you're most likely to see some sort of stay tape - good quality cashmere and merino cardigans, for instance, usually have grosgrain ribbon tape behind both the buttons and the buttonholes to prevent distortion, plus cotton tape at the shoulders to prevent the shoulder line from distorting. You can also find stay tape at lower price points, though, including good quality t-shirts, which often have non-stretch tape sewn in along the shoulder seam between the neck and the sleeve - this is a good sign that the tee won't gape and bag after a few washes. 

These days, you don't normally see stay tape anywhere else, but couture dresses have stay tapes at the waist in order to take the weight of the skirt, which seriously increases the comfort of the garment. You climb into the skirt and do up the stay tapes, then pull on the bodice section and fasten it separately - the skirt then effectively hangs from your waist and not from your shoulders, making it less tiring to wear. 


Hems on quality garments are deeper than on cheaper ones, and they may be bound with bias binding or another finish in order to keep their shape. They should also be finished invisibly, with no stitching visible on the outside. This is accomplished in modern clothing manufacture by using 'blind hem stitch', which catches the hem to the garment only at intervals. This is an area where you can really see the difference between low- and high-end manufacture. In the former, the hem is often just turned up and sewn in place, with a row of stitching fully visible (as is standard on jeans - one reason that shortening your jeans can make them look slightly odd) but often no account is taken of how the fabric will stretch or if the hem turnup is longer than the skirt piece it's being attached to - this particularly occurs in circle skirts and results in puckering and folding all the way along the hemline. One way to improve the look of any cheap skirt or trousers is to invisibly resew the hems by hand.


A facing is a piece of fabric used to finish the raw edges of a garment at open areas, such as the neckline, armhole, and front and back plackets or opening. On a quality garment, facings are usually deep and sometimes finished by hand: they may also be attached to a lining or half-lining. On a cheap garment there are fewer facings and at areas such as the neck or armhole, the fabric may simply be turned over and stitched down instead. Facings are important because they provide structural support to the garment as well as a clean finish, so they are worth looking out for. In 1950s and 1960s cotton dresses, the neckline facing often extends right down under the arms of the garment - a really sturdy and comfortable finish. 


Interfacing is an extra layer of fabric that lies between the outer garment and the facing. It's often not visible because it's completely enclosed - this will certainly be the case in something like a lined jacket or coat. Sometimes you can see it, for example if you turn back the front facings of a button-down dress or a blouse. Enclosed between the two layers of fabric will be another layer - that's the interfacing.

On vintage garments and high-end garments, interfacing is usually a woven fabric that is sewn in - it might be a thin layer of cotton batiste, or silk organza, for instance, and it provides a gentle level of support for the garment where it's needed most. One area where you might notice this is in vintage tailoring, which is remarkably soft and pliable compared with modern tailoring - even the shoulder pads are built up layer by layer from woven fabrics and scrim. 

On high-street garments today, however, almost all interfacing is 'fused', that is, it's a thin synthetic fabric, usually either white or grey, looking a bit like garden fleece, that is sticky on one side, and is ironed onto one of the pattern pieces before assembly. Just like sewn-in interfacing, it provides a little more body and stability to garment edges. The problem with fused interfacing is that the glue may wash off after a while, at which point the interfacing may begin to disintegrate. Sometimes you can even turn the garment inside out and pull the interfacing out in long strips. If it hasn't been applied properly in the first place, the fabric fused to it may be puckered and wrinkled. There is no fix for this, so if you find an article with this kind of problem, put it back. 

Another common problem with interfacing is when the wrong weight has been used - either too stiff or not stiff enough.  This is usually what makes some jackets or coats uncomfortably stiff to wear and you can't fix it without entirely taking the garment apart.  My advice, if you find a coat or jacket too stiff in the fronts or the shoulderpads, is not to buy it - don't expect to 'wear it in'. 


Buttons may be crucial to the construction of a garment, and they may also be decorative. Always look for good quality buttons - mother of pearl rather than plastic on blouses and light jackets, horn rather than plastic on jackets and coats (you can test if it's horn by gripping it between your teeth - horn has less slip and feels a bit warmer, but it's something you have to have some experience with).

Check that buttons are sewn on properly by giving them a good tug and twist, especially on coats and jackets. The middle button on a jacket takes the most strain.

Coat buttons should either have a shank (a metal loop at the back of the button - standard on metal buttons such as traditional blazer buttons) or should be sewn on in a way that creates a thread shank, where the thread is wrapped around itself to make a little stalk. The button should also be backed with a little button inside the coat or jacket so that when the button gets pulled, it doesn't rip right out through the fabric (I can't tell you how many times I've done this while leaning over a supermarket trolley...). 

Duffle coats and other coats based on them have toggles instead of buttons, so that you can do them up with cold fingers. Look out for real horn and proper leather loops and strengthenings, which will last longer than vinyl ones. 

Changing the buttons is a simple, quick way to update or improve the look of any garment. 


On cheap garments, buttonholes are usually straight slits, edged with thread, and many people today are only familiar with this type. On quality tailoring, however, buttonholes are often 'bound' - that is, no stitching is visible at all and the hole looks like a little tight-lipped mouth. Where they're not bound, they're often 'keyhole' shaped, with a larger section at one end for the button to slot into, and entirely sewn with very strong button thread.

Look out for good buttonholes on jackets and coats, where they get the most wear - it's not so crucial on lighter weight garments, though it does result in a very pretty finish.


Zips on quality skirts and dresses are usually invisible, and the slit in the garment where the zip is inserted is not outlined by stitching. In lower-end clothing, however, the slit is usually outlined by stitching on either side, as this is an easier zip to sew. In sturdier clothing, and where the zip is part of a fly, the stitching is more visible. In some types of clothing the zip itself may even be a design feature, as on a biker jacket.

Check that all zips function on any garment you're buying and that the slider slides easily and the teeth lock together properly. Be wary of very lightweight plastic zips, especially the type that have no teeth at all - these usually go wrong very quickly and you can end up paying more to repair the garment than the garment is worth.

Zippers on outwear should have a hole in the toggle big enough to get your finger through and/or a fabric pull, to enable you to zip up in a hurry with cold fingers.

Turn the garment inside out and feel around the base of the zipper slider - it should be properly secured to the garment. If it is hanging loose, stitch it down, and also consider snipping off the reinforced plastic glued section, which can be very irritating to the skin.


All pockets on a garment should be fit for their purpose and if they're visible, they should add to the design of the garment. Quality coats and outerwear jackets should have pockets deep enough to put your hands in for warmth. Fur coats usually have velvet pocket bags, while quality wool coats have moleskin - very warm and soft. Pockets come in for a lot of wear and tear and their fabric needs to be tough - don't buy garments where the pockets are flimsy.

Many low-end garments lack pockets altogether because they add extra steps to the manufacture, and where they do appear, they tend to be in-seam (in line with the seams) or patch pockets, added on afterwards, with or without a flap. There is nothing wrong with either design, but it is only on quality clothes that you will you see designs such as welt pockets, where the edge of the pocket is bound in a similar way to a bound buttonhole.

Always look out for interesting pockets, which add a pretty construction twist to an otherwise plain garment.

Applied finishes

Applied techniques such as sequinning, tambour-work or beading are purely decorative rather than inherent to the construction of a garment, and they still generally have to be done by hand. Either you pay a high price for this, or at the low-end, you are almost certainly exploiting child labour somewhere in the developing world, as has been seen with companies such as Primark.

Applied stitching is a kind of halfway house because it is decorative but may also have the purpose of strengthening the garment, as you might see in collars and cuffs that are top-stitched, or the edge of a jacket which is pickstitched (it looks like a row of running stitches).

Look out for details such as this, especially any work that has obviously been done by hand.

When buying an item with applied sequins or beading, give them a good tug to make sure nothing is loose.


In brief - finishing details to look out for

Hems - flat, invisibly stitched, bound on the inside edge with tape. 

Stitching - even, invisible, no runs or loose threads.

Seams - French seams, flat fell seams, no rough edges inside, flat. 

Seam allowances - generous, permitting you to let the garment out at a future date. 

Facings - deep as possible, not skimpy. In dress bodices, look for facings that cover the whole bodice.

Buttons - quality button. On coats, sturdy buttons that have been sewn on by hand and are backed by another, smaller button. 

Buttonholes - bound buttonholes or keyhole buttonholes rather than straight buttonholes. 

Pockets - pockets that are part of the overall design, welt pockets, bound pocket, velvet or moleskin pockets

Applied details - fine embroidery, quality beading, sewn-in sequins. 

Stay tape - on shoulder seams of stretch garments and the front edges of cardigans to prevent distortion. 

Linings - the more the merrier. In trousers, linings to the knee, in skirts linings at least to the back. In coats and jackets, full linings including silky sleeve linings. Extra linings for coats and jackets to extend the season of the garment.



How to recognise a quality garment - part two, cut

The cut of a garment is as crucial as its style - here's how to tell the difference.

Jaegar cotton dress

In part two of this three-part feature series, I'll look at how to identify a quality cut in a garment.

Every woman prefers a her own style of dressing - some like a casual look, some prefer tailored, office-oriented clothes, others lean towards glamorous clothes or sportswear. But different styles are one thing - cut is another.

The quality of a particular cut depends largely on something that most ready-to-wear purchasers (IE: most of us) aren't familiar with - ease. Ease isn't how relaxed you feel in something, it's the difference in size between your body and the garment. Swimwear or a tight t-shirt are actually smaller than you are, and this is known as 'negative ease'. But most garments are slightly larger than you are, and that's known as positive ease. 

Depending on the amount of ease in the garment, it will fit you tightly, snugly, loosely or very loosely, and there is no right way for a garment to feel - it's a matter of personal choice. Some women like the tight, hugging fit of jeans and bodies, for instance, where there is very little ease, while others prefer the loose, unbinding cut of palazzo pants and kimonos.

However, in addition to the ease required for you to move around comfortably in your clothes - known as 'garment ease' - there is also another type of ease - 'fashion ease'. 

Fashion ease is the amount of extra fabric the designer puts into the garment, over and above what is strictly necessary for it simply to function - if you like, the 'generosity' of the cut - and it's something that becomes immediately apparent when you compare clothing at a high price point with that at a low price point.

Quality garments generally have fuller sleeves, deeper cuffs and more room at the knee, for instance. They don't bind across the back, they don't ride up when you sit down, and you can raise your arms without distorting the garment because the sleeve head and the gusset under the arm have been cut more generously.

The problem is, adding ease to garments costs manufacturers a lot of money, and when the clothes are MASS manufactured, all those little extra bits of cloth can add up to a fortune.

Designers at every price point try to keep fabric wastage to a minimum, of course, but those at the low end shave off every bit of fabric that they possibly can. This is one reason that cheap clothing often feels 'mean' or skimpy - the cut has been shaved to the bone in order to reduce manufacturing costs. One way to get around it, if you do have to shop from cheaper ranges, is to go up a size or two - but no more than this or you'll start to distort at the shoulderline, where the garment gets wider.

It's also one reason you've probably already noticed that you're a size or two bigger in a cheap brand like Primark or River Island than you are in a more expensive one like Marks and Spencer. Take the two dresses shown on this page, for instance. The one at top left costs £199 and is by Jaegar; the one below right costs £35 and is by River Island. Superficially similar at first glance, both being little black dresses with some transparency, they are actually very different animals. The Jaegar dress has sleeves, is pure cotton and has two layers, enabling ease of movement and transparency at the knees and sleeves. It would probably be very cool and comfortable to wear, but the cut is a tad frumpy unless you're small-busted. The River Island dress in contrast is polyester and elasthane - the low-end manufacturer's go-to fabric and rather sticky to wear. It obtains its fit by stretch, not cut, and it's both sleeveless and much shorter - well above the knee, thus enabling the manufacturer to save on cloth.

However, as in all things, quality is not the only issue. In a dark enough room, the poor cloth might not show, and the fuller skirt is forgiving to a pot belly. If it only had sleeves and was a foot longer, it would be much more wearable by a mature woman, but you could get away with this if you had skinny arms and legs. It is entirely a woman's own choice (and partly a moral one) whether she opts for a classic, well-made garment over a fun-for-a-day el-cheapo discard. 

River Island poly dress

These examples also illustrate the fact that one way to get around poor fit at a lower price point is to look for garments with stretch. You will notice vastly more stretch garments in lower-priced brands because it enables manufacturers to cut corners on the fit - it is not a coincidence that the vicose/elasthane wrap dress has become so massively popular in recent years.  

One area where you might particularly notice a lack of generosity in the cut of cheap garments is at the armscye (sleeve hole). Extra fabric at the sleeve head, giving the user a wider range of movement, not only requires more fabric, it also requires more skilled stitching, and possibly a worker who's paid a higher rate for the clothing assembly. All of this cost has to be added to the cost of the garment and the difference recouped from the customer. This is also one reason why cheaper clothing ranges produce more sleeveless garments - sleeves are expensive to produce, costing about one third of the total fabric of the garment but they are also expensive to stitch - poor stitching in this area is immediately noticeable to a customer. 

Another area where lack of ease can be noticeable is across the back. Removing the back seam from a pattern removes one extra step in assembly, but it also means that the garment won't fit so well, because the curvature of the spine isn't taken into account. Quality jackets and coats nearly all have a centre back seam for this reason, so this is something to look out for.

Quality blouses and shirts usually have a shoulder yoke, which permits the garment to sit neatly and flatly at the shoulderline and neck. Any excess fabric used for comfort (which is taken in where necessary with blousing, pin-tucking or the deep back pleat often seen on men's shirts), can then be gathered slightly below the shoulder where the fabric bulk won't be noticeable. Cheaper cuts of shirt and blouse just have the back and front meet each other in a seam right over the top of the shoulder - this is neither as comfortable, nor as tidy as using a shoulder yoke. 

In much the same way as the back seam on a jacket, a two-piece collar, with a seam up the back, is more tightly shaped to the neck and has less tendency to bag than a one-piece collar.

When it comes to sweaters, a quality knit should be 'fully-fashioned', with the garment pieces knitted to shape and then assembled, rather than being cut out of a rectangular piece of fabric as if the item was woven rather than knitted (look for a seam running from the underarm up towards the neck, rather than the sleeve fitting as if it was a jacket). Fully fashioning requires more steps in the production because you have to 'needle park' or change the knit from rib to interlock, etc, which tends to make it more expensive, but you also tend to not get problems like bagging every which way, and it also results in a snugger fit to the body.

At all price points, and in all types of garment, a cut can either be generous or ungenerous. For instance, I have two pairs of jeans which in a photograph look almost identical - both denim, both indigo, both bootcut, both with a 9-inch rise - in terms of style they are identical. But the pair from M&S are so straight in the leg as to be virtually shapeless, like boilersuit trousers, while the pair from Next are much longer in the rear rise than in the front, roomier in the butt, tighter on the thigh and wider at the hem. Altogether more womanly in shape, the latter pair take 10 pounds off me because the CUT is flattering - paying the designer to get that right costs the company money, and they will cheerfully pass it on to you, the customer.   

While we're on the subject of jeans, jeans with the outside leg seam set slightly towards the back will give you more ease in movement and a relaxed fit, while ones with the side seam set slightly forward will introduce a slimming, vertical line that can be very flattering. Depending on your preferences, both of these cuts are readily available from a wide range of manufacturers.


In any wardrobe, you'll get the most wear out of cuts that are simple and 'clean'. These won't date easily. Avoid exaggeration at all costs - huge collars, huge floppy lapels, outsize patch pockets, big pocket flaps, daft sleeves with bell shapes and flounces everywhere, buckles and straps, deep turnups (more than 1in), ridiculously tight clothing, wide shoulders. In blouses, jackets and coats, look for a shoulder that comes as close to your shoulderline as possible, and for overcoats and raincoats, a raglan sleeve fits more easily over a standard sleevehead.


Quality garments often display detailing that you don't get on cheaper garments. I'll look at applied detail such as topstitching in my article on 'finish', but with regard to cut, look out for extra but telling details such as turnups on trousers, French (turn-back) cuffs on blouses, four cuff buttons rather than three and the use of multiple-weight fabrics such as a wool coat with velvet trim, or a silk blouse with chiffon sleeves. Sewing together two fabrics of different weights requires a lot of skill and shows that the manufacturer has more faith in the garment.

Age and weight

Many women continue to show loyalty to particular brands even when they are no longer suitable for their age and weight range. This is a mistake. Once you hit 40, forget the juniors departments, where the cuts are aimed at teenage girls with small boobs and not much waist definition. You now need what the trade 'missy' cuts (which would more accurately be called 'womanly'), with more generous allowances for your bust and butt. This doesn't mean that you have to look like a full-on matron of course, but it should also ensure that you're not constantly squeezing yourself into clothes that you haven't a hope of fitting into. Missy ranges also tend to have more sleeves on items like dresses, which is a godsend for those of us who prefer to cover our arms, and skirts and dresses are usually knee-length or below. In the UK, I would hit shops like Jaegar first and work my way down the price points from there. Own-brand ranges from respectable department stores such as Liberty, Debenhams and Harrods are also usually very good - department stores don't attach their own name to goods they think are rubbish. 

The same rule applies if you're outsize - shop at the manufacturers who design specifically for your weight range first, don't just buy ordinary clothes in bigger sizes - there is no quicker way to look like a frump. When women gain fat, they gain it in specific places, they don't just get bigger all over as if their bones were growing. Your frame remains the same, but you'll gain on your hips, thighs, bust, belly and the tops of your arms, and the cuts of the garments you wear need to take that into account, not just get endlessly bigger at the shoulder as if you were a bloke. 

How to choose garments with a quality cut. 

When you try on a garment, give it some hammer before you buy it - don't just hold it up against yourself and look. If it's a skirt or trousers, squat down in it - does the waistband poke out at the back, is it too tight on the knee? Does it give you enough room in the rear?

In trousers, in order to get a good fit you usually have to pay more money than you would for a skirt of equivalent quality - you're paying not just for fabric but for the comfort of a properly cut rise that won't slice your crotch in half every time you sit down. 

If there isn't a chair in the changing room, ask for one, and sit on it in front of a mirror. How high does the skirt ride when you cross your legs? This is as much to do with the cut as with the length - if you have a tummy, a pencil skirt will ride higher than a 'pegged' skirt, which has slight gathers into the waistband and is more accommodating to the pot belly that most of us acquire after menopause. 

When you try on a jacket - possibly the garment where quality is the most crucial - reach above your head and watch how the front revers rise. Do they threaten to come up and chop your ears off? Now do the garment up and see how far you can reach upwards - dos it pull at your ribcage? Bend your elbows - how tight is the sleeve? Does the 'stance' - the bit where the front edges meet - fall at a flattering place on your bustline and the collar sit flat against your collar bones? This is crucial for a jacket to look and feel good. Now reach around and hug yourself from both sides - is there enough room in the back?

How does it look when it's open? Most of us don't wear our jackets closed all day, and double-breasted jackets in particular often stick out like boards if they're worn undone. Can you reach behind you and pretend to scratch your back? If you can't, take it off and put it back on the hanger - if you have to wear this thing all day it will drive you nuts.

To tell if a knit is fully fashioned, turn the item inside out and look at the seams - if they look ravelled or are sewn over with interlock stitch, the pieces may well have been cut from bolt knitted fabric, but if they look clean or like a solid braid of yarn, the pieces were probably knitted to shape, which means the item will retain its shape better. 

Above all, when it comes to clothes, try on things you know you can't afford in high-end shops where you have no intention of buying anything. It costs nothing and you will quickly get your eye in for what is meant to constitute a quality garment - then you can use your newfound knowledge to shop well at a lower price point.

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