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Classic clothes - how to wear them

Classic clothes are the backbone of your wardrobe - here's how to wear them.

I am a big fan of classic clothes, as you may have noticed if you've eyeballed this blog, especially for those of us who are over 40. But a wardrobe, or even an outfit, made up entirely of classic clothes would be as boring as whale shit. When I say classics should be the backbone of your wardrobe, that's exactly what I mean - the backbone, not the whole thing.

A good steak may be the backbone of your meal but without the salt and the herbs and the salad and the vegetables, it would be bland. The same applies to classic clothes - you need sweetness and spices and variety to make a wardrobe work, not just unchanging basics. So buy your expensive basics in classic shapes and colours, then ring the fashion changes in less-expensive pieces and accessories.

Classics change

Even classics do not remain entirely unchanged, so you need to keep your classics themselves up to date - the idea of buying something and then wearing it for the rest of your life works with very few items. Take the Burberry trench for instance. In the 1980s, when I first coveted one, the Burberry trench had all the trimmings - epaulettes, storm flaps, back vent with buckle etc. You wore it slightly oversized, so it stuck out at the shoulders, and either belted it or tied the belt at the back. This baggy, crumpled style was how stars like Robert Mitchum wore it back in the 1940s.

Today's Burberry trench is a very different animal. Shorter, tighter to the body, neater on the shoulder and lacking most of its trimmings, it's still unmistakably a trenchcoat, and fulfills the same function in a wardrobe, but now it has a trim, hip 1960s feel that suits Kate Moss more than Robert Mitchum. It makes the old-style trench look old-fashioned.

Your classic clothes need to be subtly updated versions on a classic theme, not clothes that are still hanging in your wardrobe after 20 years. In any case, although it may be nice to have the occasional golden oldie to trot out, you lose enthusiasm for all garments after a time (like art on the wall), and when you've worn the same coat or jacket a thousand times, it bores the hell out of you to wear it yet again.

How to manage classics

The way to use classics effectively is to recognise the shapes and colours that suit you and stick to them, looking out for this shape every year or season and gradually, discriminatingly, updating your look. Replace the old with the new and don't just keep accumulating pieces - the more stuff you have, the less you get to wear each item - and besides, things quietly date without your being aware of it. Over time, you will probably notice that even your favourite, classic jacket style broadens or narrows its shoulders and becomes more or less fitted in the body according to fashion. Go with the flow and don't expect to keep items forever.

Let's take the motorcycle jacket as an example of a classic. If this basic shape flatters your body, then look for a new version of it each year. It's always around, with the details changed and the cut of the waist slightly altered. One year, perhaps, you might buy it in chocolate leather with a collar, then the next in collarless burgundy suede with saddlestitched seams. Another year you might prefer it in denim with a bright lining to go with your jeans, and the next you might choose an evening style in gold brocade. Believe me, no-one will notice that the shape is the same, provided the colour, details and fabrics are different. What they will notice instead is that you look great and that your clothes suit you. Bear in mind, incidentally, that if the style works for you in a jacket, it will work in a coat, which is only, after all, a jacket with longer tails.

There is no quicker way to develop a personal style than to stick with shapes that flatter you and ring the changes with fabric, colour and detail.

The same rule works in skirts. If a pencil skirt is your best shape, look for it in different fabrics and textures, and above all, lengths. A black wool pencil mini cut to just above the knee is a very different animal from a peacock-blue ankle-length sequinned pencil with a split. Although the shape itself remains unchanged, a skilled dressmaker would use the exact same pattern for both. Look too for clever variations on your basic skirt shape - for instance, Boden's flippy back skirt looks like a pencil from the front but has a kick at the back that elevates it a little out of the ordinary.

Using classics in this flexible, trend-aware fashion, will give you a wardrobe of clothes that are endlessly wearable

Classic clothes part 9 - footwear

Here's what to look for in classic footwear

Footwear is a very personal affair, with one woman's frumpy being another woman's practical, and one woman's sexy being another woman's slutsville. However, footwear is also one way in which to express yourself personally ('red shoes no knickers') or introduce a bit of colour or texture into an outfit.

For country wblog imageear, serious walking, riding or foul weather, shoes need to be practical first and foremost, and this is the territory of traditional footwear such as brogues, riding boots and wellingtons. All other types of women's shoes emphasise the sexy over the practical (just try running in the average court shoe if you think that's not true).

Women's shoes are generally considered to be sexier the more they differ from men's - differences might include more delicate materblog imageials such as fabric, suede or perspex, a flimsy design with cut-away sections, thin straps etc and above all, heel height - the taller the heel, the sexier it is, until at the extremes, you reach the heights of fetish wear. Sexiness comes at a price, however. Arthritis of the knee is on the rise in women, along with double arthritis of the knee, which is almost unknown in men. Orthopedic surgeons are entirely convinced that this is because women wear high heels. So if you value your long-term health, don't wear heels above 3 inches, vary your heel heights every day and spend part of each day barefoot.

In practical terms, most women need a mix of shoes, including practical footwear, everyday shoes that are attractive but wearable and sexy girly stuff for posh.

Heel shapes

Stiletto (above left). Named for the knife-like sharpness of its heel, a stiletto is always considered sexy - perhaps rather too sexy for a conservative office in a field such as banking or law, but more acceptable in a relaxed atmosphere such as media. For evening wear, stilettos are a classic choice, in suede or fabrics such as satin or brocade. However, they can damage floors and cause strain to the back and not all women feel comfortable in them. If you can't walk in stilettos, choose stiletto-heel boots, which gives more ankle support, or try a lower kitten heel instead. You can also try a thicker heel such as a Louis or a stacked Cuban - the latter look better in boots than shoes.

Kitten heel. The kitten heel is a small stiletto or Louis heel about an inch or so high. Very useful on delicate shoes for women who don't feel comfortable in higher heels, but check your back view - a teeny tiny heel on a woman with a large backside looks terrible. If you have a large rear, choose a Cuban or Louis heel instead.

Louis heel (above right). A waisted heel from the 18th century that moves in and out of fashion. A Louis heel can be useful in a high heel because it's visually light but gives you more contact with the ground than a stiletto. It's usually combined with a pointed toe box.

Wedge. A heel where the heel is continuous with the sole, which lends more stability to the bottom of the shoe. A really good option for women who aren't comfortable in conventional high heels, and also useful in a foul-weather fashion boot. Avoid huge platform soles with wedges - this is extreme and ugly footwear that does no-one any favours - and choose, where you can, a wedge that is waisted towards the arch of the foot.

Cuban heel. Originally a boot heel and sometimes still seen on both boots and shoes, a Cuban heel is a solid, tapered heel. A classic heel for riding boots, including cowboy boots, as you can tuck it into the stirrups.

Shoe shapes

blog imageCourt shoe. The classic court shoe has a narrow heel 1-3 inches high and a toe box varying from almond to pointed - de rigeur for businesswear in a dark leather such as black, brown or blue. I'd recommend buying a couple of good pairs each year and wearing them into the ground rather than having lots of different ones. Leather is easier to care for than suede, and kid leather is the most comfortable if you have the cash, but there are also companies that do cheap knock-off leather-looks such as M&S. If the tip of the toe box is cut away, the shoe becomes a peep-toe, and is a useful option for women who don't feel comfortable in sandals. For maximum sexiness in a court shoe, choose a cut-away vamp (that's the top part of the shoe) that exposes some toe cleavage.

blog imageSlingback. The classic slingback shape is the Chanel pump with with nude body coupled with a practical dark toe. However, the slingback comes in many different toe shapes from almond to pointed. Slingbacks are a very feminine option, but the back strap often lengthens with wear. If this happens, take your shoes to a cobbler, as it's an easy job to have the excess trimmed.

blog imageMules. A mule is a backless slipper (in that you slip it on and off), which may have a heel of any height. high-heeled mules are considered to be very sexy shoes but are difficult to walk in and is best kept for at-home parties, or for going out if you've got transport. A flat, backless sandal in a mule style can be a useful summer shoe if you're prone to blisters, as there's no structure for your heels to rub against.

blog imageEscarpins. Shoes with very long, pointed toes, based on a medieval design. These have been back in fashion the past few years, in flat designs as well as heeled. The flat versions give a sexy alternative to ballet flats, but can be difficult to walk in if they're completely flat - try a kitten heel to give you some purchase. If the heel is higher, it's usually a stiletto or Louis to balance the pointed toe box.

Strappy shoes. IE: shoes held on by straps around the ankle. For under trousers, the straps can be relatively thick and supportive, but if you're wearing a skirt, stick to thin, delicate straps, as heavy straps will cut you off visually at the ankle and look very clumpy.

blog imageBallet flat. The classic ballet flat is based on the ballet slipper - a shoe which itself is very difficult to wear because of its inflexible and narrow sole. Fashion ballet flats usually have a fuller sole and a small heel. Ballet flats are a good option for tall women with large feet, but if you have small feet they can look like a pig's trotter - instead opt for a pointy-toed shoe such as an escarpin with a kitten heel.

Brogue. The brogue is based on, and named after, an Irish shoe of the 18th century and earlier. Original brogues were designed for walking in peat bogs, and the pierced holes allowed water to run out rather than collect inside the shoe. Now, however, the holes are purely decorative and there is a leather underlay under the pierced top layer. Brogues do up with laces and are practical flat footwear to wear with trousers, particularly in the countryside, in which case the colour is normally some shade of brown. However, brogue styling (pierced leather and laces) can also be found in boots, court shoes and ankle boots.

blog imageOxford. A flat lace-up shoe without the pierced leather detailing of a brogue. Oxfords are classic men's shoes and lend a similar butch practicality to a woman's wardrobe - best in dark leathers such as black and oxblood for wear with trousers or jeans. Like brogues, Oxfords also make the transition to heeled shoes and boots, especially ankle boots - the telling detail is the lace-up front.

blog imageMocassin. The mocassin is a slip-on shoe worn by Native Americans. The originals were soft-soled and made from buckskin, but modern versions are usually made from suede or sometimes leather. A mocassin is characterised by its construction - the sole wraps right around the foot and is fastened to the tongue of the shoe, with raw edges and all stitching visible. Modern versions, however, also have an extra plastic sole attached to the bottom. Fashion mocassins are good everyday shoes for wear with trousers, and often feature as designs for slippers because they are very comfortable: they are occasionally available as boots, where they result in a very ethnic look. Don't go too far with that or it looks like fancy dress.

blog imageLoafer. The loafer is a modified mocassin without the raw edges and visible stitching. The loafer is a very practical walking shoe and a useful option for under trousers, but looks very frumpy with a skirt.

blog imageTrainer. The trainer, or sneaker if you're American, is based on a sports shoe design. Supportive at the ankle and usually featuring high-tech soles that cushion your weight, they are now ubiquitous wear under jeans and casual trousers such as chinos. The attraction of trainers is not how they look (unless you're a label freak) but the fact that they are extremely comfortable - the reason some New Yorkers wear them outside the office, only changing to court shoes once they reach work. If you favour wearing trainers outside the gym, look for ones in dark colours that mimic a conventional shoe and don't make your feet look enormous. For sports activities, buy the best you can afford and discard them annually before the soles deteriorate.

blog imagePump. This word denotes two kinds of shoe - one, a slip-on or lace-up sports shoe (also known as a plimpsoll) in rubber and canvas, the other a low-heeled or flat court shoe, usually in leather. The former are useful and cheap summer shoes to wear with trousers, summer skirts or shorts, while the latter, popularised by Diana, Princess of Wales, are a good option for tall women who don't want to wear heels. What Americans call pumps the British would often call court shoes.

Espadrille. A cheap, near-disposable slip-on shoe with a sole made from coiled string and an upper made from canvas. They may be flat, or have a heel (usually in a wedge). Espadrilles are a comfortable, casual summer option for the beach, holiday and lounging about in the garden, but don't usually survive more than one season. Buy, use and discard.

blog imageSandal. Sandals come in many designs, including 'Jesus' sandals and 'Scholl's', but the word is usually taken to mean open, strappy shoes with a flat sole (increase the heel height and a sandal becomes a shoe). Flat sandals are useful in summer for casual situations but are not suitable for businesswear - wear a good leather court or peep-toe shoe instead. Wear your sandals with bare feet - if you like to wear socks, choose a loafer instead.

Boot styles

Riding boot. The classic riding boot is based on British Victorian male sportswear and has a flat sole, small heel of up to an inch, and pulls on over the leg. They usually come in brown or black, or black with a chestnut top and the good ones are in leather. Traditionally they were polished with a piece of bone to bring them to a high shine. The riding boot is a very useful boot for both country and city wear, and a stylish foul-weather option for getting to and from the office. The majority of fashion boots are roughly based on the riding boot, with the addition of higher heels and sometimes a zip running up the inside leg.

Ankle boot. A useful boot to pop on when you don't want a full-length boot, the ankle boot works well with jeans and trousers but is best avoided with skirts. If you do like to wear your ankle boots with skirts, stick to monochrome or tonal schemes such as black skirt, black thick tights, black boots, and make the boot leg as long as possible.

Wellington boot. Based on the boot popularised by the Duke of Wellington, this waterproof, pull-on rubber boot is designed for maximum protection in foul weather. Modern fashion wellies come in plain black or a range of fun prints and are usually pretty cheap, while real wellies are more expensive, are usually in shades of green and may have very sturdy, blog imagenon-slip soles and heels, and linings in materials such as neoprene or leather. If you live in the countryside, real wellies such as those made by Aigle or Hunter, are invaluable, but fashion wellies are a good buy if you have to negotiate city streets in winter. Choose fun ones - they're never going to look stylish anyway.

blog imageCowboy boot. This tooled leather boot - the starting point for many types of fashion boot - is based on the footwear of US cattle herders and is characterised by a degree of intricacy and a Cuban heel. The original colour was probably a mid-tan or rust, but cowboy boots now come in every colour under the sun. The leather may be plain or figured, and the boot may have fringing up the back or sides. Many cowboy boots are slightly cut away behind the calf, so they don't cut into the back of your knee when you sit down, and they are generally shorter than the English riding boot. They also often zip, rather than pulling on, though both styles are available. Cowboy boots always, always carry a western flavour with them, and the usual accompaniment is jeans, tucked in, though they can also be worn with a long skirt. Keep the details classy and subdued for the best look, and avoid fringing, pompoms and whatnot.

Uggs. Uggs are now so ubiquitous that I'll make a case for them being a classic. These thick, sheepskin-lined, soft boots originated in Australia. Uggs have a flat sole and only marginally raised heel, thick treads and come in a wide range of plain colours. Good as an indoor/outdoor boot if correctly waterproofed, but they won't stand up to immersion or really filthy weather. As slippers they're perfect and keep your ankles warm. Uggs come in a range of leg lengths from bootees to knee-length.

Classic clothes part 8 - patterns

Classic clothes are the backbone of your wardrobe - here's what to look for in patterns.

The majority of clothing is made in plain colours, but a proportion of patterned clothing is very useful in any wardrobe. It rings the changes, shows you're up to date, ties togblog imageether two disparately-coloured parts of an outfit and is a great way to introduce a bright colour that you may not want to wear in a large, unpatterned block.

How to wear patterns

The patterned clothes you buy should go with at least two other items in your wardrobe, so that you can create an outfit with them. If you're busty, keep patterns to your bottom half to draw attention away from your breasts and never wear patterned tops coupled with plain bottoms. If you're hippy, or petite, keep your patterns on your top half to draw the eye upwards.

Generally speaking, it's best to only wear one patterned garment at a time, and to combine it with other garments that are plain-coloured. Combining different patterns, especially traditional and modern patterns, or - for instance - checks with florals, takes real skill and can look terrible if you don't quite pull it off.

Colour and tone

When it comes to colours, tonal combinations have more mileage than bright or clashing combinations (we'll leave aside monochrome combinations, as these nearly always work). With tonal combinations, you can afford to make the pattern itself much bolder. Conversely, mingle two or more bright colours in a print and you're creating a very vibrant mix. If you like bright colours in prints, such as red and pink, keep the scale of the pattern small and look for prints that also contain a mid-toned neutral such as grey or beige. If about a third of the patterned area is in a mid-toned neutral, you can combine virtually any colours in the other two thirds.


The scale of patterns is also important - large patterns that you can discern from a distance can be useful to draw attention (and therefore draw focus away from other areas you're not happy with), but small patterns that are only discernable close-up are more dateless and have more mileage in your wardrobe. Save large patterns for disposable items such as summer dresses, tops and nightwear rather than for more expensive tailored items. Also check carefully the position of designs in a large pattern - an unbelievable amount of women still buy tops with a giant flower positioned directly over each nipple.

blog imageIs that a nightie or a dress?

All traditional patterns lend themselves readily to nightwear such as nighties and pyjamas, and because of this association, take care if you wear one of these patterns in an all-over garment. As a rule, the larger the pattern and the bolder the colour, the more it looks like nightwear.

Fashions in pattern change constantly, as do the combinations of colour used, but certain themes occur again and again. Here are the basics:

Stripes. Stripes are a constant in fashion and can be used to convey different messages, according to their colour, width and regularity. They lend instant formality to an outfit provided they're in subdued colours, of equal width and narrow - say, up to a quarter of an inch. Above that, they lend a casual air because we are accustomed to seeing wider stripes on holiday clothing and items such as deckchairs - in this case, the stripes often come in bright colours.

Narrow, equal-weight or graduated stripes in classic combinations of blue and white, black and white and grey and white are very useful in shirts or blouses to add crispness to jeans or a casual shirt, while in all-over in a dress, they turn a casual cut into something formal. Widen the stripe, however, and you enter the territory of holidaywear, as seen in the classic 'matelot' style t-shirt - at its best in cream or white with navy. This is a look to avoid if you carry weight on your top half - it only works on the very thin.

Stripes that are not of equal weight (ie: graduated) come and go in fashion. Currently they're in fashion, and are a good way to introduce subtle colour variations into an outfit. A stripe of this kind that includes black can look very snazzy - my personal favourite at present is a cotton satin shirt from Next in graduated stripes of black, blue, white, purple and pink.

blog imageFor a very casual look, stripes that twist or whirl can add welcome movement and colour to an outfit without creating either horizontality or verticality. At the moment, retro-look stripes in 1970s colours are very 'in' and look great in tops or wrap dresses. Most of them are in viscose jersey with lots of stretch, so it's best to go up a size (or even two) to obtain a good fit.

Vertical stripes enhance verticality only until they reach a certain width, at which point the eye reads them across instead of down, and they make you look wider. The cublog imaget-off point is about half an inch. Generally speaking, you should avoid horizontal stripes on any area where you carry weight, but they can usefully add width if, for instance, you have a small bust.

Dots. Polka dots of equal sizes are a classic pattern in fashion - a quick search on Ebay.com found over 2300 polka dot items in women's clothing. In dots of up to a quarter inch, in black on white or white on black, they're hardly ever out of place. Increase the size to half an inch or above, mingle dots of different sizes or make those polkas bright colours and you're into the realms of either very casual clothing or partywear - especially girly evening frocks.

 Be careful about very large dots, as they can make you look like Coco the Clown on his day off. The larger the dots are, the subtler the colours need to be. In particular, watch out for large polkas in bright colours on black (or the reverse colourway) - these are a very current look, especially from Banana Republic, but we also saw it back in the 1980s - don't wear it a second time if you wore it the first time.

blog imagePaisley. Paisley is based on a Persian pattern called the 'boteh' and is named for the town of Paisley, which imported Indian shawls with this pattern in the 18th century. Paisley can come in small, regular prints or huge, oversize, almost abstract designs but usually incorporates several colours, with the boteh motif being made up of multiple small dots. It's most often seen in shawls and scarves, blouses and jacket linings, but occasionally makes an outing as a blouse or dress. If you need an item to lock together multiple colours in an outfit, a paisley blouse or wrap is a good way to go about it - combinations can be either subtle or startling.

blog imageChecks. Checked fabrics also have a long history in fashion. By virtue of how they're produced, they're usually woven fabrics, though printed stretch fabrics may occasionally have check patterns. Equal-weight checks on white are known as gingham and are a classic pattern for little girls dresses, household linens and summer dresses. Because of these associations, gingham is an inherently casual fabric. Make the check more complicated, however, and you're into the realms of traditional patterns such as Argyle (diamond-patterned, often seen on socks, but here seen in a shirtdress from yesstylecom) and Tattershall, used mainly on men's country shirts.

Plaids and tartans. A check becomes a plaid when it is no longer simple, though the terminology here is somewhat flexible. 'Tartan' used to mean simply the checked pattern, while a 'plaid' was a large, blanket-like garment with a tartan pattern, but now 'plaid' has come to mean the pattern as well as the garment, and 'tartan' more often refers to a registered clan pattern such as McDonald, or a regimental tartan such as Black Watch.

blog imageLeaving aside the complicated history of tartan, what is certain is that plaids and tartans are inextricably linked with Scotland and will inevitably lend a Scottish flavour to your outfit. This is considered desirable virtually everywhere in the world except, it would seem, the UK. This is a shame, as many of the older patterns, in particular, are based on natural dyes and are very subtle, as are some of the 'hunting' tartans. On the average wearer today, tartans are most often seen in linings, accessories and wraps, but if you do wear them as garments, whatever you do, only wear ONE tartan item at once.

blog imageTweed. Tweed is actually a kind of cloth, usually handwoven in Scotland or Ireland, which is produced in several classic patterns, including plaids such as Prince of Wales check. Plain tweeds contain multiple flecks of soft, mingling colours, which may be small, as in Harris tweed, or larger, as in Donegal tweed where the slubs can be seen at quite a distance. More definite patterns associated with tweed include herringbone, and dog's or hound's tooth, which is an offset check in white plus one other colour, turned on its side.

The subtle, broken colours of tweeds are useful in a wardrobe because they're almost dirt-proof, but they usually appear only in woven wools and tailored garments such as coats, suits and winter skirts. Occasionally they make the leap into mainstream fashion in the form of prints, in which case they're often bold and brightly coloured. The larger the pattern in a tweed - especially hound's tooth and herringbone - and the brighter the colour, the quicker it will date, but a classic plain, hound's tooth or herringbone tweed will last pretty much forever.

blog imageAnimal prints. Animal prints are always in fashion in one form or another, the most common being leopard and zebra, followed by cow print and ponyskin. Leopard and ocelot-type patterns have high-end associations, but less so the utility pelts that come from herd animals. Once you're over 40, I'd confine these patterns to accessories only, such as scarves, bags, shoes and belts, and only wear one at a time (in particular, don't mix species!). The exception I'd make to the rule would be a high-end coat in a realistic-looking leopard print - but don't choose a cheap fake fur or you'll look like a King's Cross hooker. A fun pair of zebra-pattern wellies or a cow-print bag can add some humour to an outfit.

blog imageblog imageFlorals. Floral patterns are ubiquitous in fashion, but the style constantly changes. In fact, almost no pattern dates quicker than a floral, with abstract treatments replacing naturalistic and vice versa, in rapid succession. You can virtually date an era by the style of its florals. In the 1930s, scattered sprigs of red and yellow on black were common, while in the 1950s, florals were splashy and large, in shades of pink, yellow and grey on white. In the 1960s, psychedelic florals in brown, orange and purple held sway, while the 1970s saw the introduction of tiny florals in cream on soft grounds, produced by Laura Ashley and inspired by the patterns of the 1830s. In the 1980s, florals were bold, big and in bright primary colours, then turned greenery-yallery with the advent of grunge. Currently they're quite psychedelic and retro once again.

When it comes to florals, I'd advise simply accepting that floral-patterned garments will date quickly and using them as a splash of welcome colour and pattern in whatever style is of the moment.