Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Head, shoulders, knees and...

I don't believe that I have ever met a woman who is happy with her appearance. We all have specific obsessions or unease with particular parts of our faces or bodies, usually unnoticed by others but that we find obvious and depressing. I remember the friend who confessed to her shamefully wide feet that I had never noticed, the colleague who would not be seen dead in a sleeveless top for fear of revealing "monstrous" arms, the relative who would hide her smile behind her hand to conceal supposedly unbearably crooked teeth. One advantage of getting older is that we develop a good understanding of our strengths and weaknesses and refine coping strategies - one of which is not to care! We know what works and what doesn't work for our bodies. We won't blindly fall for the new trend when we know from experience that it just does not suit us. We've been there, done the jumpsuit or crinkled permed-hair and will not make uncomfortable fools of ourselves again.

However, there is a sting in the tale as just when we know ourselves well enough to hide the problems and focus on the assets, age throws a whole new series of challenges at us. Gravity becomes the enemy when what used to be firm and voluptuous gets droopy and heavy.  Skininness is not necessarily the answer as what used to be lithe and elegant becomes wiry or gaunt. The tried and tested recipes that we had developed no longer apply and we need to find new tricks.

The main areas that seem to bear the brunt of aging are the face, the neckline, the arms, the stomach and the knees.  I am pretty skeptical with regards to creams and ointments but I guess the usual recommendations of moisturising, keeping out of the sun and leading a healthy lifestyle do help to a degree... I won't go into the more radical procedures that seem to be making progress around me, from injections to surgery as beauty pages are full of them and the field is well covered.  I am more interested in non-surgical, fashion based solutions. There are so many options that I will skim through suggestions and return at a later stage.

To hide crinkly sun-damaged skin, layering tops can be a good solution. A V-neck or scoop-neck top or jacket can show-off a nice neckline whilst a tight under-layer hides the offending crepey skin. A fine-knit or jersey mock-neck jumper can also do wonders under a dress as shown in Canadian designer Marie Saint Pierre's autumn 2009 collection:  http://www.mariesaintpierre.com/msp_en.html
Scarves also come in handy to cover the neck and cleavage area with something beautiful, soft, classic or ethnic, wild or elegant.  Scarves are a great way of lighting up an outfit whilst showing one's personality. Liberty of London have a great selection:
Some lucky women keep well toned, tennis player arms but more often than not, our arms show our age and are better kept covered. Tops with 3/4 length sleeves do wonders on baggy arms. The stomach area also suffers with age and few of us can boast the perfect smooth tummy that designers expect of us to wear low-cut trousers or tight fitting outfits. Longer tops skimming the waist do a good job of hiding expanding mid-riffs.

Knees and toes...
Chose skirts that stop below the knee but follow the shape of the body. A nice A-line can work too but I would stay away from tight and short but also from baggy and shapeless. When asked, "how old is too old to wear a miniskirt",  Joanna Lumley' - the poster girl for the art of aging gracefully - answers: opaque tights (50+ deniers), boots and a long coat to deal with the "bad bits". She concludes her answer to Mark Lawson who interviewed her for Radio 4's Front Row: "Go for it baby!" I am not that brave, but she can be!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Uniqlo, king of basics.

We all need basics, the clothes we throw on in the morning when there is nothing special ahead, but also the bits which can be paired up with more interesting pieces and complement an outfit. I find that Uniqlo makes those to perfection: www.uniqlo.co.uk. The parent company, Fast Retailing, owners of Theory, Comptoir des Cotonniers and Princesse Tamtam amongst others, established the brand in Japan and Asia, then moved to the New York and London and is now opening its new flagship store in Paris to compete with other global high street fashion brands such as Zara or H&M. When they opened their first shop in London in 2001, I must admit that I did not see the point of it: another retailer of cheap boring clothes. From the shop window, I thought the shop and the line looked shabby and completely uninteresting. I did not even set foot in the shop. A few years later, my opinion was completely changed!

Despite Uniqlo's advertising and "style book" featuring the usual barely adult models, at least, they reflect a range of ethnicity. In fact, whilst I don't feel they are targeting my age group, I don't mind as Uniqlo make the kind of simple, well-cut and well-priced clothes that make your life easy. Their range of colours is not for the fainthearted and tends to favour bright tones but, to be fair, they also carry neutrals. You feel like a bit of canary yellow would brighten your day, here is it: the V-neck jumper that you can wear with jeans as well as with a black slacks. At the moment they are hawking their Extra Fine Merino sweaters which look good with a smart T-shirt underneath or a white shirt. Their winter cashmere sweaters, just under £50 also work a treat. Their HeatTech line is excellent too - fun thermal underwear if that can be imagined. www.uniqlo.co.uk/catalogue/women/heattech

 Another good find this season is their flannel shirts which come in quite a range of colours and tartan patterns. They can work really well with jeans and boots for a grown-up cowgirl look, perfect for the weekend.

I also find their light cotton T-shirts very good value, excellent quality as shape, colour and softness don't change after multiple washes.

Quality seems to be taken very seriously by Uniqlo as I understand they have strict quality control throughout all the stages of production. They also take Corporate Social Responsibility matters very seriously http://www.fastretailing.com/eng/csr/ Whilst I am always suspicious of great CSR announcements and glossy brochures designed for PR purposes, Fast Retailing seem to have a well-thought through and sophisticated approach. If it is anything to go by, their staff are efficient and helpful, generally with a smile.  By the way, I don't have any connections with Uniqlo or own any Fast Retailing shares, this article only reflects my personal opinion!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Trends and sizes

The weekend papers were full of reports on London Fashion Week. Its 25th anniversary was widely covered and commented as well as London's place in the fashion world. I am not part of that world so I won't claim to have any bright insights or revelations to add to the press, but I found a couple of nuggets I thought I would share with you. Whilst one of my teenage daughter pounced excitedly on the various fashion supplements, what made me happiest was to read about one designer's "bold" use of size 12 and 14 models,  sizes which get a little closer to reflecting real British and European women. Such a move in the skeletal world of fashion warranted front page flagging of the story in Sunday's Observer. Such attempts are not new but sadly never seem to build into a lasting trend and the gloomy matchstick teenagers return to the catwalk year after year. The full article is worth reading:
I would also like to mention the welcome appearance of Christy Turlington, an elderly model at the age of 40 by fashion standards, in the Sunday Times Style supplement. Always a favourite from the supermodels of the 1980s and 1990s, she looks predictably beautiful. Retouching,  mentioned in the credits for the photographs is not as fierce as that applied to the Madonna/Vuitton campaign where the singer appears unrecognisable,  ridiculously flawless, bathed in a subtle pink hue as a painted China doll. I have always admired her talent for  reinvention but I find that is a dangerous and rather unsustainable road to take. What next for Madonna, the 50 year old toddler look?

I  find it rather confusing to read about Spring/Summer trends showing at London Fashion Week whilst trying to grapple with the Autumn collections and it creates a feeling of "deja-vu" when clothes finally turn up in the shops. As a result of the "deja-vu" feeling and of my advancing years, I find mentions of "country styles" and "military look", over-the-knee boots and leather jackets rather old-hat. But ultimately everything has been done, so it is more a matter of picking which styles I would happily revisit. Hounds' tooth is one. The first proper jacket I ever owned, part of a skirt suit that I loved, had that pattern. I have kept it all those years as a precious memento of what felt like a defining moment, access to adulthood. My father bought it for me and it made me feel terribly grown-up and sophisticated: "Clothes makes the man" or rather the woman in that case.

Another comeback of meaning-charged clothes is the return of "Big shoulders". It is a tricky trend. I have fond memories of shoulder-padded suits I wore in my working life. They did correspond to the 90s belief in corporate life and women's deluded notion that they could have it all: the powerful job, the jet-setting life, the husband and children.  Now that we know the exhausting fallacy of superwoman's life, we can look at those shoulder pads as simply too big and awkward. The only incarnation of big shoulders that might be worth revisiting is on 1940s style jacket, closely tailored and feminine where shoulder pads just enhance a feminine shape. 

Thursday, 17 September 2009


I used to be an impulse buyer.  I would buy on the spur of the moment something that would catch my eye or seem to be too good a deal to pass up. Such impulse buys, often during the sales, have lead me to own fabulous one-offs that I still wear years later, but also a number of items that don't really fit or suit me and never will. Experience has taught me to become more mindful of what I spend my money on. The economic crisis supports that change in attitude which actually predates the banking collapse. Whilst there still is a thrill in shopping - my hunter-gatherer's instinct awakened and my heart quickening when I fall for the perfect new jacket or pair of shoes, I now try to establish clearly what I need before I set out to shop.

What I need has actually become quite a tricky question. Do I really "need" anything, beyond fresh underwear on a regular basis? I have a wardrobe full of clothes which are in good condition and have not fallen out of fashion yet. I have good-looking handbags which still have years of service in them. I own a wide range of well-looked after shoes that I can wear without fear of looking ridiculously outdated. I must say that I have never followed fashion diktats that claim that I must rush-out and buy the "must have" shoes or handbag of the moment.  I have always liked to define my own style and not be dictated to. So, as I am not blindly following what the fashion industry wants me to do and as I own very good timeless pieces, what I "need" becomes quite circumscribed.  Have I mentioned world hunger and real need experienced by most of the earth population?  A vast subject that I am not going to tackle here but that makes me look at my buying impulses with more caution and a very critical eye.

In fact, what I "need" is to find those few pieces that will update my existing clothes, pieces that I can happily mix with what I already own or which will replace a well-loved but clearly worn out item.  In order to identify those magic pieces that can lift my wardrobe and give it a bit of zest, I don't rely on fashion magazines. They are clearly not targeted at me. They feature models the age of my daughters, promote outfits that have no relevance to my lifestyle and display photographs that have become so artistically obsessed as to hide the clothes rather than show them. They announce so many competing trends that it is impossible to predict what will catch on. At best, I can try to translate their pages for my purposes and try and tease out the bits that I can use, but it tends to be hard work. People watching is a rich source of inspirations. I am very lucky to live in an area teaming with creative and artistic types whose looks can provide good ideas. I find shop windows can be inspiring too. As I walk along shopping streets, my eye catches a colour or a shape that inspires me. Also, trends emerge as I see shop after shop featuring similar cuts or styles and I make sure to avoid what is over exposed but keep the elements that appeal to me. These days, so many competing styles and lines are trying to catch our attention that I feel very comfortable picking and choosing and making my own mix. Also, with age, I see the return of certain styles and I am able to focus on those that I know will work for me and stay away from previous fashion mistakes.

I certainly can't claim to have found the perfect formula but I think I am getting better at identifying what I will use and enjoy wearing. I still make mistakes and I still go beyond my definition of "need" and will buy a dress for its fabulous colour, a jumper for its amazing softness or a pair of shoes just because I can't resist it. But it is getting rarer - the lamb has toughened!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

A Manifesto

A woman over 40 no longer exists for the fashion industry. Whilst the beauty industry has cottoned on to the fact that the 40+ woman is a wonderful source of revenue and can be parted with her hard-earned cash by prodding her insecurities and promising miracles, the fashion industry seems blind to that segment of the market. Once you are over 40, you have to pretend to stay 30 forever, or adopt a "mumsy" look of boring clothes and invisibility. I don't want to pretend that I am 30 and I don't want to lose the fun of fashion.

Whilst some women adopt the rail-thin look or toned-to-death appearance that helps them get away with what the fashion pages offer, most of us have to contend with changing figures that do not fit fashion collections designed for younger bodies. We rummage through rails of inadequate clothes, hoping to find the gem that will not only fit but also suit us. We are caught between the dreaded "mutton dressed as lamb" look and the sad elasticated waistbands of senior citizen garb. Designers aren't interested in our demographic category, nor are teenage sales assistants, pressured to produce a sale that will net them a commission.

Shopping for clothes used to be fun and creative and I wish it could stay that way. I don't expect the same from my clothes now than I did 20 years ago, but designers don't seem interested to find out what I want. I'll give them a hint. Whilst looking sexy was the main goal then, projecting my personality has now become more important. I still want sexiness and femininity, but in a subtle - not tragic and deluded way. I know my age, I don't want to hide it but I still want to look good!

This blog intends to document and share my search for clothing, accessories and looks that work on a woman over 40. I want to review and recommend shops that stock the right range of clothes and brands that understand and celebrate our ignored breed, the fashion-conscious "mutton"! I might give voice to the occasional gripe and frustration, but I mostly believe in positive reinforcement to effect change and wish to be a positive voice in the blogosphere. I welcome your comments and suggestions and hope I can help you feel and look good!