Fashion statement: The way we wore

Posted on: 15 September 2010 by Susi Rogol

It was easy to be chic when we were younger. It was just a matter of sewing bells onto everything. But, argues Susi Rogol, trying to stay stylish in later life is a struggle thanks to blinkered shops and designers.

Fashion statementWhen I was 14, I wanted to dress like my mother. When she was out, I’d try on everything in her wardrobe, thrilled at my grown-up reflection in the mirror.

By 16, I had developed my own sense of style. My favourite outfit was a charcoal-grey box-pleated skirt with a matching grey over-sized men’s sweater. It was a look so highly-individual that when my father came to collect me from a party, he returned home solo telling my mother he couldn’t identify me, as all the girls were dressed the same.

I must have been 18 or so when the Wallis shops sent a chap with a photographic memory and an understanding of pattern-cutting to the Paris couture shows. Within a couple of days their windows had passable copies of the newest Chanel number, complete with braided pockets and gilt, button pockets. All for £20! And a Courreges look-alike dress for £12.

My mother didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, or why anyone in their right mind would want an emerald green suit with navy trim. But emulating the way she dressed no longer appealed to me. It was no longer the golden key to looking stylish.

A few years later I had the same suit dyed black, added pink braiding to the jacket and congratulated myself on being a sharp dresser. Although very good-looking it was, said suit was soon relegated to the back of the cupboard. Bells beckoned from San Francisco. Not just bell-bottom jeans (the wider the better) but as an add-on for every garment, from patchwork waistcoats to flowered shirts to scarves and, if I remembered correctly, fingerless gloves (no, I don’t have the faintest idea why). I could be heard from a distance. Wind chimes had nothing on me.

I met my husband at a wedding. I was bell-free due to family pressure (“don’t you embarrass us, we’ve known the bride’s parents for 30 years”), and wearing one of my mother’s neatly-tailored dresses. A few days later he phoned and asked me out for dinner. I donned my denim and jingle-jangled my way into his life. He sat, resplendent in this three-piece suit with toning shirt and tie, stunned, he told me later, by my choice of garb (hence his last-minute change of restaurant to somewhere he’d be unlikely to bump into anyone he knew).

By the time we got married and produced two babies in fairly quick succession, he was favouring suede trousers, Chelsea Cobbler boots and full-sleeved shirts. I went the practical route, opting for whatever could be pulled on quickly and resisted anything baby-delivered. So much for our 20s.

Fast forward. Kids in school. Back to work. A whole new wardrobe. Slick suits, Krystle Carrington shoulders. Designer labels, preferably worn on the outside, de rigueur. Oh yes, and shoes and bags that matched (yes, matched perfectly). You remember.

You’ll also remember the day, a decade or two on, when you are no longer punching time cards on a daily basis and your home is once again your home, that the realisation hits you that it doesn’t really matter, this fashion thing. That you don’t care if puce is the shade of the season, or tight the cut of the trousers. That what counts is being comfortable. Your grandchildren have no respect for designer labels. That dry-clean-only is no longer a viable option. That your arms could do with a generous bit of cover and that, heaven help you, an elasticated waistband has sudden appeal. What counts is being comfortable. You can deal with all of that, no problem, but you still want to look good.

That’s when you give up the chic boutique and head off for the high street, looking for properly grown-up clothes that will suit not only your age and shape but also your newly-found attitude, and lifestyle. I mean that’s what the high street does so well.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Twiggy might look wonderful in her 60s, romping around in a long knitted cardi and leggings. But come on, she has the face, and the figure, and a hoard of stylists behind her as well as a crew of pretty hot lighting technicians.

Have you tried recently to buy a pair of jeans, or trousers, that actually cover your belly button? Or a T-shirt with sleeves that go down to the elbow? Or a jacket that doesn’t stop-short, curve-in and cut you in half? Or a skirt that is just the right length? Or a little black dress that shows respect for the years? Bet you haven’t found any in the high street.

It seems that the design force behind some of the biggest names on the block are, in fact, two design forces. Team one believes that everyone is size eight and forever sweet 16. Team two works to the theory that if you are bigger or older than that, you have absolutely no interest in fashion. Long and loose is what they do. Asymmetric hemlines, baggy jackets with outsize buttons, lots of beige and taupe and black, but only one colour per put-together outfit. Even if you are a gym-goer, or a keen walker, with still-well-toned muscles and a waistline to be proud of, you’ll be hard-pushed to find something comfortable that isn't drab. They just don’t do it.

The US does it. Italy does it. The UK can’t. Or perhaps those who press the pattern-cutting button here simply have no understanding of what we grown-up women want.

With all the surveys that arrive uninvited, in magazines or online, when did you last see one that asked your views on the sort of clothes you’d like to wear? For heaven's sake, we are the women who practically invented the mini (all right, with the help of Mary Quant) and walked barefoot in the park. We’ve seen and been part of some of fashion’s great iconic moments, but we can’t find a pair of perfectly-cut trousers anywhere, designed for the women we are today.

What do I do? Well, I am a hoarder. I have years’ worth of perfectly-acceptable classics. I am pretty nifty with a needle.

Then there’s that black suit with pink braiding packed in a box which is, to be honest, looks better on me now than it did when I was a lamb-dressed-as-mutton 18-year old.

Then there’s my daughter. Now a mother herself, as well as a high-powered achiever, she has a wardrobe stuffed with colourful shawls and wraps that make even the plainest little shift dress take on a new personality. So now, when I baby-sit, the minute the coast is clear I rifle through the shelves and rails and thrill at my reflection in her mirror. She pretends she doesn’t know, but every so often she arrives with something that she says will look better on me.  

That is our best-kept fashion secret.

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