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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Loud pants, fast returns - it must be the summer sales

Thwack. Grunt. Thud. Screech.  At various intervals yesterday,  it sounded like Maria Sharapova was in Marks & Spencer’s Mary Street store for the start of the summer sales. The packed rails screeched, hangers thudded on the floor, determined bargain hunters craned their necks to spot the 50% drop shots.  Looking Our Best grunted in dismay – for a moment it seemed she had fallen foul of that regular sale misfortune  – having bought something  two weeks previously only now to find it annoyingly marked down. Phew, her simple white linen dress remains full price for the moment. (And still waiting its first outing – oh, sustained heatwave, when will you come?)
The wise woman’s advice for sale shopping is either to opt only for classic items .... or avoid altogether. But those timeless garments that are the back bone of any wardrobe are generally gone come summer clearance, and what’s left is the high fashion stuff that didn’t sell.  So come on down, you colour blocked tops in livid purple and tomato red with no volume control.  Show your face, you punishing jeggings. Lovely floaty maxis, hanging self-consciously on the rails, you know you’re really only suitable for sunnier climes and not for trailing around our wet city streets? Lisa Snowdon, pictured at the top of the blog, does look lovely in her paisley print maxi dress. But she already has two more in that wardrobe - and that’s a lot of fabric to contend with in LOB’s book.  Just when are you going to wear them, Lisa? Which is exactly what mid-lifers should honestly ask ourselves if tempted. As some of us remember wearing maxis back when we were just past the age of consent, they are probably best to avoid second time around.
All of which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a peek in M & S’s current womenswear sale  - we can do with a little retail therapy away from grim recession reality, while remaining prudent, that is. But even those seasoned style seekers among us find it hard to resist the impulse buy, especially when it’s knocked down.  LOB and a fellow shopper were almost knocked down near the packed dress rail in the Per Una section, but we did get a brief moment to admire a smart little navy shift dress with polka dot collar, reduced to €35 (originally €53). Could be a classic, we agreed, though getting into the fitting room to try it on looked like queuing  for centre court tickets. There's something about bargain hunting that means normal rules are abandoned.   The usually discreet can become alarmingly un-inhibited at the prospect of saving a few bob. Over in the separates section, women  were peeling off layers to try on marked down knits and cotton shirts. LOB  spied one resolute bargain hunter indulging in a risky practice she herself is guilty of – trying on trousers underneath a skirt in full view of the public. Not for the shrinking violet who fears giving fellow shoppers an eye-full. (Imagine the laughs they have in the security screening rooms).  Meanwhile, it was those summer shirts, in variations of floral and gingham prints, which were a big hit yesterday morning.  (LOB especially likes the pale grey classic shirt in very fine linen (marked down to €16) which also comes in pale peach.)
Amongst all the swivelling and scrutinising in front of the store’s mirrors was a blonde haired grown-up in canary yellow Capri pants. She was trying on a turquoise and white checked shirt. We both decided that at €16, it was a bargain (although it clashed horribly with the loud pants). LOB - who should know better – but got caught up in the frenzy, was debating the wardrobe essentialness of one of those short knitted (boleros? shrugs?) that M & S feature in myriad variety every summer. She has never previously succumbed to the temptation of one of these, normally seeing them as the scatter cushions of the fashion world. But, whispered the reckless shopping demon,  this little number in serviceable beige would disguise the mature bingo wings when wearing strappy dresses or tops. You’ll never wear it, countered the inner adult coldly. Lets ask blonde, loud Capri pant woman for her opinion.  It’s only €23, suggested LOB. To which came the reply that anyone seduced by sales should adapt as their mantra.  “It’s not a bargain if you are not going to wear it.”  Reader, I left the damn thing back on the rail....

Monday, 20 June 2011

Colour blocking - summer trend, or art for all ages?

 Style isn’t all waffling on about frocks. Which is why Looking Our Best wants to demonstrate links with what is touted as the big fashion trend of summer, i.e. colour blocking, with two fascinating art exhibitions she visited over the weekend. A kind of brag post, if you will.
Vivid colours are something a lot of women of a certain age are wary of. We generally prefer to see them on generously proportioned canvases rather than our own ample, mid-life bodies. So here comes the art history bit.  There are intrinsic links between fashion and art - although most of us would be taxed to find one between little Cheryl Cole and the Aesthetic Movement of the latter half of the 19th century.  But the primary colours of her much commented on ensemble of coral top, turquoise waist clinching belt, and violet trousers (worn for her arrival in Los Angeles last month) 
came to mind when LOB visited The Cult of Beauty, a major exhibition currently running (until mid July) in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The labyrinthine interior of the V & A proved a haven away from the torrential rain last Friday – and also kept LOB a safe distance from the summer sales. This exhibition, funnily enough, features the work of artists who also wanted an escape – in this case the ‘ugliness and materialism’ of Victorian England.  It includes many of the paintings of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which capture the Art for Art’s Sake mission of the Aesthetic Movement. Prominently featured are heavily romanticized portraits of dreamy young women, clothed in jewel coloured dresses of a vaguely medieval style such as in the painting, ‘Laus Veneris’ by Edward Burne-Jones (1868).
Several of the artists went so far as to design flowing gowns, made to be worn without restricting corsets, and which draped luxuriously.  Like Cole and her extended big hair, the pale young models in these pictures have abundant tresses. But again it was colour, as much as quantity, that inspired the painters who became fixated on ethereal redheads such as Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris. The peacock, with its vivid blue and gold decorative plumage, became a recurring symbol, and can be seen in the wallpapers and textiles of William Morris, and also the signature prints in kimonos and embroidered bags beginning to appear in Liberty. LOB of course can never quite resist the temptation of any gallery shop and the V & A has a blue, pure silk, peacock feather print ‘Hera’ scarf from Liberty as part of the exhibition. 
The Regent Street store itself currently has up to 60% off its classic scarves - but they are still pricey little gems (the cheapest one spotted was £49). 

Back in Dublin on Sunday, LOB had a look at a new exhibition of the work one of her favourite artists. The Art Books of Henri Matisse (running at the Chester Beatty Library until 25th September) features much of his later works, including illustrations for a limited edition of Ulysses. The etchings, with their simple lines and flowing forms, undoubtedly inspired subsequent fashion illustrators, and also the cut-outs he used when he became to ill to paint or draw. 

 But it’s his signature cobalt blues, along with vivid greens and hot tangerines, that dazzle the viewer. 
For a moment, LOB felt she was standing at the window of a sun soaked villa in Nice, rather than an artificially lit museum in grey, rainy Dublin. “A colorist makes his presence known even in a single charcoal drawing,”  Matisse famously said. For those of us grown-up style-seekers averse to the whims of fashion trends, looking at art which endures, rather than wearing it,  is way plenty in terms of colour blocking this summer.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Blooming lovely for Bloom days

“... would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me and yes I said yes I will Yes.”   It was all a bit like that when Looking Our Best, in a fit of midsummer madness, clasped a full length floral chiffon skirt to her feverish bosom in TK Maxx. The date  was still only June 3rd, so not quite Bloomsday, but LOB was momentarily overcome by the heat and the heady flowery prints cramming the rails.  With a vision of herself in this romantic garment, wafting around her back garden like Vita Sackville West carrying a trug filled with white roses, she  promptly marched to the till and forked out the requisite 20 quid.  As anyone who has ever succumbed to the impulse buy knows, doubt begins to creep in on the way home. In the bedroom at LOB Towers, reality descended like a black cloud .   If a grown-up woman genuinely wants a brutally honest answer to the question – ‘Am I too old for this?”, a closely related twenty-something will give her the brutally honest answer.  One scathing  look was thrown at the now dowdy looking thing lying on the bed. “Yes”. LOB’s usual good taste had deserted her. She hadn’t even tried the thing on. It was completely see-through.  It had an elasticated waist, for God’s sake.   

Back to Bloomsday, and now it's almost here, your style blogger thought she would not only have yet another go at reading the most famous book most people have never read, but also explore the current trend for blooming prints and their flatter potential for the well dressed mid-lifer.  That's why, in  honour of the 16th of June being among the  most renowned days in the literary calendar, she is striving to forge a link too with Molly Bloom’s earthy soliloquy and fleeting summer fashion. Not easy - other than to say there are almost as many flowery frocks out there as there are dirty bits in Ulysses.

The rather lovely white and grey rose printed dress featured here  is called Sasha by Phase Eight (approx €148), and was tried on in Brown Thomas earlier this month. 
While it fulfils the grown-ups rule of sticking to just two colours when it comes to strong patterns, LOB is just a tad too grown up to carry such a pretty print and had to admit defeat when it came to any convincing attempt at Betty Draper elegance.  Elsewhere, similar, very  full skirted dresses with belts also proved a no-no on LOB’s decidedly un-girly frame (not to mention the discovery these are now referred to as ‘prom dresses’.  Hell-o?).  

In Monsoon, the ‘Meadow’ white tunic dress (€127, pictured here), although printed with big blooms, looked classily grown-up because the boldness in pattern is tempered by less fabric in it’s simple shift style.   Likewise, the silk black, white and pink dress from Elegance (€226, at the top of the blog) is demurely knee  length,  softly tied at the waist, and has a very flattering neckline. 

The neckline, and also the way fabric is draped, has a bearing on just how flattering a dress can be, and while the ‘Freya’ design from the Mint Velvet range shown here (€79) has a lot going on with all of those butterflies, 

 the pleating from the empire waistline down to the hankercheif hem, plus deep V neck and extended shoulder gives a great shape to those of us graced with what is known politely as the fuller figure. Speaking of butterflies, rather than blooms, this silk shirt (€180) 
rather than a full blown dress, might be the way for the shrinking (and slowly wilting) violets among us to give a nod to fashion this summer.  (The  white jeans worn by the model could be stretching it a bit, though  - even for Liz Hurley ).  An alternative is the classic pencil skirt we grown-ups all know and love, updated here (£135)  in blooming cottage garden glory, 
and worn with a white T-shirt. Both it and the silk shirt above are from the current Elegance range online.

All prices quoted here are approximate, (and some  pricey) but the summer sales are about to go into full swing, so check out the websites linked in for any discounts.
As for LOB’s chiffon floral maxi, it was promptly returned to TK Maxx, but this time, an extra €50 was added to the refunded €20, and she is now the proud owner of a classic white leather bag. What we like to call an investment buy.  It’s by Edina Ronay, and big enough to hold all of LOB’s paraphernalia – including that new, two inch thick, 682 page copy of Ulysses. (€2.99 from the bargain section in Hodgis Figgis)  And, in case you are wondering, the nice (grown-up) salesman admitted he’s never been able to finish the damned book either ... 

Monday, 13 June 2011

Bare legged chic - or sheer (horror) tights?

Urgent text from close pal in London: “I want to know: what to wear on my legs now that I’m not comfortable going barelegged yet don't want to expire from heatstroke?  Help, LOB, help!”  It’s a problem Looking Our Best has yet to solve, especially as the sight of her own  venous, putty coloured pins exposed out on the public thoroughfare has small children screaming in fright. Enter the key words ‘going bare legged after fifty’ into Google and you’ll discover a hotly debated topic. Grown-up women exposing their less than firm white flesh come summer is seen as inappropriate as wearing a pink towelling tracksuit with a sparkly logo across the backside. Even the Wall Street Journal deliberated over the bare legs issue stating that for women who entered the work force before the 1990s, (that’s us, mid-lifers), hose is considered "as necessary as underwear". They don't need to tell us about the FT (Fake Tan) index, as we all know that applying biscuit scented gunge is a tiresome palaver. And all that required waxing, exfoliating, pummeling, moisturising, followed by standing around to dry off, has LOB's previously neglected legs considering suing for harassment. The consensus on several beauty blogs is that the well dressed woman should grab Sally Hansen's Airbrush Legs.  Given that our  summer temperature can fluctuate by 10 degrees either way in one day, this product (basically a  wash off foundation for the legs) is a speedier option than applying heavy duty fake tans that supposedly last several days but get increasingly blotchier. For great  advice on the latest cosmetics (including the best fake tans) of interest to  us mid-lifers, check out the  excellent Crafty Crone's Grown Up Beauty Blog. But whichever magic ingredient you apply to your shivery pins, you’ll still have the goose-bumps when caught out in the sudden change from balmy breeze to  gale force  east wind. There’s also the little matter of the north/south colour divide – your legs say Mediterranean, your upper limbs say Siberia (apart from the tanned palms).  The option is to investigate a cover-up. While LOB has a sartorial problem with the whole leggings/jeggings/treggings  alternative and has never really recovered from the time a relative said she looked like a ball of wool with two knitting needles sticking out of it, all the same, the leggings plus floaty chiffon dress combo can work well on the grown-up womanly frame. This summer look from Dash of chunky knit wrap and grey leggings, has a casual elegance. 
Another alternative is the churider – adapted from trousers worn by Indian women. A stylish younger woman of LOB’s acquaintance swears by these as an elegant cover-up under simple summer dresses or short linen tunics as the fit is much more flattering than tight, unforgiving leggings.

 Made from fine cotton lawn and cut on the bias, the long legs are designed to fold slightly at the ankle (looks a lot nicer than it sounds). They are loose along the thighs, but tighter on the calves, and with tiny button fastenings at the hem. 
Available by mail order from Toast online, (approx €48) they come in varying tones of charcoal, blue and black (as shown in these two images)

Whether we opt for bare legged chic or classy cover-up, the decider ought to be what we are wearing plus the weather on the day – not what the ageists decree. After all, us grown-ups may getting on a bit, but thankfully are  nowhere near having what writer Alan Bennett once described as "the kind of old lady's legs that seem to have gone out now, which begin at the corners of the skirt and converge on the ankles".

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Jacket in, you heatwave forecasters

Expecting snow any day now.  For no matter what the calendar says, its still January round Looking Our Best’s exposed limbs.  Leave for the moment  the perennial problem of the wintery legs, it’s the marbled, mottled arms that are crushing any attempt at mid-lifer, mid- summer elegance. Yes, we could do a cardi – but it has to be oh-so carefully chosen so as not to scream bingo hall. A jacket, as every self respecting woman of style knows, is the mainstay of any wardrobe, and especially now that the weather forecasters have been exposed as lying toads. Heatwave – hah! Tailoring is the way to warm up, but even the lightweight variety can carry a hefty price tag. As LOB’s summer holiday plans are somewhat restricted just now -  less Costa, more Costcutter-  she was on the look out last week for a softly tailored linen jacket to work with either jeans and T-shirt (oooh, nice and warm) or the cotton (s-s-s-shiver )shift dress. Not too much to ask, surely? And Penneys are not asking a lot for their 100% linen classic in a muted cafe au lait shade:  €23. I’ll just run that by you again. €23. The more ethically minded fashionista will inevitably wrestle with her conscience (the label says ‘made in Vietnam’) while the guilty as charged LOB has to confess that since purchasing, she has hardly left off this little number since. It also comes in black or cream (and with matching tailored separates).  As for white linen (something LOB finds a challenge to wear) there are still versions out there such as this design from J by Jasper Conran, (€135), from the current summer designer ranges at Debenhams.  The slightly longer length, semi-fitted, single breasted style,  with deep lapels and single button , is a flattering shape for the generously waist-lined among us who have been overdoing the banoffi pie. Equally flattering is this more cropped length black and white pin striped jacket, also from Debenhams (€57).

With the summer sales imminent, and significant discounts forecast, LOB is starting to feel warmer already.... 

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The IMF is about to get a style bail-out

USP – an acronym with many meanings, but at Looking Our Best it stands for Ultra Stylish Person.  We’re not saying this because LOB is Irish and she is the leader of the International Monetary Fund in waiting, but we salute (and no grovelling) French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde as the elegant number one in our current USP list of femmes d’un certain age.

A former corporate lawyer, and ranked by Forbes magazine in 2009 as the best finance minister in the eurozone, this chic 55 year old epitomises what it is to look smart. Literally.  Articulate, un-ruffled (you’ll never see her in any frills or fripperies), she’s also just a fraction shy of six feet tall, so we can’t wait to see her calling all those dreary men in suits to attention while looking like a Chanel model.  What to wear at fifty-something when desperately short of inspiration? Mme Lagarde is the one to give the imagination a style bail out.    And there you were, thinking Carla Bruni was the French first lady....

Not ready for the polyester slacks just yet, thanks

You know that feeling when the security guard in a young fashion boutique gives you a quizzical look? And it’s not because he thinks you’ve just nicked something? In his eyes, you’re lost. You may have only innocently peeked into Miss Selfridge to buy something for your daughter, or reminisce nostalgically over those flowing maxi dresses. Deborah Ross, columnist with the London Independent, once hilariously likened the experience of walking into such a store as triggering a security alarm which booms out to all and sundry: “Alert! Older woman entering store! Alert! Redirect to Wallis!” 
Welcome to the world of what the French elegantly call d’un certain age, or the less kind dub the mutton club. Which is why the LOB (Looking Our Best) style blog has a minimum entry age. Those wearers of denim shorts over opaque tights, hobbling along on skyscraper wedges,  look away now – there are thousands of fashion sites out there in cyber space catering for you, darlings. This is for us fashionistas who remember shorts back when they were called hot pants. But writing a style blog on this theme presents the problem–  what exactly to call it without using the, ahem, ‘older woman’ tag? Whether or not the glossy magazines insist 50 really is the new 30, and so on, there are unwritten rules, the main one being that dressing ‘younger’ only serves to make you look older. Fashion journalist Sarah Mower wrote that every woman over 40 should invoke her own ‘mutton monitor’. Because what you got away with at 25, you surely can’t channel at twice that age. Even if you’ve deprived yourself of three decades worth of profiteroles and are still size 10, the most svelte grown-up fashionista wears a thigh-skimming little summer dress at her peril. To risk that would surely provoke the dreaded Kronenbourg 1664 slur –looking 16 from the back and 64 from the front.
What should we wear? LOB can only say that the answer doesn’t get any easier with age. Some of us  baby boomers ( those born between 1946 – 1964 ) may recall our mothers having less of a dilemma over appropriate dress codes, back in the days  when a suit was called a costume, a dress was a frock, and your shoes matched your handbag.  But we grew up during a time of the most radical changes in women’s dress, and remember wearing micro minis, or, this summer’s fashion revival, the maxi dress.  We came in when a younger generation became recognised as a viable market, and our love affair with the ever changing whims of fashion remains constant. But it feels as if the marketing folk consider yesterday’s flower children/punks/New romantics as past it, stylistically, while even the most dogged among us who insist we can wear what we damn well please still have doubts. Can we really get away with fashion revivals second time around? Hmmm. By all means try on those current Betty Draper floral frocks or experiment with 80s style colour blocking while also acknowledging what the French (again) call entre deux ages – being ‘between two ages’. In maintaining the  ambiguity over what exactly  that middle point is, LOB says we  should refuse to  resign ourselves purely to the safety of the so- called ‘classics’ . There will be plenty of time ahead for donning the chain store sensible shoes and polyester slacks. If what we wear defines us (rightly or wrongly) there should be no limits to where we can search for those looks that show off our style rather than age.  And never mind how that security man looks at you....