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Tuesday, 26 July 2011

T'hat's lovely

When it comes to hats, women divide into three categories: regular wearers; eccentric aristocrats; and those for whom having to don one is the equivalent of a bungee jump (only more terrifying).  The only place you will see all such women congregated at the one time is at a wedding.  The first two categories carry millinery off with aplomb.
But the woman who feels obliged to acknowledge the special occasion by plonking the equivalent of a flying saucer on her head is the one who stands out.  It’s not just that she’s blocking the view of the happy couple. Guests can sense her discomfort simply because the other 364 days of the year she’s more likely to wear a suit of armour than an enormous hat. Wearing hats wasn’t always such a challenge. A century ago, no respectable woman (or man) of any class left the house without one – to  do so meant you needed your head examined, so to speak. In the 1950s, the headscarf took over  – look at those old photos of mothers and grandmothers and the scarf is as ubiquitous as the daisy bell bicycle.

Now, we’ve come over surprisingly coy about headgear – even when our little skulls are anaesthetized during Arctic snaps. Rare attempts at style nonchalance – almost always at a wedding – are as convincing as a media mogul’s apology. There’s always the lesser evil of the feathery ‘fascinator’ of course, but Looking Our Best must confess a slight aversion here, not least because that name is surely ironic?  In the wrong hands, fashion’s solution for the millinery challenged can end up looking like a pigeon has just dropped a mess on top of your head. Even in the best hands (i.e. our own Philip Treacy) ‘ridicule’ can closely follow ‘millinery’ in the fashion dictionary, as shown at the royal wedding in April when the biggest talking point wasn’t Kate’s frock, but Bea's hat. 
Even though she ended up donating it to a charity auction, Treacy stuck up for the grand old Duke of York’s daughter against fashion blogs criticising her look (and using some right royal swearing when he was at it). “She is only 22, and there was a little bit of bullying going on. I didn't give a f**k about 140,000 bloggers. In the future, we'll look back and think she looked wild.” It should be remembered that Treacy also created 35  headwear designs for other royal wedding guests, and to much more approval from the fashion cognoscenti.
(Zara Phillip, here, and Sophia Winkleman (otherwise known as Lady Frederick Windsor) at the top of the post, both resplendent in designs by Galway's famous hatter). 
But what is the answer for us less posh wedding guests who rarely, if ever, wear hats?  Over again to Mairead Fullam, from the personal shopping team at Debenhams (and who LOB quotes in the previous post). Size matters, so basically, if you are petite, opt for a fascinator or very small hat, she says.  We tall people, on the other hand, should think big.  (Although 5’ 10” LOB finds having to wear a huge hat encourages small children to attach ribbons and dance round her singing about the ‘May-Oh’)  How the hat is placed on the head makes a huge difference, says Mairead.  “A lot of people simply don’t know how to wear a hat, and make the mistake of placing it too far back on their head. It’s more flattering to place it right on top, and also to tilt it slightly at an angle.”  
(Miriam Gonzales Durantes,  wife of British Liberal party leader Nick Clegg, does the tilt to perfection in her black turban with oversized coral flowers, pictured at the Royal Wedding.) 
As for the side effect of obligatory wedding hat wearing – the dreaded ‘helmet hair’ –LOB’s solution is to pretend you’re the Queen, and keep it on right throughout the reception. Keeping it on while dancing into the wee small hours, however, might look a little odd. On the plus side, boogie-ing on down while balancing something the size of a cartwheel on your head will label you as eccentric. Which, in hat wearing terms, means you are now a natural....

(All pics by Getty Images) 

Looking Our Best praises vintage headwear, as worn by iconic l960s model Jean Shrimpton:

 'The Shrimp', in stiffened net picture hat by Madame Paulette, photographed by John French, 1963

At Melbourne Races, 1965, and also modelling the emerging 'mini'skirt (Getty Images)

A woman who could wear a sombrero without looking like a cheesy tourist
... and who also had a way with a patterned scarf

The youthful 1960s take on the formerly matronly headscarf (John French, Victorian & Albert Museum prints) 

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

'Beef or salmon?' Just so long we're not mutton dressed as lamb

What to wear, what to wear? And must there be a hat?  It can only be those two words that are loaded with foreboding for the stylistically challenged mid-lifer   – Wedding Invite.
Is it okay to wear black? Is it pushing your luck to wear white? Or should you go in the new Nude – that fleshy/blush shade which, confusingly, has been designated ‘the new black’ by the fashion police over the past year? (Although such pressing dilemmas give Looking Our Best another opportunity to select images of the most stylish guests at April's royal wedding for illustration).

Karen Gordon, (pictured above) , the third Mrs Earl Spencer, does the whole 'blush' colour with understated elegance, while  'nude' shoes were also in evidence on the day, as worn by Charlene Wittstock (below) with a pale blue coat and matching hat. 

At this stage, those of us of the Boomer generation should have the whole special occasion dressing thing down to a (G and) T. But each time the pleasure of LOB’s company is requested at some important do or other, the first instinct, unfortunately, is to rush out and buy Something New. And just what is left out there for the mature, fiscally challenged woman in this summer of 2011 with its attendant fashion horrors of jump suits, girly little prom dresses,  and - surely someone’s having a laugh -  saggy harem pants?
If there's time to buy online, labels with a highly individual style such as Anthropologie (  have come up with their own summer wedding guest looks, one of which, 'Rustic Church',  is shown at the top of this post  in their 'sea nettle' print shift dress, matching wrap, slender  hoop earrings and nude toned court shoes. Very simple, very elegant, whatever your age.
There is always the alternative of Something Borrowed – a Something one friend in need resorted to when faced with an unexpected nuptials invitation. Things had already got off to a bad start on the big day in question, as the edgy location led to a row between herself and her husband who was concerned about his company car – a concern which may have been justified when they arrived outside the church and a bunch of ten year olds circled his new Beamer with the re-assurance: ‘Howya Mister, we’ll mind yer car for  ye.’ That wasn’t the only friction - the wedding suit the friend borrowed comprised culottes (well, it was a little while ago) which were two sizes too small and a challenge to wear without grimacing. 
In these times when it’s not only the nation’s credit rating which is relegated to junk status, but the contents of most of LOB’s wardrobe, another friend – ultra stylish but cash-strapped M - has come up with a solution in the Something Old category. As she sensibly says regarding wedding attire,  most of us grown-ups have at least a couple of favourite dresses languishing in the wardrobe, while the problem of their being worn previously, but now somewhat dated, is solved by a service provided by most of the major chain stores. Ta-dah! Enter the Personal Shopper!  The exclamation marks are the friend’s, because here, LOB must hold up her hand to say she has been less than enthusiastic about the whole assisted, up close and personal shopping thing in the past, feeling it’s just a ploy to shift stock to the sartorially bewildered. Over to M, to convince otherwise...
“ I had a wedding invite but didn't have the money to splash out on something new and exclusive. I could afford something new if it fitted within my limited budget  but the downside of that is  that there could be someone else in the same outfit if I bought it off the rails.
Also I had tried on a number of dresses in the middle-aged section of a number of department stores and they made me look very matronly whereas the dresses I had already made me look comparatively okay.”
She decided to bring two dresses she liked in her wardrobe along to a personal shopper in Debenhams and see if they could be updated– M’s  thinking being that if she wore a sufficiently old dress, no one else would be in it, so to speak.
“The personal shopper understood the limitations of my budget but also reassured that either dress would look fine; one was vintage and wouldn't date,  and the other - despite being over ten years old – still looked  current. She suggested that with new shoes, and a little bolero top and a hat - which she rushed off and found in the shop - one would be instantly ready to wear; and that the other just needed a really elegant chiffon wrap, a fascinator and high fashion shoes. I was impressed that she really listened to what I wanted, came up with stylish ideas – but  without coming on with any hard sell . It was also a nicer experience to look at everything in the privacy of a really spacious dressing room. ”
LOB spoke to Mairead Fullam, one of the personal shopping  team at Debenhams, Henry Street, who creates capsule wardrobes, but also assures that customers are welcome to bring in existing items in their wardrobes to be styled up with accessories.  Not surprisingly, how to find a flattering but fashionable look to wear to a wedding presents a challenge for customers of all ages, and especially “the 40 plus woman”.
What is the biggest issue among mid-lifers who want to look elegant?

“Most women are concerned about their arms. Revealing dresses with thin, spaghetti straps, or with very deeply cut armholes,  can be difficult to carry off, so I would suggest wearing a little see through bolero as a stylish cover-up for upper arms. ”  A trend, very much in evidence at April’s royal wedding, is for matching coats worn over dresses.

Carole Middleton, in Something Blue, helped dispel the inverted commas of the oft derided  'mother of the bride' fashion cliche in her updated dress and coat look on the day. There's no doubt a matching coat  solves the problem of over exposure to the elements – and to the more conservative church-goer. Grown up guests who want to stand out – but in a good way – should  avoid very big patterns, says Mairead.  “Something very bold may be too flashy in photographs – and can even look dated. White is strictly for the bride in my book, although you can get away with cream and contrasting accessories. The nude shade actually looks good on almost everyone and is surprisingly flattering. Overall, I feel weddings are not as stuffily formal these days. Having a dress and accessories all strictly matching is no longer an unwritten rule. It can even be ageing. “

Shown here is a sequin tunic dress from the Betty Jackson range at Debenhams (€89).  Another potential wedding option for those who prefer longer hemlines is Jasper Conran's midi length wave pattern dress from the J Collection (€113).

 The personal shopping service is available at select branches of Debenhams, seven days a week. A free one hour consultation can be booked online.  So there it is – LOB takes her hat off to the personal shopper (although can you guess what the next post will be about???)

(Royal Wedding pics, all Getty Images) 

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Rock star chic? Their Satanic Majesties, plus Anita and Marianne, showed how it was done 40 years ago

Feverish excitement this week as the nation’s youth, bless their little €11 Penneys wellies,  get set for Oxegen. An early warning should be flagged here for any of them who’re lost and have accidently strayed on to the Looking Our Best blog – turn away now kids, for the grown-ups are in the It Was Far Better In Our Day zone.  Those inevitable ‘festival chic’ features in the papers cast a nostalgic spell for us mid-lifers, especially when comparing the somewhat safe sartorial garb of today’s rock stars with their wilder predecessors. 
(Keith Richard and Anita Pallenberg) 
On the 5th July, 1969, The Rolling Stones held a free concert in London’s Hyde Park, and although Looking Our Best was barely out of ankle socks at the time and only saw the pictures on the telly, the images from that event fixed in her impressionable mind the conviction of the 60s as being dangerously glamorous.
(Rock fan, Hyde Park, photography by Frank Habricht)
 It wasn’t just the parameters of music and fashion blurring, but male and female dress  –in this case, the white dress worn on stage by Mick Jagger.

But back then, male rock stars (and their fans) strutting their stuff in frills and lace had become the norm.  Men's fashion allowed for self expression in a fanciful manner probably not seen since the Regency era. Looking at last week’s Glastonbury festival, LOB’s abiding  image of headliners is less of the colourful dandy but just  Chris Martin in a sweaty old T-shirt and The Edge in his knitted monkey hat.‘Conventional’ is not a word often used in a sentence referencing rock, but contemporary bands, by and large, look quite conformist to baby boomer eyes.   Fashion for the young in the 60s was like a religion, but one with a subversive edge to it – and no-one did it quite like their Satanic Majesties. Though not exactly pretty, Mick and ‘Keef’ championed the whole androgynous thing without risk of running into an ugly situation. 

(Pictured here with Mick Taylor, the replacement for Brian Jones) 
In their  kaftans, floral shirts, floppy hats, scarves and jewellery , they gave girlfriends Marianne Faithfull (photographed at the concert with her son Nicholas, below) and Anita Pallenberg a run for their money.  

The rock star girlfriends in turn adopted the trend for wearing trouser suits – particularly favoured by  Swedish fashion model Anna Wohlin (the then girlfriend of Brian Jones, and pictured here in Tangier, 1967 ).

As it turned out,  The Stones in the Park was to become the memorial to Jones, who had been found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool around midnight on the 2nd July, aged just 27.   Romantics also saw the concert as the demise of flower power itself – especially as most of the hundreds of white butterflies which were to be released symbolically for Jones failed to flutter off into the London skies.  Yesterdays burgeoning rock fans have now become today's parents, but are unlikely  to fret  over the old chestnut as to whether they could let their daughters marry a Rolling Stone. Nor are they given occasion to  tut-tut over outrageous rock star garb.  You can’t really picture Bono rocking a white dress, can you? It’s a lovely image though...

(All pics on blog are by Getty Images, unless otherwise stated)

Friday, 1 July 2011

Staying PC when it comes to a right royal bargain

Bargain hunting during the sales is the most fun you can have even when the last thing you need is more clothes. It’s a primal rite of summer, where the hunter-gatherer  tracks down, captures and brings back that bargain trophy to her lair. There is a very fine line (as discussed in Wednesday’s blog between what is a genuine find and those other unworn ‘bargains’ glaring accusingly at you whenever you open your over-stuffed wardrobe. But it’s during the sales that us grown women are separated from the girls, when, ahem,  age and maturity inspire classic purchases rather than rash impulse buying. Unfortunately, being separated from the girls also means that that true bargain buy is only left in a girly size 8.
Still, Looking Our Best uses this time of year to venture beyond her natural habitat into more unchartered territory (the designer floor, Brown Thomas, in other words). As LOB found yesterday evening, there are classics here that won’t scream summer 2011, both for aspiring young duchesses and mature commoners alike. Timeless black dresses by Joseph (reduced to around the €120 mark) caught LOB’s gimlet eye. In the Paul Costelloe section (an enduring LOB favourite) , there was no sign of Carole Middleton. As we know, the royal mother in law is a big fan of our Paul (as is young Mrs William herself, apparently). But the former air hostess and queen of Party Pieces didn’t get where she is by forking out full price for designer style and (as reported in today’s Irish Independent   she snapped up this fuchsia print dress 

in the sales in London for €132,  and sported it at Wimbledon yesterday. 

Whatever of floral patterns, white linen has become something of a summer cliché for us mid-lifers, but the  knee length dress (at top of the blog)  by the royal favourite,  with pleat detail, roomy side pockets, belt and cap sleeves, now reduced (from €185) to €129, is a comfortably elegant variation on the look.   100% linen (as well as silk and pure new wool) is a Costelloe signature and other classic linens in the sale are these chalky white trousers, 

now €89 (approx) , which are less baggy and more flattering than similar styles elsewhere. 

The tailored linen shirt with plaquet front comes in a flattering shade of sky blue, €109 (approx) and would work well with those simple trousers. LOB’s favourite among the reductions is this more expensive (and isn’t it always) tailored black jacket, now €149 (down from €279). 

In wool crepe, with striped silk lining, the jacket is slightly fitted with gentle pleating at the back waist to give a feminine line. This is the sort of  purchase that eventually pays for itself because you will wear it consistently (or so the theory goes).  Costelloe’s mantra has been that he designs clothes for ‘real women’ and which bear just a passing nod to the whims of fashion. As for Carole Middleton, the choices of the 56 year old are increasingly scrutinised by the style  police who insist on strict application of the ‘mutton monitor’ (  For now, her adherence to PC (Paul Costelloe) should keep the critics happy. After all, she’s stopped chewing gum...