Over a decade covering fashion for a national newspaper has taught me many things: the importance of a winter coat wardrobe (more of which later), that no-one on the FROW does blow-dried hair and bizarrely enough, how most fashion folk competitively underdress for the swankiest of parties. But as for the endlessly dissected, elusive quality which marks someone out as truly stylish, well, let’s just say I’m still trying to figure out the exact formula.
I like to think I’m a whole lot closer to understanding what constitutes the “otherness” of real style. Why do we covet what Alexa Chung wears, how does Helen Mirren rarely put a foot wrong on the red carpet and why does Ines de la Fressange look so insanely chic. ALWAYS.
Are you born with style? Or can you buy it? Can you still look stylish when you’re 70? Thankfully Linda Rodin or Joan Didon in Celine’s ad campaign prove that looking stylish needn’t rely on the first flush of youth and endlessly long legs (although as a five foot shortie and the knackered mother of two young kids, there are mornings when I would be grateful for either).
If there’s one overriding observation I’ve noticed from sifting through a million (possibly more) street style photos from the catwalk shows, it’s that the most stylish are those who look the most comfortable in what they are wearing. By which I don’t mean they’ve left the house in a slobby pair of tracksuit bottoms, but that they exude that French maxim of being “bien dans sa peau”. Perhaps this is why French women are so often admired for the way they dress. Ageing isn’t the same big deal in France so there’s less imperative to cling to a bygone youth by wearing inappropriate clothes. For a French woman, nothing is ever quite “lost”; the youthful perks that fade as she gets older are replaced by different but equally attractive qualities such as self-confidence, self-awareness and a profound knowledge of what suits their body shape.
Back in Blighty, we’re so caught up with being fashionable we often overlook what really works on us. Stylish French women also understand the point of classic clothes: that is classic in a positive way, not classic in a boring “let’s-just-wear neutrals” way. They get the point of cut and fit and are wizards at exercising restraint and knowing just how far to push a look. If all this sounds deathly predictable, they’ll also lob in a curve ball for good measure; one statement piece of jewellery to shake things up. They may make mistakes but they move on swiftly and rarely do they make them again.
What great style is, is definitely not about us looking immaculate and groomed to within an inch of your life. Why? Because it looks fake and obvious. And human nature can smell a whiff of desperation from a mile off. Nor is it about looking matchy matchy, which is possibly one of the most ageing and unstylish things you can do.
Annabel Hodin, wardrobe editor, personal shopper and one of the (very) few women who truly understands dressing (and better than most fashion editors I might add) believes that style is about subtlety and defining what that subtlety is. “If you look at the most iconic women through the ages – Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn- it is the beauty of their simplicity. It’s about being confident, comfortable, stylish and a bit different. But ultimately your clothes have to work. On you. You need to be ruthless at eliminating the things that don’t flatter. We all dress to conform to tribes, but it’s about finding that point of difference within your tribe. “
India Knight in her brilliant read, Older, Wiser and Happier emphasises that we should be dressing to be noticed by people in our own group. You might be invisible to a 25 year old builder but does any 60 year old really want to be wolf-whistled by someone who is young enough to be her son?
I might also add that being practical- less boring than it sounds when you are teetering down a cobbled pavement in a pair of skyscrapers and a sub Roland Mouret dress – is what stylish people do without even thinking. They dress appropriately for an occasion so they never feel or look uncomfortable.
Other thoughts: Proportions are key. The right sleeve length or how high the neckline on your sweater will make a difference. Keep experimenting. Look closely at the items in your wardrobe that people always compliment you on or which you really enjoy wearing. What is it about that item that really suits your body? It’s not always obvious at first but take the time to look properly and see what works before you buy another biscuit sweater which makes you resemble the living dead. Hodin is also a believer in what she calls the new classics. “That’s where Prada, Miu Miu and Celine are so clever, “she explains. “They are essentially re-worked classics, other clothes can be delicious but they have a sell by date so the trick is to look for clothes that transcend trends.”
As we get older we also enter a minefield of do’s and don’ts: when to expose flesh or figuring out whether you can still get away with over the knee boots and short skirts? In theory, you can do all of these things, it’s just how you do them. Flesh, however toned is possibly best worn under a sheer fabric. And don’t underestimate just how sexy a bare clavicle or wrist can look. Far more beguiling than acres of cleavage or flashing your midriff. As for short skirts and long boots: both will benefit greatly with the addition of a thick pair of tights.
There are occasions when outfits need to be planned way in advance but dressing spontaneously to reflect how you look on the day is often a guarantee of looking of the moment. Christiane D’Ornano, the supremely stylish Parisian at Sisley assesses her complexion that day and works out what colour clothes will flatter her best.
If you only remember the following seven points, you are already halfway there.
The importance of a good hair cut
Don’t’ rely on hair from a time in your life when you felt you looked your best. Be honest with yourself, does your hair style look dated? Find something that looks current AND works with your face. If not head to George Northwood (www.georgenorthwood.com) and ask for Roi Nadin. I give you his name begrudgingly.
Ditto make up.
Is it time to flee the rut?
They’re everywhere this season but do they really, really suit you?
A word on shoes
The wrong shoes will kill an outfit and are possibly the single thing you can change to instantly update the way you look.
The aforementioned coat wardrobe
Your coat is your armour. Get the right coat goes the thinking and no one will look at the rest of your outfit. Good, classic coats don’t date that quickly. A great Chesterfield, trench or peacoat (very popular in Celine’s forthcoming pre-fall collection) will do you proud for many, many years to come.
Matches’ Raey collection
If you’re confused by the never-ending style diktats, this is a pretty good place to start. Rachael Proud (who needless to say oozes style out of every orifice) has designed the perfect wardrobe capsule and much, much more.
And Hodin’s very wise words
Don’t stick to conventional rules but the ones that you make you look your best.