In Praise Of Elegance

Gymnast on beam silouette on pink background

A return to elegance was big news during couture week in Paris last summer. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Dior catwalk where designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri appeared to give a two finger salute to the nauseating theatrics and bad taste selfies of Instagram. Opening the show was Ruth Bell, the face of Dior, wearing a midi length cape dress and beret, the first in a line of models dressed in fit’n’flare silhouettes in an exquisitely restrained palette of midnight black and blush nude shades.  ‘I wanted to make something that was so subtle you almost couldn’t see it on Instagram’ Grazia Chiuri told Lisa Armstrong at the Telegraph, after the show, ‘of course it has to be luxurious but it doesn’t need to be obvious’.

Elegance possibly wasn’t the first word that sprang to mind when I interviewed the 22 year old Bell the following morning – sitting before me with her shaven head, alabaster skin and the otherness of youth, dressed in an over-sized hoodie and thick cotton trousers from Virgil Normal in LA. The interview had been rescheduled three times; I was waiting for the diva of all divas.

Bell is not a classic beauty and yet everything about her – an unfailingly polite manner, a quiet self-assurance and professionalism, arriving five minutes before our 8 am interview despite working till 2 am the night before, being happy to start the interview on the communal stairs because the offices were late opening so that I wouldn’t miss my Eurostar – was elegance personified.

Elegance is such a loaded word, one that could probably do with a crack PR team to imbue it with any sort of relevance in 2019. It seems so impossibly quaint, so démodé, certainly nothing cool or anything to inspire to. And yet, and yet, through the prism of nine squares, where so much of the tone on Instagram is dominated by a nauseating strand of self-love, there’s a growing curiosity to explore something different. Well at I least I hope there is.

What is elegance?  Literally speaking it’s the clean dismount of a gymnast from the balance beam, the smooth playing motion of a cellist, the way a dress takes in your waist just so. Elegance is also the art of less, a sense of timelessness, a beauty that shows unusual effectiveness and simplicity. It is also frequently used as a standard of good taste, except I think we all know that elegance is so much more than that.

It is thoughtfulness and kindness rolled into one, it’s a white lie to save someone’s blushes, it’s the opposite of flaky, it is small gestures that people remember and taking the time to have meaningful every day exchanges – while buying a stamp as much as resisting the urge to put the phone down on your mother-in-law. It is listening, knowing when to hold back, Coco Chanel’s style maxim of refusal, it is seeing beyond the end of your nose, knowing when to shut up and basically being a better person. Call it manners if you like. In our selfie, self-obsessed society, there aren’t nearly enough manners to go round. And why we underestimate the importance of good manners to navigate day to day life is beyond baffling.

What else is elegance? It is respecting yourself too, because there’s some ground between martyrdom (NEVER elegant) and stating your boundaries and valuing yourself. Taking responsibility for yourself – eating and sleeping well, breathing, exercising, being fit and healthy so that you can live up to the many many roles you taken on  has always struck me as rather an elegant thing to do, an elegant way to be.

It’s not believing that the world revolves around you: remembering that there is nearly always a rational explanation as to why someone has been slow to reply to your email – an explanation that, more often than not, has nothing to do with you.

A stiff British upper lip isn’t fashionable currently, but there’s a lot to be applauded in “just getting on with it”, instead of constantly worrying how you are feeling. Or how happy you are. Ah, that subject of happiness. We’re so obsessed in trying to reach this unrealistic 24/7 state of eternal nirvana, that we’ve started to believe that our problems, schedules, anxieties and feelings are more important than everyone else’s. Stop it now.

Being a little bit mindful, slowing down or just taking the time to notice the world around you – other people’s behaviour and feelings – promotes a more elegant way of living. And like so much positive behaviour, being elegant is quite addictive once you start giving it any air time. One of my favourite nuggets of wisdom which I want to share again is the sage advice that the sex therapist, Esther Perel received from her father. Every time I read it, it makes me think of what is wrong with the world.

“The quality of your life ultimately depends on the quality of your relationships. Not on your achievements, not on how smart you are, not on how rich you are, but on the quality of your relationships, which are basically a reflection of your decency, your ability to think of others, your generosity…about how you treated the people around you, and how you made them feel.”

Having a strong sense of self, knowing your mind, being confident – of what sits with you and what doesn’t – is helpful too. Elegance is refusal. It is knowing when to say no and sticking to it.

A Woman’s Right To Shoes

legs in the air with colourful high heeled shoes

Get any bunch of women in a room and it is not long before talk turns to shoes. Honestly, any bunch of women you could name. But among my circle, the conversation’s shifted, somewhat. These days, we’re not debating the gorgeous mauve suede of a pair of kitten heels vs the lustworthiness of a pair of red-soled Louboutins, but which makes of shoes are the comfiest on the planet. Because when you’re aiming for 10,000 steps a day for optimum health, you want to stride, not teeter. (This is even more important if, like me, you’ve managed to fall over twice and break a wrist. Even though once that happened slipping on a greengage on my own lawn wearing flats, I still want to minimise the chance of falling from any kind of height onto a hard surface.)

Now, I often think that if an alien landed from out of space, one of the things they’d marvel at would be the spectre of millions (probably billions) of women on Planet Earth having a minimum of two pairs of shoes with them at all times. One pair to look pretty, the other actually to get from A to B in. I have in past years sometimes had the privilege of being invited to the annual Women of the Year lunch. This boasts an informal ‘re-shoeing area’ at the foot of the stairs leading to the ballroom, where everyone from cabinet ministers to TV presenters to Olympic athletes (oh, and me) would change out of their practical flats into their heels before lunch, then reverse the process after coffee had been served and the last Award handed out.

Almost the only woman who didn’t have to do this was my neighbor at the lunch a couple of years ago, Cressida Dick CBE, whose role as (the first female) Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police meant that nobody batted an eyelid that she was wearing sensible police-style lace-ups rather than ‘party’ shoes to the lunch.

None of this means, however, that I want to go around wearing shoes that look like they were made for a hobbit, or an extra from Game of Thrones, or which basically resemble a Cornish pastie in shape and colour. So I have become a bit of a world expert on stylish COMFORTABLE shoe brands. Here’s what I recommend to my best friends – and of course, to you.

Allbirds. After an ad for these – promising they were ‘the most comfortable shoes in the world’ – had popped into my Instagram feed for around the 734th time, I finally rolled over in submission and took myself off to their UK flagship store in Covent Garden to try them out for myself. And guess what? They are the most comfortable shoes in the world, made from felt-like wool (and lots of sustainable/reused materials), with soles so springy I’m now doing a fine impression of Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout. I so loved my first pair that I went back three days later and bought another. First day I wore them, I notched up 17,000 blister-free steps – which is unheard-of, in a new pair of shoes. What I would say is: made from wool, they don’t have the support of a sturdier material, thus I wouldn’t wear them for long country rambles.

Veja. This Brazilian brand also has a super-comfy line-up, and will be my summer go-to when wool shoes are going to feel wrong, just so, so wrong. Veja offer lots of examples of white tennis-style trainers (these are still going to be on-trend for summer 2019), all with a ‘V’ emblazoned on the side so everyone knows how cool you are. Actually, I’ve never been cool – but the Duchess of Sussex is. I admit I was a teensy bit put out that Meghan put Veja on the global radar when she wore a pair of their trainers on the Royal tour to New Zealand and Australia – I got there first, Meghan, been wearing them for a year! – but very happy for the shoe brand, which uses lots of sustainable, organic and even recycled materials. You can basically pretty much wear white sneakers with a ballgown these days, which is great news for our tootsies – and I won’t be looking any further for my next pair.

Ecco. These Scandi guys have really moved on from the time when they just made shoes that only your great-aunt would actually swoon over. I find them particularly good for comfy summer sandals and even funky hiking sandals. (Yes, I now hike – although I do not own a compass or a waterproof kagoule, which definitely makes me the fairweather kind.) Many styles are smart enough to wear to meetings. And I’m talking city meetings, not gatherings of the Women’s Institute.

Ferragamo. I also have one pair of sturdy, shiny, rubber-soled, shiny, black Ferragamo lace-ups that basically look exactly like something out of Cressida Dick’s shoe wardrobe, and I bloody love them. The famous Florentine shoe line does not always have sensible flats in their collection, but I’m always keeping my eyes open for another pair – even though mine show not a sign of wearing out for many years to come. I have to admit: the pair I bought cost an arm and a leg (and both feet), but they are so beautifully constructed that I can (and do) walk miles and miles in them, so the cost per mile is now a fraction of a fraction of a penny.

Chie Mihara. OK, I’ve saved the best for last, here. Every year, I invest in one new pair of Chie Mihara heels (because they really aren’t cheap either). But I still have and wear almost every pair I’ve ever bought and I have lost count of the number of times I have been stopped in the street or at parties or after giving a speech and asked: ‘WHERE DID YOU GET THOSE AH-MAZING SHOES?’ I’ve got gold lace-up heels, and a similar pair in black embossed leather. Chunky platform sandals in snakeskin and also a deep velvety rose colour, with a suede rose adorning the front.

The platforms make me taller, while showing off a pretty pedicure – but the bottom line is that all these shoes so, so, so comfortable because (so I’m told) the somewhat unpronounceable Chie Mihara herself, founder of this Spanish shoe brand, used to be a podiatrist. So she (or rather, Chie) perfectly understands foot architecture, and that we need padding under the balls of our feet, and that we most of all want stability and not to fall off our platforms or our heels. Ever. And that once we reach a certain age, we want styles that are – yes – stylish, but basically timeless.

I’ve been known to walk fairly long distances in her heels, if needs must – and I really haven’t done that since I was about 19. You do have to pick your style – I like the ones that look more like tap shoes, but they just don’t suit me – but I have a little piggy bank with ‘Chie Mihara’ on the side, for my next pair.

Happy walking…

Why Is It So Hard To Find The Perfect Nightwear?

embroidered heart

It began with a pair of Ladybird’s, I’m pretty sure of that. In a cosy brushed cotton with little flower motifs. It wasn’t like there was a whole lot of choice back then – I mean are they even still around, Ladybird?

Google says yes and there they are, £7.20 at Mothercare. In fact the brand that first appeared on UK rails in 1938 is now owned by Shop Direct, the UK’s largest online retailer.  It survived the retail armageddon and is now the third largest kidswear brand in the UK, with a growing market share of 5%.

Seriously, who knew?

Boarding school at 11 meant progressing onto regulation winceyette nighties from M & S.  This was a Catholic convent and girls didn’t usually wear PJs in the 70s,  gender stereotyping being still mandatory back then. Here I really need to give you a bit of a history of ‘winceyette’ because it was one of my mother’s favourite words, along with ‘Axminster’ carpets, both of which occupy the part of my brain where Horlicks, Angel Delight and Top of the Pops reside.

Traditionally, winceyette is a cotton fabric made from a twill weave, with a design similar to flannel only slightly thinner and more breathable. For those familiar with weaving (yep, no-one), the weft is closer than the warp.  So, that’s winceyette, which along with collywobbles, it’s probably one of the best  British words ever.

But the perfect fabric for nightwear? Maybe as a child in the perma-frost that was 70s central heating, but it was neither attractive nor stylish. (Fortunately teens had little idea of either concepts back then.)

Throughout my twenties I travelled the world and can’t remember ever wearing anything in bed beyond a succession of t-shirts. Maybe even the odd boyfriend’s shirt, the operative word being odd. These were the days well before Netflix and chill and loungewear was unheard of.

It wasn’t until my wedding night in my 30s that I invested in a sheer back spaghetti-strapped night slip from Fenwicks, which at about three in the morning I remember being absolutely determined to get into.  I’m looking at it right now and has a definite baby doll aura to it.  As such it usually reposes in the nothing-within-is-ever-worn drawer, next to two Hermes silk scarves and some dodgy patterned tights. The label says “Only Hearts N.Y.C. Helena Stuart”. A quick look on the internet and it appears they have gone out of business, natch.

The baby doll moment heralded a long decline into voluminous, cosy pyjamas as the child-rearing years beckoned and were spent reposing in bed or reclined on the sofa.  I was never a fan of nighties – they invariably ended up round your armpits in the middle of the night, and not in a good way. Or made you channel Cherie Blair the-morning-after-the-Labour-victory-the-night -before in 1997, when she famously opened the door in her blue Next nightie and knobbly knees.

Earlier generations obviously wore nothing else. When my mother died, I found a long handmade nightdress I initially presumed had been sewn by my grandmother. On reflection, it was probably the work of her seamstress.  Mary was the eldest of eight from an Irish family and by the time she married, she was so done with domesticity that she only had one child and promptly fled to India and a house full of servants. This solitary family heirloom, (all her jewellery was stolen in the 80s) which I have also unearthed, still smells of that Victorian cure-all, camphor oil. It is made of the palest cream silk with a lattice of embroidery on the bodice (fagotting to those in the know), and a tiny heart-shaped pocket on the left hip. Every single seam is delicately hand sewn, a eulogy to an age when nightwear was treasured and not worn as flotsam to shop in at Tesco’s. I have never dared put it on and darkly fantasise about one day being buried in it.

Which is not to say I haven’t had some success with recycling long-lost nightwear. For the birth our first child, I took a massive pair of white linen jimmy-jams from the Italian label 120% Lino into hospital and found them again only recently, 18 years on. A new length elastic around the waistband, a 90 degree  wash and they’re as good as new. Flattering? Not so much, as I’m about two stone lighter.

For a few years, I quite liked my pink flannelettes from The White Company before they suddenly turned shrunken and hard. Then there were the brown silky pjs that had weird fastenings. A pair of DKNY grey brushed cotton ones from Costco (£13) last winter are super comfy but the trousers end halfway up my shins, and not in a cool, cropped way.

Less practical but more stylish are my Olivia von Halle navy blue heavy silk pyjamas, which I was persuaded to fork out £150 for (which included a 50% discount) during my foray on Planet Fashion. Yet they are cut so slim across the back that the silk has been stretched and I hardly wear them any more in case one final midnight toss-and-turn will precipitate a rip. For wafting around posh hotels only.

This week, one of my favourite bloggers and fellow journalist Esther Coren, also on a quest for the perfect pyjamas, highlighted a great-looking pair from Jigsaw – random, no? – and only £45.  Navy, fave colour, a bit of piping, cropped in a good way and roomy.

But could they handle these now warm summer nights? A recent buy from Zara Home of a shirt/shorts PJ combo erred on the decidedly damp side come morning.

When it’s really hot or on our annual sojourn down to the Gulf of Mexico, I reach for a couple of eberjey bamboo viscose nighties my sister-in-law introduced me to. They’re slightly too short and have the riding up problem, but stick them on some tanned legs and there’s a flatteringly cool LA feel about them.

Most likely to actually keep you looking and feeling cool is a new brand called Cucumber with high tech fabric that wicks away moisture and lasts six times longer than cotton. I’ve yet to try them but they have the Lisa Armstrong seal of approval and come navy and cropped.  Win, win. (I do have their matching sleep mask  which is the best £20 I’ve spent this year).

Short of ever finding the perfect nightwear, my dream scenario would be to live in the tropics and spend nights between 400 plus thread count sheets and nothing else. If our bedroom wasn’t at the back of a draughty Victorian terrace with a 20 foot pitch ceiling, I would. Because there is something wholly luxurious about lying between heavenly fabric ironed to within an inch of its life.

A quest for the perfect bedlinen, you say?  Don’t get me started…

Jackie Annesley is Creative Director of SODA, which sells cool tech stuff that works. 

A Life In Handbags

jimmy cho hand bag

Can you imagine a world without handbags? Diana Vreeland, the legendary American Vogue editor once did. She came up with the idea that women should dress more like men. The keystone to her thinking was “no more handbags”. Women, she decided, should wear shirts with big pockets, jackets with big pockets, skirts with big pockets. It was all about putting the world in your pocket. She began rushing around preaching her new creed, but no one liked it (funny that).

For one thing, everyone panicked that leather factories would suffer. Others pointed out that bulging pockets would hardly improve the silhouette of their clothes and frankly, women had far more to cart around than men anyway. But what really persuaded her to back off was that handbags are such a powerful fashion statement.

Love them or loathe them, there’s little getting away from a handbag if you want to carry more than your credit card and a mobile phone. In recent decades, handbags have become a powerful sartorial statement, infinitely revealing of a woman’s life: Margaret Thatcher referred to her handbag as her “trusty companion”, while it was a “handbag” that the architect  Zaha Hadid cited as the one object she travelled with to make her hotel room “feel her own”.

For better or worse, handbags have become a social signifier of who we are and perhaps who we want to be, the subject of intense consumer desire, more revealing than our choice of shoes or even our winter coat (and in recent years,  certainly more expensive).  They are an icon of our post-modern globalised culture, handbags are venerated and ridiculed in equal measure. The best ‘origin of a bag’ style surely goes to Louis Vuitton’s Noe which was designed in 1932 and created to hold five bottles of champagne.

The relationship we have with our handbags fascinates me endlessly. Researching ‘Handbags’ a new Vogue book, I was tickled to read that the former British Vogue editor, Alexandra Shulman had once described her bag (in the context of a piece that Vicki Woods was writing) as “ vile inside with crumbling cigarettes, chewing gum, receipts and pens that leak.” I’m sure many can identify with that – I know I certainly can. And yet, as Woods herself admitted, if a man’s hand goes near her handbag – even the man she’s been married to for years – she goes into a kind of rape-alert mode and squawks. It seems that women’s handbags are public on the outside, utterly private within.

Thankfully we’re over that ridiculous era in the mid-Noughties when sales of handbags rose by a dizzying 146 percent, inspiring a period of ridiculously long waiting-lists, price tags rising north of £1000 (yes, really!) and when nothing was too blingy, logo-ed or laden down with designers hardware (a silly notion in itself and at times weighing up to 10kg). It’s when bags started to wear women (and could be spied from 50 paces) rather than the other way round.

We may no longer live in the It-bag era, but it’s foolish to think we don’t care about our handbags, we will forever have to carry around general paraphernalia and will wish to do so in plenty of style.

I love a designer bag as much as the next person (and in my life as a former newspaper fashion editor, I’ve certainly been gifted my fair share) but like the stylist Bay Garnett, I’m very partial to classic ones that look a little bit beaten up. I don’t like the idea of a bag being held up in front of the person as a status symbol. I prefer it when they look part of someone’s life and wardrobe.

The lesser known Hermes Plume style remains high on my lust list. Luckily it has inspired a rash of alternatives, notably from the highly covetable Japanese label, Art & Science. No one needs 56 bags and all in the name of research I’ve whittled the ultimate wish list (the foundation of a great bag wardrobe) down to four, maybe five styles.  Bags which will last for years and see you through every outfit and eventuality.

A top handle bag or a classic stealth wealth style

This screams ‘business’ in the boardroom but is low key enough to be carted to the farmer’s market at the weekend with some degree of anonymity. Prada Galleria’s style or Anya Hindmarch’s Ebury are investments which will last for years.

The milestone/big ‘O’/first pay check bag

Mine would be Chanel 2.55, the quilted Chanel bag with its “recognisable-from- a-mile off braided chain handle” and rectangular clasp. It’s arguably the status symbol of all time when it comes to bags. And yet, it is testament to Karl Lagerfeld’s genius that he has endlessly reinvented them so that they are still the most coveted bags, worn by fashion’s inner sanctum and yet still very much desirable among CEOs, uber-coiffed Madam Chirac types and affluent mums on the school run.

A tote shopper

Something pleasingly utilitarian and for everyday which is lightweight and easily holds your gym kit, food shop and yesterday’s green juice. Alaia’s laser cut tote is dreamy, more practical perhaps on the bank balance is Mansur Gavriel, which comes in a myriad colours.

Raffa/leopard/patent

These are classic fabrics which you will wear again and again. Invest in the best quality versions you can afford. Choose wisely and be smug for years to come.

And something a little bonkers

Again a crisp packet minaudiere, Moschino’s McDonalds drink carton bag or Jimmy Choo’s pink Lockett Petite may seem highly indulgent purchases but like point four, these are actually classics: talking points at a dull cocktail party and guaranteed to put a smile on everyone’s face, including yours.

P.S. And finally, nothing looks more ageing than carting around an oversized, logoed bag as if it was your pet Cockapoo, worse still, while in your gym kit. Just don’t.

Vogue Essentials: Handbags, £15 Amazon.co.u

image courtesy of Jimmy Choo

How To Find The Perfect Pair Of Trousers

stack of jeans

I know, trouser shopping isn’t top of my list either. Mostly because it turns out we would all far rather be shoe shopping. Who wakes up on a Saturday morning thinking, “yippee, the chance to spend all afternoon in a cramped, badly lit changing room, craning my neck to check out my behind.

It’s up there with bikini or bra shopping which is a pity really because little else does the hard yards in your wardrobe as deftly as a pair (okay then, several pairs) of trousers.

Despite the style glossies debating asymmetric hems, ruffles skirts or ditsy print floral dresses, most women wear trousers most of the time. I know I do. What else ticks off flexible, practical, stylish, time-efficient or covers up hairy legs? Buy a classic pair and they can be re-invented season after season. The right trousers look easy and will make you look youthful, polished and that you haven’t tried too hard (which is harder than you think). I’m not going to lie to you though, unless you have a boyish figure, finding trousers that fit well can be an arduous task.  It’s why many women – especially those on the curvier side – give up at the first hurdle. But forewarned is forearmed and hopefully this ten point checklist will take a lot of the pain out of trouser shopping. Read More…