How a five-point action plan helped me reclaim my style in my mid-40s
The most glamorous phase of my life happened in the Nineties, when I edited the in-house magazine for Selfridges. I spent my days on the fifth floor of Selfridges surrounded by the most exciting fashion in the world, travelling for meetings with brands or jetting around to shoots. Those were the days of Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson, DKNY, Calvin Klein – I had the most immaculate capsule wardrobe of designer power suits you can imagine.
It was there that I met my husband. We married and when we had our third baby we decided it was time to leave London. We’d moved on from Selfridges by this point to start a marketing business together and we decided to move everything back up north to be closer to our families. We soon found a Georgian farmhouse that needed a lot of love in a village on the edge of the Lake District.
On the first day in our new house, surrounded by boxes and small children, I felt overwhelmed and just had to take the boys out, so we went out to look for the village playground. I remember exactly what I was wearing: a pink floral A-line skirt with a pink twinset from Gap, which was the thing at the time, and pink kitten-heel sandals. When we got to the playground my seven-year-old frowned at me and said, “Mum, you can’t dress like that here. You’re going to have to learn to fit in.” And he was right. Going down those muddy country lanes in my little pink sandals made me feel ridiculous.
I assessed the playground and the other mums on the school run – and just tried to fit in. It was such a big change, going from the top floor of Selfridges on Oxford Street to a country village. I had a lot to learn. Women here wear Gore-Tex in the winter and shop market-town brands like White Stuff, Joules, Fat Face – it’s practical and outdoorsy.
So I started to dress like my new friends. It didn’t feel like me but I thought I’d get used to it. At the same time, my parents both fell ill. I had very small children, a house renovation, a fledgling business, and now terminally ill parents. Suddenly I was the lowest priority on my list.
I stopped exercising. I put a lot of weight on. My sense of self went out of the window. And it stayed that way for about 10 years. I just completely lost sight of who I was.
My dad died first, followed by mum in 2011, and there came a day in 2013 when, having avoided the mirror for quite a few years, I forced myself to take a look. I had one of those really big moments where I gave myself a bit of a shake and wondered, “My goodness, who are you? Where did you go? Who is the future you going to be?”
I decided it was time to invest a bit of energy and money into myself. My plan was to use a small portion of the inheritance I got from my parents – most of it had gone into a house extension, but there was a little left. My mum always loved clothes, so I knew she’d approve.
Being a strategic person, I didn’t want to just hit the shops and hope for the best. I took a deep breath and decided to make a plan. I wrote down five action points in what I came to think of as my personal ‘Renaissance Project’.
The first point was that I needed to lose two stone before I did anything else. That was hard and took a long time, but by 2014, I’d done it. I knew I was at an interesting stage in my life: I was 46 and my little one was taking the 11-plus. I had this feeling that my life was about to take a turn. Life is always moving, but every so often you reach a big bend. I sensed that when my youngest went to secondary school, things were going to be quite different for me and I wanted to be ready.
The second point on the plan was that I needed to understand my body. With my Selfridges background I knew that style was more important than fashion and that only certain clothes will work on certain bodies. It’s nothing to do with whether you’re a pear or an apple or any of that nonsense; it's more complicated than that.
I went back to the Kibbe body shapes that we’d learned about in our Selfridges training – David Kibbe talks about 13 body types and there are quizzes you can do about your frame and face. You’ll find you probably already have an instinctive sense of what suits you but this helps you to define it properly. I have quite a balanced frame, but with a long body and shorter legs, which gives me a short line. I fall into Kibbe’s ‘classic’ body type category which means that I look best in clothes that fit at the waist.
Step three was reassessing my colours. Because I was beginning to embrace some of the grey tones in my hair, the level of contrast that I could take in my outfits was changing. Whereas I used to wear strong contrasts such as red and black, I realised that I now needed to dress more tonally for my midlife colouring. I kept the bright colours in my wardrobe but replaced the blacks with tan, navy or grey and looked for shades at the warmer end of the spectrum to complement my warm complexion.
Step four involved working out which retailers design for my frame. Having a background in retail made this a lot easier, but trying clothes on methodically reminded me that retailers often design for particular body types. I need brands that offer clothes that will fit and flatter my 5ft 8” frame, it’s important that they include pieces that cinch the waist in their ranges. Some brands that work well for me are Me + Em, Sezane, Boden… That doesn’t mean I don’t venture beyond these brands, but for my core, capsule pieces, I know who to turn to.
Finally, I took a long, cold look at my lifestyle. As midlife women we often dress either for the lifestyle we aspire to, or the one we used to have. The mistake I found myself making in my Renaissance Project was buying a disproportionate amount of statement-wear – either evening-wear or sharp work clothes. I was harking back to the life I used to lead and although I still have a number of dressy events and professional commitments, in no way were they proportionate to the mountain of cocktail dresses and work clothes I had. I mean, it was about 70 percent of my wardrobe.
And I understand why. We all have this image in our head of the life we’d like to have, or we hold onto the most glamorous time in our lives as the ultimate moment. I was hanging onto working at Selfridges where I was having big meetings every day, then going out to dinner or fabulous events in the evening. I needed to rebalance my wardrobe for the life I lead now and that meant selling or giving away the clothes that didn’t have a place in my life any longer. The hardest things to part with were my designer suits. A lot of them didn’t even fit, but it was still difficult letting them, and that time in my life, go.
Once I’d gone through all five points in my plan, I felt a sense of accomplishment. One of the main things I learned through my Renaissance Project was that however much I might like a particular trend, there’s no point in buying into it if it isn’t right for my body. For instance, at the moment fashion is tricky for me with all the loose buffet dresses that are around. I love them on other women, so I buy them, I try them, and I just feel like a mess. They hang from my broad shoulders and make me look like a walking breeze block. So instead, I’m wearing midi shirt dresses that I can belt at the waist. I understand myself well enough to know that having an eye on trends helps me to feel relevant, but I need to adapt them and find the look that’s right for my body.
Now, aged 53, I’m confident in my choices. I know what suits me and what I feel good in. Life is about moving forward and embracing change, seeing each stage as a new chapter, and a chance to be better, bolder and wiser than you ever were before.
If you’re struggling to find your look, start small and perhaps jot down a list of instructions or goals. I did, and it keeps me accountable to myself, every day.
As told to Emily Cronin
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