The email read “What is she wearing? She looks like a failed pot noodle.”

Thus Tessa Jowell in a vivid and unflattering multi coloured top.

TV is spectator sport for all of course but this is the second time Wal the interior decorator has communicated with me in terms of outrage about what women over 50 wear.   His mother, the only woman he ever loved, was famously and amusingly feisty.

She had a proper job at Columbia Pictures and she was dressed, coiffed and shod all her life.  His father invested in couture for her when she got the job and she spent her own money on it as soon as she had it.

Wal doesn’t do well with women who can’t dress.   He is not disagreeable for the sake of it, he’s not a snob about his own or anyone else’s clothes but, man or woman, they have to do something for you, and if they don’t, he wants to know why you are wearing them?


This started a year ago when he rang and said without preamble “What is that woman wearing?”   As we watch different things, I had to find out to whom he referred but once we had run it down to Kirsty Wark, I told him that if he watched Newsnight,

He got what he deserved.  We are supposed to have our minds on higher things …

“But look at it” he insisted.  So I did.  And it was terrible, featuring a sort of ruffle round the neck usually reserved for lamb chops atop an unattractive skirt.

“Why?” he asked.   So I tried to explain.

You either take the position that there is no such thing as bad taste – one is just expressing oneself.

Or else – facing up to the fact that within 50 years, we have gone from elegant to sexy as fashion’s adjective of choice, illustrated through racks of rubbish in a massive market obsessed with cheap at one end and looking cheap at the other, the obsession with youth and fear of wearing anything other than what youth wears being seen as the beginning of admitting to age.  And obviously the dread if ratcheted up if you are in the public eye.

We have few wardrobe securities.  Women of a  certain age whose images are permitted to us are either actresses or performers (dedicated to the illusion of youth in order to keep working), royalty (circumscribed through another kind of image building) or occasionally women of achievement who though we admire them, often have access of money the rest of us don’t have  or they just don’t care – which may be personally liberating  (sculptor Louise Bourgeois, hooray: the lovely Joanna Lumley – er, yes).

France Finance minister Christine Lagard

What is missing is the Lagrange solution, embodied by Christine of the name, head of the International Monetary Fund who wears the kind of plain clothes that have to be well cut (expensive and are thus becoming (one of the fashion words we no longer use), wonderful handbags, shoes for feet not fetish, and a nice line in scarves.  Her jewellery doesn’t often appeal to me but her husband gives it to her, so you can see why she wears it.

There was a time when I would  have sighed “Oh well, she’s French” but such is the universality of dreck in clothing stores that there are nearly as many appallingly dressed French as British women – same lines, same stores, same old – though we are burdened with that “girly” thing which is so much less workable and so much more unkind than anybody seems to want to recognise.  And we have nobody in our public life any longer who just wears clothes.   They are all in costume.

I want to smack the Roayl milliners for putting Majesty in the hard lines of many of those hats.

I am tired of being told that Kate Cambridge dresses in the high street as does the PM’s wife, as if this were somehow exemplary.   If those clothes work (see Miriam Clegg) they look better than high street and if they don’t, I don’t understand why they are wearing them.   Cheap is only a recommendation when it works and it rarely works for either of them.


It isn’t just me.  I recently spent a day with 10 women – youngest 46, oldest 78 .  We couldn’t have been more different one from another but among the many and far ranging things we touched on, we all found finding clothes and shoes difficult.

There are more units than ever and less choice.  And this extraordinary conformity, so that the pressure to wear what is on offer is heavy duty. Less variety than at any time for 50 years.   Looking at practically permanent sales, does retail have a death wish?

Seems so.  Keep what you have going as long as you can: haunt the charity and secondhand shops: find a dressmaker:  look up Ari Seth Cohen on line and read Eric Newby’s Something Wholesale for laughs.

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