Dress To Impress

30th November 2012

It’s that time of year again… and, whether you like it or not, there’s every chance that your diary is already filling up
with a cornucopia of seasonal celebrations. And that, for most of us, means one thing: retail therapy.
Start early, have fun and – hey! You shall go the ball!

Clare Finney offers shopping tips that work now and all year
round, both for party clothes and for permanent additions to the well-thought-out wardrobe…

I can’t give advice on many things: cooking, money, business and relationships, for example, leave me baffled. Yet if there’s one activity on which I can speak with some authority, it is shopping.

My wardrobe is my pride and joy. I feel about it much as a gardener might about his or her primulas; it’s taken time, love and attention, but it’s also taken skill. Before I commit to a new addition and dig my purse out, I am rigorous in ascertaining its ability to survive there. Will it thrive in its new environment, or be outshone? How much do I like it? Will it weather a shoddy summer? All this and more you must consider, while at the same time grappling with the forces of other shoppers, money and offensive background music. I’m no expert – but in recent years, I’ve had enough compliments on my rather too well-stocked wardrobe to know I’m doing something right. So here, in brief, is a checklist of how I operate…

Is it a wow?
We’ve all got one of these lurking somewhere: that thing you bought because you were in the mood for spending, or because your friend told you to, or because it was fashionable, but which in reality has barely left your wardrobe since. The first rule with clothes – all clothes, including bras– is try them on first. Look in the mirror. Smile – and if you like what you see so much you feel you simply cannot leave without it, then put it on hold and leave without it. The true test of a wow item is whether you can be bothered to come back.

Learn to shop alone
Yes, I know shopping is traditionally a girlfriend activity. But think about it logically: how many times have you bought something just because she said it looked nice? You may go way back, but not every friend has the taste and the standards that you do. More ominously still, they may not really want you to look good. Even the most saintly people have ulterior motives, and if there’s the slightest whiff of rivalry between you (men, work, hip-to-waist ratio – you name it) I’d think twice when she tells you that you look great in beige.

Buy quality – it speaks for itself
A classic this – and worth recalling when you drift past your local Primark, and see ‘Five Tops for a Fiver’ signs beckoning. For years I let my mother’s cautions wash over me. ‘Pilling wool? Bobbling cotton? Running colours? What language is this’, I wondered. Then I started washing my own clothes, and, several spin cycles later, saw her point. A strappy top is not just a strappy top, after all: spend that bit more on your fabric, and you will be richly rewarded with a top that doesn’t revert to a dishrag after one wash. Read the label. Read the label, and if it’s free (by and large) from acrylic, you’re good to go..
This policy extends to almost every item of clothing and to your accessories – dresses, jewellery, even underwear is better spent on not scrimped on – not to mention culprit number one, the suit. Here, more than anywhere, money talks: if you can’t afford a well-cut jacket, do without it and remember the pretty dress or jumper/skirt combo trumps a shiny-elbowed polyester suit every time.

All day shopping trips are pointless
In theory, they are the ultimate Girl’s Day Out. In practice, they are a nightmare, full of blisters and bags of rashly chosen mistakes. The old saying that you’ll find it when you stop looking is as true for dresses as it is for love: stop searching. Buy little (never more than two items in one go) and on impulse when you pass an intriguing shop window or vintage boutique and you’ll not only spend less, you will look a great deal better for it – and you’ll ensure that post-shopping guilt is spread evenly right throughout the year.

Buying something just because it’s in the sale isn’t saving…
…It’s losing. My grandmother’s advice that, and always worth recalling when faced with the brazen stare of SALE. Targeted shopping – ie ‘I need a grey jumper. If I see something I like that is not a grey jumper, I will resist it’ – is sensible shopping. Only if the aforementioned sign pertains to things you have long lusted after does it make sense to shop there. If it doesn’t, avoid it at all costs. You’ll only end up with a shedload of ‘cheap’ items whose combined price tag would have bought you a new season trench coat and pair of trendy ankle boots had you but sat tight. Besides, where’s the pleasure in possessing last season’s next big thing?

Once an itcher, always an itcher
No matter how pretty it is, how slim it makes you look, if it itches/rubs/hurts in any way when you try it on, then the only place for it is the shop. Clothes only look good when you do (and no one ever managed to scratch their bottom with style…). Few items will grow more comfortable with time, and as for ill-fitting clothes – well. Let’s just say there’s a large and uncomfortable difference between good and bad attention, and nothing gets the latter like tops that cling too low or tight. If you’re uncertain, just imagine your mother’s on your shoulder: it’s alarming, but not nearly so bad as having every white van man honk at you – and it’s a whole lot easier than doing a ‘rearrange’.every 30 seconds.

Haunt vintage shops
They’re diamond mines, and if you haunt them long enough and regularly enough you’re bound to find something exclusive, worth a fortune and sold for a song. Better still, it counts as recycling, so there’s less guilt. Of course, London’s swarming with great emporia but in my experience the most original finds live in the surrounding villages, so keep a shopping eye out whatever you’re supposed to be doing (without dispensing with the rest of the rules, of course). Moreover, these days shopping local is practically a civic duty, and 1940s messenger bags are so much more exciting than fruit…

Find Your Local