To cut down on the angst, you could let a department store do some of the hard work for you. A number of stores run a "personal shopping service". Customers give the store details of their height and size, the colours they are looking for and other requirements. A consultant picks out outfits, advises what looks good and chooses matching accessories. The consultation takes place in a comfortable suite of rooms. The service is free, and there's no obligation to buy.
We set out to discover whether, in practice, the service is an excuse for pushy salesladies to give you the hard sell, or whether consultants really offer useful advice that you couldn't get if you simply brought your mum along. Our mission was to find a suit for less than £250 for a guest invited to a wedding this spring, plus accessories (which would cost more). The stores did not know that we were from the Independent on Sunday.
Although not all stores performed equally well, our general verdict is that the service is well worth it. You save time and energy - the consultant does the running around, not you. There was little or no pressure to buy. But perhaps the most useful point is that the consultants were excellent at picking accessories that could transform an outfit into something special. Shoppers who aren't satisfied unless they've trawled through every rack themselves, or have unerring good taste, would probably find a personal shopping service superfluous. But for the rest of us, the service, at its best, is shopping as it should be.
Precis suit, £214.95 (jacket, £159; skirt, £55.95). Accessories: Precis blouse, £55.95 and scarf, £9.95; Carvela shoes, £49.99; Siggi for Harrods hat, £75
Harrods, unlike the other stores, interviews customers face-to-face rather than over the phone and my consultant, a middle-aged unpretentious woman wearing saleslady black, jotted down my personal details and diagnosed my colouring (fair with warm tones). We then went for a walkabout, zipping past labels with unsuitable colours, styles and prices, and returning with our booty, suits in various shades of cream and aquamarine. I was then left alone to try them on. It was a bit like waiting, dressed in a gown, in a cubicle in an out-patient clinic, unsure when the doctor is going to come and inspect you, an impression made stronger by the fact that the "Executive Suite" looks a little like a tastefully furnished private clinic. When my consultant did return, she advised me against a yellow silk Betty Barclay suit that I loved, but was too big, and recommended a far more sensible choice: a cream polyester/wool suit by Precis, Winds- moor's "Petite" range. "You'll get much more wear from this," she said. (It could have been my mother speaking.) I thought the suit a little dull, but the consultant then came into her own, turning it into something far more stylish with a wide-brimmed coffee-coloured hat, turquoise and brown blouse and scarf and cream shoes. There was a slight pressure to buy ("Shall I have this hat put in a box for you?"), but once I explained I was only looking, there was no unpleasantness. As a bonus, I got a couple of useful fashion tips: short people should avoid double-breasted jackets, and the brim of a hat should be at least an inch narrower than the shoulders on either side.
**HARVEY NICHOLS, LONDON
Marella suit: £254 (jacket, £195; skirt, £59). Accessory: Miss Jones hat, £79
I was slightly taken aback to find that my consultant was to be Boris, an affable young man with a German accent, tastefully dressed in long white shirt, patterned waistcoat and necktie. In the most opulent surroundings - the reception area of the suite looked like a £150-a-night country house hotel - Boris showed me his selection. He couldn't find, he explained, the bright colours I'd specified because designers who used these colours were all too dear for my budget. I found this somewhat bizarre; other stores found me plenty of bright colours within my limit. In fact, half the suits he picked cost more than £250. Once these were eliminated, there wasn't much left, and I almost ended up with the same suit as in Harrods. But Boris preferred a dressier navy and cream striped jacket with mandarin collar and matching navy skirt, which broke my budget, albeit only by £4. He teamed it with a cream hat but suggested that, as the store's shoes started at £120, I'd do better to look elsewhere. I didn't think the suit fitted properly, and left feeling that this exercise was only worthwhile with at least another £200 at my disposal. And despite Boris's charm and discretion - he was scrupulously careful to knock before coming into the changing room - I still feel more at ease discussing whether a skirt is too tight or a neckline gapes with another woman.
* * *RACKHAM'S, BIRMINGHAM
Jerry Webber outfit: £215 (jacket, £l20; polyester skirt, £95). Accessories: Bermona hat, £35.99; Kurt Geiger shoes, £55
My visit to Rackham's threatened to be a shambles. I was ushered not into a luxury suite but a spare room at the back of Soft Furnishings. This temporary arrangement was because the store had launched its service only a few weeks earlier and, in addition, had building work going on. So every time the consultant went to find different outfits, she had to trundle up and down three floors to Ladies' Fashions. To add to her troubles, she was summoned away twice to answer mysterious demands from "management". I was starting to think the whole exercise a waste of time when she came back with an outfit that was just my taste. She steered me away from the short pencil skirts I ended up with in other stores and recommended a long, floaty skirt that was much more flattering to my less than perfect legs. She added a fitted mint green jacket from the same designer, Jerry Webber, and a relatively inexpensive cream hat and shoes. This was the outfit I was most likely to buy out of all those I tried at any of the stores. In the end, a success - the consultant was very adept at judging both what I would like and what would suit me.
Kasper suit: £159. Accessory: Bermona hat, £55.95
When I made the appointment, I was told that the usual consultant was away, but to come along anyway: another member of staff would fill in. In the event, the service consisted of little more than having a saleslady assigned to me for an hour or so. In the absence of the consultant, it seemed we couldn't use her suite of rooms; instead, my saleslady, Beryl, popped chummily in and out of an ordinary cubicle. But Beryl threw herself into the task with enthusiasm, finding me outfits and giving me her opinion; we became quite pally and by the end of the afternoon she was showing me a fetching pink hat that she had her eye on for a do in the summer. Beryl was particularly keen on pastiche Sixties suits. Sadly, a pastel baby-doll dress with cropped jacket that she described as "Jackie O" gave me all the allure of Barbara Bush. We settled for another retro-inspired suit, but considerably more elegant, in navy and cream, and all for a modest £159. Topped with a wide-brimmed navy hat, this outfit was the one most likely to make an impact; the fit, if not perfect, was acceptable. Top marks to Beryl and her friendly colleagues, but a "must do better" verdict on the management of House of Fraser, which runs both Rackham's and Kendall's.
Jacques Vert suit: £158.95 (jacket, £109; skirt, £49.95). Accessories: Roland Cartier shoes, £59.95; Marida hat, £59.95; scarf, £35
The stylish consultant, in her twenties, had ready a rack full of clothes, mostly in colours and styles I'd never have chosen for myself - pistachio green or gilt buttons weren't exactly my style. After we'd worked our way unsuccessfully through a few, she gave me the most useful advice I had from any of the stores. She diagnosed a bad case of ill-fitting jackets; the excess fabric flapping around my middle was caused, she said, by my body being too short in proportion to my legs. Her prescription was to discard all the longline jackets with mandarin collars that I hankered after, picking a short box jacket instead. "A padded bra might help as well," she suggested. Kitted out in a Jacques Vert lilac box jacket and skirt, I told her I felt in danger of looking middle-aged, but, she assured me, I could jazz it up with accessories. The consultant suggested navy for the hat and shoes - obvious, really, but I wouldn't have thought of it myself - and found precisely the right straw hat, around which she tied, with panache, a perfectlu matching scarf, In all, this was an excellent service. The consultant knew her stuff, made me feel completely at ease and put not an iota of pressure on me to buy. True, her taste was rather different from mine - I still wasn't convinced by even the discreet touch of gilt to shoes and buttons - but if it looks good, who cares? I might even invest in a Wonderbra.