If you're making just one investment this autumn, the simple shirt- dress has a lot to be said for it. The one shown here is by Betty Jackson, the British designer who launched her first collection over 15 years ago and has been dressing modern, working women as diverse in shape and personality as Joanna Lumley, Cherie Blair, Marianne Faithfull, Victoria Wood, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Lisa Stansfield. Each of them would wear this black button-through dress very differently. So can you, depending on who you are - and who you want to be.

Transforming a dress from the sort of thing you would wear for Saturday shopping into something fit for night-club or theatre is easier than you might think. It is largely a question of accessories. That does not mean matching your shoes and handbag, or earrings and belt. Accessorising is a fine art: it can take just one bauble too many to go from starkly modern to looking like an over-festooned Christmas tree. The key is to keep it simple. A single chunk of silver jewellery, or the perfect pair of shoes, is all it takes.

The most important step, of course, is to choose the right dress. This particular one is a timeless classic, cut to flatter and last for years, and easily adapted to suit every occasion and mood. If all else fails, you know it looks fantastic on its own with a pair of loafers or your favourite comfy shoes.

The easiest way to vary this basic theme is to wear it as a soft coat, unbuttoned over a pair of trousers. Or buckle a shiny mesh belt around the waist for a bit of understated sheen. Ours is pounds 70 from Paul Smith; if you like more glitz, Chanel has a gold mesh belt with a jewelled buckle for more than twice the price of the dress. For a more exotic feel, wear the shirt-dress to cover up your underslip - but only just. Alternatively, add a chunky sweater and a pair of suede boots for a dressed-down, casual feel. Or, for the ultimate in easy comfort, slip on a pair of trainers and break up the line of the dress with a soft tank-top in a bright colour.

As long as you invest in the right dress - look for quality fabric that will stand up to a lot of wear and tear - anything is possible. A dress as versatile as this will rarely be off your back.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Black crepe jersey maxi dress, (used throughout), pounds 269, at Betty Jackson, 311 Brompton Road, London SW3 (full list of stockists is on page 52); cream striped bootleg hipsters, pounds 191, by Plein Sud, at selected branches of Whistles (0171 487 4484) and Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1; oxblood ankle boots, pounds 245, at Patrick Cox, 8 Symons Street, London SW1 (0171 730 6504); oxblood belt with gold snaffle, pounds 39, at Fenwick, 63 New Bond Street, London W1

Black dress, by Betty Jackson, as before; oyster silk and black lace slip, pounds 198, at Agent Provocateur, 6 Broadwick Street, London W1; cream satin shoes with black lace overlay and diamante buckle, pounds 49.99, at Ravel branches nationwide (0171 631 0224); gold chain with claw pendant, pounds 195, and gold bracelet with fang pendant, both by Jacqueline Rabun, pounds 170, at Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1 and Sheila Miller, Unit 26, Princes Square, Glasgow

Black dress, by Betty Jackson, as before; patent brown high heel shoes with side buckle, pounds 225, at Pollini, 47 Sloane Street, London SW1; silver chain belt, pounds 70, at Paul Smith Women, 40 Floral Street, London WC2; silver torque, pounds 215, and silver bangle, pounds 255, from Leonardo Peroni for the Talisman Gallery at Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1


Black dress by Betty Jackson, as before; suede multi-coloured wedge heel knee-boots, by Karena Schuessler, pounds 350, at Harrods, as before; brown Follow Me patterned tights from a range by Wolford starting at pounds 17, at The Wolford Boutique, 3 South Molton Street, London W1 and major department stores; cream high neck Aran sweater, pounds 125, by Massimo Osti, call 0171 491 4955 for information


Black dress by Betty Jackson, as before; red mohair tank top, by ICB, pounds 80, at Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1, and Harvey Nichols, as before (for further stockists and enquiries call 0171 823 1145); black and white trainers, pounds 49.95, by Acupuncture, at branches of Office, London (0171 221 9014)


The Look, 190 Ashley Road, Hale, Altrincham, Cheshire; Grace Hamilton, 10 Woolton Street, Woolton, Liverpool; Thirty-Eight, 38 Queen Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire; Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1; Guidelines, 38-42 Packhorse Road, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire; Isabella, 63 High Street, Ascot; Moore & Co, 9 St Leonards Road, Windsor