Fightback of the thirty-something women

So you don't want to wear a bottom-skimming slip dress any more - don't panic, just look beyond the chain stores, says Belinda Morris
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I am a thirty-something woman, size 12-14. I am not as thin as I used to be, but nor have I turned to fat. I am average. And there are many other women like me among the more than 6 million women in this country who are aged 30-44. The number of women aged16-29 is projected to fall by 1996, while women in my age bracket are estimated to rise to almost 6.5 million. Yet why is it that, when I go clothes shopping, there is nothing in the shops that either appeals or, more to the point, fits? The fashion industry, which should be addressing this important sector of the market, appears to be ignoring it in favour of the younger (slimmer) customer.

What exactly does the grown-up thirty-something woman wear if she doesn't want to expose her midriff, flash unsightly cellulite, or simply feels she has passed the fluffy pastel angora and floral satin slip stage and doesn't want to wear the same frock that everyone else on the street is wearing anyway? What does she wear for work in the heat of summer and where should she look for it? What does she do if her taste level says Joseph, Margaret Howell, Nicole Farhi, but her wallet says Warehouse and Oasis because the mortgage/new carpets/ washing machine must come first?

As a fashion stylist who spends more time than most women "shopping" for clothes, I have reached a point in my life where I know precisely how I want to dress. I can identify with a friend who tells me that, compared to five years ago, she demands much more from her clothes now; she thinks about cost per wear. Her sense of style has calmed down and she has found a style that suits her rather than going for anything that's fashionable. She needs to look smart for work, as well as fashionable. Her needs are typical of most women.

"My suits have to be interchangeable," she says, "jackets and bottoms that work with other pieces - and they have to last for more than one season." She will occasionally buy something expensive from Joseph or Armani as an investment but then buy lots of tops from Marks & Spencer.

One solution for those tired of coming across the same (young) looks on the high street is to leave it altogether and search out the smaller, independent fashion retailers, many of whom stock names that may be less familiar and do not carry the massive price tags associated with designer labels. Buyers for these shops often have to work extremely hard to find new labels that customers won't find in every other shop on the high street and you will generally find that the service is excellent. Department stores, too, can be a good source of brands, some famous, others less so. Anyone who assumes that it isn't worth looking beyond the ground floor perfumery should think again. Especially when it comes to some of the major House of Fraser stores such as Dickins and Jones.

So I took the train out of London to a more local shopping centre. Richmond is typical of small town centres up and down the country and it was here that shopping became a liberating experience. It takes a little perseverance, but small boutiques are closer to their customers in a way that most multiples can never hope to be. Buyers look for labels with real women in mind.

Instead of clothes for teenagers, once away from the mainstream stores, I found very wearable interpretations of this summer's main stories. Prints, it seems, needn't be in difficult pastels or brights, but more muted grey and natural tones; slip dresses needn't be bottom-skimming - they can be anything from knee- to ankle-length; and if you don't want to reveal upper arms, try a matching or co-ordinating jacket over the top. If you like the idea of sheer fabrics but don't want to expose flesh, try layers of voile or fine crepe and again wear something over a skirt or dress so that everything from the thighs up is covered reasonably discreetly. If you want to spend a little more on a suit, keep it simple and fairly timeless and add a more frivolous touch with accessories or tops from younger boutiques - you won't mind throwing out the cerise satin cropped top next summer if you only paid pounds 20 for it. Better still, try and hunt out the more muted greyed pastels. They look more sophisticated than the sugary baby pinks and blues.

So if you, like me, are average-sized and average-aged, and spend more on your house now, with clothes sometimes taking a back seat, the clothes I have picked out here are good news for you too. None of the outfits you see here, accessories apart, costs more than pounds 300. Happy shopping.