Why you'll only dress well when you're 40(ish)

Here is a scene some of you might relate to. A few days back I was wandering around Zara, when my eye alighted on a tan suede lace-fronted tunic. It looked a little ’70s Yves Saint Laurent, a bit Jane Fonda in Klute. If I strained I could imagine Diane Keaton wearing it in the Woody Allen years, with a polo neck and flared jeans. I tried it on and it looked quite good. And then I did something I would never have done 10 years ago. I took it off and walked away. I just said no, because at long last (and it’s taken a long, long time) I know the difference between great for someone, and perfect for me.

You know that slightly queasy, pit-of-the- stomach feeling you get when you are at the till buying a haul of new clothes, watching the salesperson bag yet another glittery, fringed spectacular you are not sure when you are actually going to wear? I don’t have that any more. Bliss.

Cate Blanchett Credit: Getty

We always focus on the downsides of hitting your 40s – all the clothes you can no longer wear. But there is another side to the story, the glass-half-full version of the fashion mid-life crisis. I am happy to report that not only is there fashion life after 40, it gets better. Seriously. I have a more pulled-together look now, post 50, than I’ve ever done before, and I don’t mean I’ve switched to a palette of cream, stone and navy.

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I don’t even mean I’m spending more (I’m not, and I’m buying less). I mean things have fallen into place. I’m not going to say you don’t mourn all those wild, flash-in-the-pan clothes that made you gasp – often because they didn’t fit. You do, but that regret is outweighed by the relief of having a wardrobe full of clothes you can wear, clothes you trust, and significantly fewer of them, so you can actually see what you’ve got.

Jane Shepherdson, CEO of Whistles, says that, for her, this phase of fashion is better all round because it’s about knowing who are you are. 'Some things I look good in but I feel like someone else, and then some things I feel me in and that’s the feeling you want: comfortable and confident.’

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Why does it take us a couple of decades to get to that point? 'Because it takes that long to find out who you are,’ she says. 'You’re experimenting. You think, “This is a great trend, I’m wearing it whatever.” You don’t care. I always wanted to wear little short dresses, then I accepted they were never really going to work… so I stopped.’ She laughs. 'Self-knowledge tends to reduce your wardrobe drastically. Now mine is full of black and navy trousers in various cuts.’

Anyone who’s been there knows this is cause for celebration: wardrobe honing is liberating. Finding your best shape, your ideal hem length, your most flattering heel height, is like finding true love after years of not quite getting it right. No more awkwardness, no more fuss, no more contorting yourself, pretending to be someone you’re not.

Stella McCartney Credit: Rex

I used to wear a lot of boho stuff that made me feel a bit like Anita Pallenberg but, in retrospect, did nothing for me (I need tailoring). Everything was always black because black equals cool and edgy (or just gloomy if you are a washed-out blonde), and boyfriend-sized because that seemed nonchalant and sexy (not necessarily).

The twin priorities of looking cool and impressing your fashion-conscious girlfriends will always get in the way of finding your true style. Real style is the combination of being at an age when you know exactly who you are and expressing it with what suits you, regardless of what anyone else thinks. It literally gets better with age.

Sofia Coppola Credit: Getty

This explains why fortysomethings Sofia Coppola and Winona Ryder are starring in the new Marc Jacobs campaign. Both have indie caché (old-school cool) and the quirky, characterful style that doesn’t change with the seasons. It explains why 42-year-old Phoebe Philo is arguably the most influential designer of the moment – she’s not designing frivolous, on-to-the-next- trick fashion, she’s making clothes for her contemporaries from a place of cool, nothing-to-prove confidence.

Phoebe Philo Credit: Rex

Stella McCartney, Clare Waight Keller at Chloé and Julie de Libran at Sonia Rykiel, and not forgetting Victoria Beckham, are all grown-ups who have no time to waste with pointless fads and trends, and inevitably that resonates with women who love fashion, but only if it’s right for them. The knock-on effect is that our strongest style icons are getting older. Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Kate Moss, VB, Stella’s posse of girlfriends, Amal Clooney; they’re the ones the designers want to dress.

Stephanie Phair, president of The Outnet, whose average customer is 38, is well aware of the shift that occurs as you head into your 40s. 'In all aspects of life, what matters to you changes, and fashion is no exception’ she says. 'You edit down to what works for you, be it trends or friends or how you spend your time.’

Phoebe Philo Credit: Getty

Talking of time, you have less, so you shop less, spend more time getting inspired, and a lot less getting ready. 'Physically, you have settled into your body… You are who you are and you build your style choices around that,’ she adds.

That’s not to say the fun is over and everything you buy from now on will be suitable and versatile and a lot like something you already own. As if. Jane Shepherdson’s recent purchases include some high-waisted flared trousers that she couldn’t resist but happily admits she’ll barely wear ('because they need heels and, you know…’). It’s not that you get sensible when you hit your style stride, you just know when you’re being indulgent.

Lulu Kennedy Credit: Getty

Emma Hill, another fortysomething designer, who left Mulberry to start her own label, Hill & Friends, would say that age only affects style in a positive way, 'You get better at what you’re good at. When I was 17 I took two hours to get ready! Now I know what I’m doing and accept the parts of my body that tormented me when I was a kid.’

Jane Shepherdson Credit: Getty

What you wear doesn’t change necessarily. If you look good in a wispy fragment of chiffon, you wear it. What changes is you feel more comfortable and sure of yourself than you did when you had a knockout 17-year-old’s figure.

Five things you learn about style in your 40s

• It’s not just about 'Do you like it’?, it’s about 'Do you have the life for it’?

• It’s OK to buy wearable clothes. Some of us are experts at buying jeans or bombshell party dresses, but it’s the in-between clothes we’re reluctant to spend money on. By your 40s you have mastered the art of shopping for the clothes you wear 98 per cent of the time.

Gwyneth Paltrow Credit: Getty

• Nothing looks as good as comfy feels. It seems incredible that you were once happy to put up with a skirt that you couldn’t walk upstairs in, or a pair of shoes that made your heels bleed. Then again, you’ll think exactly the same about certain men!

Emanuelle Alt Credit: Getty

• Trends are not law. There are shapes that really work for you, looks that always get results, so make the most of them. And it is frankly astonishing (maybe you will discover this before your 40s) how an A-line skirt four inches longer than some other A-line skirts can make you look 3st heavier.

• You don’t need that many clothes. You need a third of what you had in your roaring 'I’ve got nothing to wear’ 20s.