In search of style

To put it mildly I’ve never been a fashionista. In my teens my style was slightly schizophrenic. On one hand I was inspired by the indie-girl-band look in vogue at the time; my interpretation of it being an ankle-length black or denim skirt with a tight t-shirt and Adidas Gazelles, or jeans and a shapeless grey sweater. On the other hand, this look had to be funded from my wages as a shop assistant/waitress in a cake shop (£2.05 an hour), so if my mum offered to take me shopping I would bite her hand off, and she favoured a slightly less grungey style, so half my wardrobe was more tailored pieces which I flattered myself were a little bit Rachel-from-Friends. (Needless to say, they weren’t!)

In my twenties it was all about dressing for the office. My first proper job, aged 21, was Assistant General Manager for Day Surgery at a District General Hospital in the West Midlands. I was rather out of my depth, and compensated with the best Next had to offer in the way of power-suits, combined with 3 inch pointy stilettos and a crisp shirt. Hell, I even ironed in those days. As I moved up the career ladder and gained in professional confidence, I realised that the two-piece suit wasn’t really me, and I developed a work look which centred around pencil-skirts with a waist-cinching belt, fitted tops or little cardies, and I retained my passion for the three-inch heel. I worked this look, or the closest approximation to it I could manage at eight months pregnant, right up until going on maternity leave with Anna.

After Anna was born, both time and money were in fairly short supply. What I wore then depended on what I could buy in the small branches of Dorothy Perkins and New Look in our local shopping centre. I rarely tried things on because Anna was normally fussing in the buggy, so tended to grab the nearest pair of leggings and jersey tunic dress in something approaching my size. They were comfy and cheap and covered me up, and at that point this was pretty much all I cared about. Gradually as Anna got older and I had a bit more time and money I started to expand my fashion horizons once again. And then I got pregnant and was back to leggings and tunic dresses once more.

Now I am stuck, and desperately trying to develop my style for this phase of my life. I’m at home with two young children, so practicality is key. The heels have gone for good, replaced by boots, Birkenstocks, and brogues. So far, so mumiform, but I’m quite happy with that. The feet are sorted. Not least because they haven’t put weight on. But the rest of me isn’t quite so easy to sort out. I want to be comfortable and practical, but reasonably stylish and put together too. Perhaps as a reaction against spending the nineties and noughties in various shades of black and grey, I have fallen in love with colourful prints – stripes, spots, florals. I love the vintage trend, and have friends who look absolutely stunning in their charity shop finds, but when I experiment I end up looking like I’ve been dressed by Marks and Spencer’s circa 1985, and have come to the conclusion that I prefer my vintage as interpreted by Cath Kidston.

Another problem is that I’ve rather gone off the throwaway fashion at the lower-end of the high street.  It’s probably just my inability to pull it off, but I feel that a size 14 woman in her mid-thirties dressed entirely from Primark can risk looking a bit, well, cheap. I still love my bargains, but I need to mix and match them a bit more now. Putting on 4.5 stone during my pregnancy with Sophia, of which only 3 has left me, means that many of my old clothes don’t fit anyway. I’ve spent six months in denial, imagining that the weight was about to miraculously drop off, but have now concluded that it isn’t. I would like to return to my middle-of-the-road size 12 at some point, but at the moment breastfeeding and broken nights and the hard work of a new baby mean that I’m not ready for the self-denial this would entail. So I need something to wear.

And of course, into this void steps Mr Johnnie Boden. Aahh, Johnnie, how do I love you, let me count the ways. Quirky prints, flattering cuts, ethical manufacturing, quality materials. How much more of a middle-class mum cliche could I sound? Unfortunately, cliches become cliches for a reason. The only snag is the price. I really can’t afford to just open the Boden catalogue and order my new season’s wardrobe, much as I might like to. My Boden habit depends on identifying items I want, and then holding my breath and waiting for the sale (Boden do have extremely good sales), or the 20% off code, or even tracking down a particular item on Ebay.

clothesI do feel like I am very gradually starting to develop a wardrobe which works, financed by a lot of bargain hunting and some selling off of clothes I’ve out-grown physically and mentally. There have been some barely-worn mistakes, but my go-to hero items are the obligatory jeans, either boyfriend cut or skinny, a variety of stripy Breton tops, skirts or dresses with a vibrant print and a slightly 1950s feel;  bare-legged with my beloved Saltwaters in summer and with thick opaques and brogues come autumn, lightweight scarves and chunky jewellery to ring the changes, and, as I’m permanently cold, I do love me a nice cardi. It’s not a look which is going to be seen on the catwalks or the pages of Vogue any time soon, but it feels several steps up from either cramming myself into clothes which are a couple of sizes too small and past their best anyway, or resorting to  baggy tracksuit bottoms and a shapeless t-shirt. If I’m going to be a cliche, I’d rather aim for the yummy mummy one than the slummy mummy one.

So, is this just me? How do other people change their wardrobes to suit their changing body shapes and lifestyle? How do you balance style and practicality? What are your wardrobe heroes?

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School’s (almost) out for the summer!

In just under an hour I’ll be collecting Anna from school for her six week holiday, and I Just. Can’t. Wait. This has been such a long half-term, at the end of the year which has seen the biggest change in her life, and she is exhausted. Absolutely on her knees. I’m longing to have her at home to cosset and cuddle and just hang out with. Six whole weeks when I don’t have to spend the first ninety minutes of the day barking instructions – “Eat your porridge, finish your milk, clear your dishes, clean your teeth, wash your face, get dressed, find your sunhat/bag/water bottle/hoodie/gloves/bookbag/homework folder, put your shoes on.” And, above all “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!”.

I’m quite proud of myself, though. A whole school year during which I have been at various points, heavily pregnant, recovering from a c-section, recovering from a broken foot and looking after a newborn baby, and Anna has only collected one late mark (caused by a last minute poonami from her sister which required a full change of clothes for me and her. Don’t ask.) The rest of the time, come hell or high water, we have screeched through the school gates at 8.50am. Other than the days when my parents have been here. “I don’t have to run the last bit when Grandad takes me to school, Mummy”, Anna informed me the other morning.

After our adventures last summer and at Easter we’re keeping things fairly low-key this summer. A trip up to Liverpool to stay with my parents next week, a week at my mother-in-law’s flat in Penzance later on in the summer, and then a couple of days in North Wales with my mum and dad again at the end of the summer. This is partly because my husband has a busy autumn coming up at work and so can’t take much time off, and partly because Sophia is seven months, eating solids and desperate to crawl, and therefore not a particularly rewarding travelling companion at present. I think it also works out really well for Anna, though, as she needs some time to just be.

No doubt a lot of her time is going to be spent reading. About two months ago, she suddenly ‘got’ it, and went almost over night from painstakingly sounding out the fascinating (ahem) adventures of Chip, Kipper and Biff in the school reading books to devouring chapter books as quickly as she can get her hands on them. Roald Dahl, Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ books, the Worst Witch, My Naughty Little Sister, Enid Blyton – her tastes are pleasingly eclectic, and, like mother like daughter, she is more often than not to be found with her head in a book. I’m loving re-visting my own childhood favourites with her. At the moment we’re reading the Ramona books, by American author Beverley Cleary, together, and I think I might almost be enjoying them more as an adult than I did as a child.

Anna journalWriting is still more of a challenge for Anna, although she is making good progress. We were chatting to her teacher about how we could encourage her to keep writing in a fun and enjoyable way over the summer so that she doesn’t lose her mojo, and she suggested we got her to keep a diary. Next thing I know, yesterday morning Miss M handed me a beautifully wrapped parcel. When Anna opened it, inside was a personalised decoupaged journal for her to use over the summer. Anna is so thrilled and excited, and I am incredibly touched and impressed. One of my closest friends is a teacher, and I know from her how difficult and stressful and exhausting the summer term is for teachers. Yet in the midst of organising school trips and sports days, and writing reports, she has found the time to do this because she wants to encourage Anna to keep up with her newly developing skill. Teachers are amazing.

I’m not sure how much time I’ll get to blog over the next few weeks, but hopefully I’ll have my girl’s diary to look back on as a record of our summer.

Going Out

Last night I did something extremely unfamiliar. I put Sophia to bed as usual, read Anna’s bedtime story, ate a quick supper…and then I WENT OUT. All by myself. In jeans that weren’t covered in snot or sick, a silk top and my beloved yellow shoes. I didn’t get far, just to my local pub to meet a couple of friends for a few glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and a bowl of chips.

M and R are both ‘mummy friends’, in that I met them through us all having daughters the same age. We’ve done play-groups and play-dates and school-gates together, but now they’re both back at work full-time, and I’m right back at the starting blocks with Sophia, so in the space of nine months they’ve gone from being people I saw pretty much every day to formless beings at the other end of a text message. No-one’s fault, just that we’re all busy, and busy in different directions at the moment.

But last night we had the chance to catch up properly. We did talk about the children, of course, but we also discussed work and relationships, household pests and household pets, houses and holidays and the habits of tortoises. Oh, and a bit of gossip too. We sat outside and enjoyed the balmy summer evening, swatted the gnats, and marvelled at the rude barmaid’s repeated attempts to take our bowl of chips away from us before we had finished. There were a few tears and a lot of laughter.

I came home feeling lighter than air, because I had re-discovered what it felt like to be me. Helen. Rather than someone’s mummy, wife, daughter. I love being all those things, of course I do, and they are at the very core of my identity. But there are other bits there too, and I think I need to remember that letting them out occasionally isn’t incompatible with being a good mum, or with putting my girls first.

Of course, Sophia woke up at 1am and 4am, before starting the day at 6.15am, and so I slightly regretted my 11.30pm bedtime, and was very grateful for my decision to switch to soda-heavy spritzers, but a simple thing like meeting two friends for a drink sill feels pretty amazing.