What to wear when you’ve outgrown that dress

By Louise Scodie, May 27, 2010
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Refined paisley dress £60, Embellished vintage washed shirt £45, Crystal look cat’s eye sunglasses £16, all at Warehouse

Refined paisley dress £60, Embellished vintage washed shirt £45, Crystal look cat’s eye sunglasses £16, all at Warehouse

There comes a defining moment in every thirtysomething woman’s life: the moment when she finds herself gazing at a sparkly micro miniskirt in New Look and wondering: “Am I too old for this?”

Ortal Wolfson, 30, a history teacher from East Finchley, says: “I wouldn’t wear a mini-skirt now in case I looked like mutton! I also look at people about five years older than myself and wonder whether they should be wearing what they’re wearing.”

Like finding your first grey hair, or realising that you can no longer drink four flaming sambuccas on a work night, realising that you have outgrown certain items of clothing can be a sobering experience.

The thirties can be a tricky decade for dressing. Some high-fashion trends seem too young, too ridiculous, and too unflattering: for goodness sake, this season’s cycling shorts were thigh-enlarging enough in the 90s. On the plus side, you’re still young (well, you’re not old) and not ready to give up fashion in favour of polyester and pop-socks. So how to strike that balance?

Personal stylist Sara Segal says that many of her clients in their 30s have “physical and emotional issues” with clothing.

“They feel conscious of their arms or knees and a change in their skin. They also are aware of teens and 20s dressing in a way that they no longer feel comfortable with.”

That’s something that is particularly pronounced in those thirtysomethings who have acquired both children and baby flab (unlike Victoria Beckham, who is somehow half the size she was in her 20s). As Sara explains, it’s not just a question of bulge but of time too: “Mothers are so used to maternity clothes and spending more time on the children than themselves that they forget how to dress! They often wear loose-fitting styles, with too much black and grey and not enough confidence.”

With cheerful spring and summer tones in the shops, it’s the perfect time to break out of that black and grey mould. If you’re nervous, start by pairing a bright top with your favourite jeans, urges Sara.

“Avoid super-mini dresses and skirts. Luckily, this season’s maxi dresses provide an attractive alternative to the super mini.” Sara says. Instead, choose “key, simple pieces adding some strong accessories for glamour”.

Professional thirtysomething women have other issues to contend with. When you’re standing on a high rung of the career ladder, you don’t want people to look up your skirt. Nikki Brin, 33, a sales manager from Crouch End, says: “I separate my work and casual wear much more because I’m in a more responsible job than I was 10 years ago. I actually have to wear smarter clothes for work than I would choose to.”

As for casual wear, comfort is now a key issue. Gone are the days of wearing stilettos and a boob tube to the pub. Frankie Singler from Muswell Hill is a head of sales who says: “I just had a massive clothes clearout and got rid of a lot of stuff from the past 15 years. I dress more for warmth than comfort but I still like to have one toe dipped in fashion.” Leggings are the ideal solution here, providing comfort, practicality and style, but team with gladiators, not trainers, for an on-trend look.

One of the advantages of hitting our 30s is that we are more discerning in our clothing choices. As Katie-Emma Lee, 34, a freelance marketer from Elstree, says: “Like a lot of my friends, I now know what I like and what suits me. I’m far less attracted to sparkles and cheap-looking materials — no more shiny polyester satin. I also got rid of the leather trousers I had in my 20s, which were never going to be a good look.”

So, where to shop? Most of the women interviewed for this article are huge fans of Topshop. Sara says: “It stocks the latest trends and the basics. Get your jeans, plain tops and knitwear there.”

When it comes to work and occasion wear, Sara favours Debenhams and Fenwicks “for their wide selection of brands”.

For those on a higher budget (like the aforementioned Victoria Beckham), Sara likes luxe clothing website Net-a-porter and London boutique Matches. For the rest of us, there is Zara whose clothes are good quality, fashionable but generally gimmick-free modern classics. There is also the new NW3 Collection from Hobbs. The capsule range has infused a brand that had become tired and middle-aged with a sassiness that thirtysomethings will adore.

Full of slightly flirty, just-above-the-knee skirts, skinny cropped jackets or unstructured safari jackets, and very on-trend trousers and shorts, it is fashion without the scary “can I wear it?” factor.

Last updated: 2:10pm, May 27 2010