Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


I’m just a girl, standing in front of a high-street shop, asking it to dress her

The British high street needs to realise that most women over 35 don’t want “cold shoulder” dresses or midriff-baring tops, says Sali Hughes

Added on

By Sali Hughes on

Dear British high-street retailers,

I am a 42-year-old woman with an upcoming awards ceremony, three weddings (one my own), several important work engagements, a holiday in the unreliable British climate and some pottering about, doing bugger all. I have spent weeks browsing your wares, both online and in your bricks-and-mortar stores. My question for you is this: where, in the past five years, have all the clothes gone?

Let’s begin with sleeves, for these cast a shadow over my entire shopping experience. Despite your apparent belief that my life is one long high-school prom, I would always like to cover my arms, at least to just beyond the elbow. I would not like capped sleeves to highlight the fact that I’ve lifted one kettlebell in my life, nor a bandeau top that precludes me from wearing a bra. I don’t want to pick up any more nice-seeming dresses, only to find the entire back of it missing. I am literally always going to be wearing a sturdy underwire, whatever strip of wide elastic you so optimistically sew in to replace it. Like most women over 35, who have either breastfed babies or done way too much reckless jiggling at underground raves (I know you’re shocked), I like my boobs firmly encased, not increasing my dress size by two and covering my belly like a stab vest.

Ah, bellies. Mine is not taut or flat, and I’m mostly OK about it. What I’m not OK about is your obsession with tops that finish exactly around its middle which, when teamed with your persistently low-rise jeans, expose my protruding midriff for the first time since Madonna went nuclear and I cut up my Aertex hockey blouse. I’d like, ideally, a T-shirt or jumper to reach my hips, skimming breezily across my stomach as if to say, “Nothing to see here,” ideally with enough fabric to ruche so no one is quite sure where excess flesh ends and surplus cotton begins.

I say “cotton”, because you are quite mistaken in thinking that I’d like fabrics I can’t safely pass a naked flame in. I want natural, soft cloth that stays the same size in a dryer, doesn’t need dry-cleaning, can be put on a radiator without emerging as tactile as a Ryvita and still looks good on someone who hasn’t ironed since the 90s. And my larger-sized friends would like their fabrics to be the same as mine, not sourced for three pence a yard from the cash-and-carry, and certainly not emblazoned with mimsy butterflies or garish Aztec prints, like pelmets from a static caravan circa 1992. When you do give them something more modern, they’d appreciate your not assuming any body confidence they do possess should manifest in dressing like a dancer at Spearmint Rhino. They’re not freaks, ashamed, dowdy or inherently bubbly, kickass and outrageous. Please stop presuming that fat automatically equals tall with massive knockers, and thin equals short with a flat chest. Large women’s lives and desires are the same as those of thin women. All of us want normal, nice, fashionable but unfaddy clothes with a little design flourish here and there, which make our respective bodies look their best.

I want more ‘eating dresses’ – flattering frocks, neat at the shoulders, sleeves and neck, but with enough fabric around the middle to invisibly accommodate a bottle of red and more than 19 calories

Although, while we’re at it, I’m a size 8 (except in Topshop, where I’m a size 10, Gap, where I’m a size 2, M&S, where I’m a 6, and Whistles, where I’m at least three different sizes – do please all meet up for coffee and chat) and also feel strongly disinclined to show as much flesh as the teenage models on ASOS. Contrary to your sales blurbs, for many of us “bodycon” is less an irresistible selling point, more a helpful signal that we will spend our evenings draped in a coat, unable to nibble more than an olive. Likewise, many of us haven’t shared your love of tight-waisted skating dresses since puberty, think “cold shoulder” detailing makes us look a bit mad and we’re not sure we’ll ever be old enough for bias-cut linen. What would better tempt us is a whole department of “eating dresses” – flattering frocks, neat at the shoulders, sleeves and neck, but with enough fabric around the middle to invisibly accommodate a bottle of red and more than 19 calories.

Not that thirty- and fortysomething women are all about the socialising. We have busy jobs to do, families to care for, schedules to manage and bills to pay. Instead of “occasionwear” seemingly aimed at black-tie beach parties we’ve neither hosted nor been invited to ever, how about a plain dress that, with a quick slick of red lipstick and black liner or a fancier shoe, can be worn straight out to drinks from a boring work meeting? Speaking of shoes, our taste didn’t vanish with our flexible foot tendons. We like the bright colours, quality leather, femininity and high-design spec of stilettos, even though many of us would like to be able to run from a mugger after dark. Do put a little more effort into brogues, Oxfords, ballet flats and slides – in fact, go mad. Our feet are where we’re up for anything – studs, neons, jewels, bonkers prints – safe in the knowledge that they’ll fit almost everyone and inject some fun and personality into our outfits without going full top-to-toe Su Pollard.

So, once-beloved high-street retailers lamenting your declining profits, do consider putting into production this failsafe shopping list of garments that practically every woman over 35, from size 6 to 26, would buy tomorrow: a flattering sweatshirt dress available in several colours for school runs, evenings with close friends, dog walking and trips to the supermarket; one perfect tunic dress like those made by Goat and Victoria Beckham, only for less than a monthly mortgage repayment, which can be worn to any wedding, funeral or party, depending on accessories; a fancier, more fitted midi dress in a vintage print; a soft, navy, Paddington-style duffle coat with a hood; pockets on everything; sucky-in tights in different lengths as well as widths, that don’t make us bloat and ache as though we’ve just flown long-haul; long-length T-shirts and sweatshirts that don’t shrink, twist or bag; slim-fit, washable cardigans that finish mid-hip and have buttons spaced close enough to avoid gape; straight-leg (not prohibitively skinny or mortifyingly bootcut) jeans with a waist that reaches the navel and judiciously placed patch-pockets to flatter our arses; some jumpers that go in and out as our bodies do, and have a deep-enough V-neck to stop our tits looking massive and saggy; a couple of A-line skirts that hit the knee; a Mad Men-style pencil skirt with a sturdy control panel across the belly.

I am a 42-year-old woman who is wondering where all the clothes have gone. My friends are all similarly perplexed. We are all in charge of our household budgets, all have some money, all love fashion and all want to look nice. So why, struggling high-street retailers, so frequently bleating about your misfortune, do you so persistently ignore us? The lucrative answer to many of your problems is standing right in front of you, desperately searching for sleeves.


Sign up

Love this? Sign up to receive our Today in 3 email, delivering the latest stories straight to your inbox every morning, plus all The Pool has to offer. You can manage your email subscription preferences at My Profile at any time

Photo: Getty Images
Tagged in:
High street

Tap below to add to your homescreen

Love The Pool? Support us and sign up to get your favourite stories straight to your inbox