Although I’m in my forties, I’ve yet to grow out of shopping on the high street. My wardrobe is an homage to stores from Zara and Sandro to H&M and Hobbs. I remember moving to London in 1998 and feeling something akin to the sensation I experienced as a child on Christmas morning when I saw the plethora of stores on the London high street that didn’t exist in Dublin. H&M, Morgan, Mango, Dune, to name just a few, and a Topshop the size of the Jervis Street Centre (Dublin only had a small concession back then).
If the high street in Dublin still looked like it did in the late nineties, I’d have graduated to designer clothes, no question – whether I could afford to or not – because all I remember about high-street shopping in Dublin in my early twenties was sleeveless floral dresses in Oasis (not much has changed there, unfortunately). Essentially the choice was this: Oasis if you were young, Roches Stores or Dunnes if you were “middle aged”. But there’s been nothing short of an explosion on the high street over the past two decades coupled with a revolution in how women think of themselves (what is middle aged anymore anyway?) and how they approach their wardrobes.
We have a kind of two-tier high street if you like. Brands like Lipsy and Miss Selfridge cater for young women who want bodycon dresses and Bardot tops. They have tummys flat enough to flaunt, bums built for stretch skinnies and a carefree attitude they want reflected in their outfits. Any why not? Sometimes fashion can just be for fun. Then there’s the more mature end of the high street. Hobbs, LK Bennett, Whistles, Cos and Zara, H&M on a good day (the Premium collection in particular) and River Island’s Studio collection (unfortunately only available online, not in its Grafton Street store).
Although I’m slim, usually a size 8, I veer very firmly toward fluid pieces that keep me well covered. I almost never go sleeveless, I won’t wear a top that sits any higher than my hips, I don’t like fitted silhouettes but rather draped and slightly oversized, and I never reveal my legs above mid-calf. And yet, I never have a problem finding pieces on the high street that look sophisticated and suit my style. The high street fulfills my needs now as much as it did 20 years ago, albeit different stores. I never struggle to find pieces that “cover” me. Regardless of the season, Zara is always anchored by tailored separates, Massimo Dutti has built its reputation on a chic selection of midi skirts, smart pants and grown-up shirting, while Cos is perfect for women who just want something simple, but directional. And these days, women of all ages want to look stylish and fashion savvy without necessarily having to make the equivalent of a mortgage payment in exchange for a new blazer. And yes, it’s easier to shop anywhere if you’re a size 8, but my mother is in her seventies and a size 16 and we will often both find something we like in the same shop.
I think there’s a bit of a misnomer when it comes to shopping, both on the high street and elsewhere, that women naturally find it fun. They don’t. Many women who love clothes, don’t like shopping. Many simply aren’t good at it. So when they hit the high street, they can wind up overwhelmed, confused and generally p***ed off. I’ve seen it with my sister. She loves to look well-dressed but she doesn’t enjoy doing the legwork. She can very quickly become bored and frustrated if she doesn’t see something she likes right away. But walking into the first high street store you arrive at and expecting that it will cater to your specific sartorial needs is a little like assuming that because you don’t appreciate the furniture in Harvey Norman, there’s nothing else within that price range to suit your aesthetic. You’ve got to do your homework.
A bit of research goes a long way. Look at traditional high street stores’ websites and get a feel for each brand (the models chosen and how the clothes are styled will tell you a lot). The “virtual” high street, which has grown hugely in the past five years, also has a lot to offer women looking for clothes that fit and flatter, and cover where needed. Finery London and Uterque are just two worth checking out if you’re not already familiar, and Asos White is a revelation. Here are a few more brands that are ideal for women looking for mature pieces that are directional yet timeless.
Mallow ivory embroidered shirt, €125 at Finery London
Top pocket shirtdress, €61.60 (reduced from €77) at Warehouse
Jordan jumpsuit, €134 at Hobbs
Holding shot: Massimo Dutti