It’s the accessories, stupid

Anna Lou of London

Anna Lou of London

First of all, can I just say I’ve written this blog once already? In The Poshest Café in London, Villandry.

Went in. Turned laptop on. Got wifi instantly. Was almost tearful with gratitude. Had cappuccino. Wrote blog. Then, without warning, the wifi stopped working. I thought I’d saved my draft but no, as it turned out, I hadn’t. Almost tearful with something other than gratitude. And instead of bringing me the bill, they brought me another, unwanted cappuccino. No no no!

Anyway, here once again are my thoughts on the eighties.

They should have been my decade – the era of my teens and early twenties – but I was always aware that there was something amiss. Something indefinable. Was it the me-me-me capitalism of Thatcher’s Britain, the inexorable rise of the petro dollar? Shoulder pads? The fact that although shiny blue eyeshadow looks adorable in a pot, it looks rubbish on actual eyelids? I was never quite sure.

I tried. Oh, God, I tried. I bought a Jeff Banks electric blue corduroy rara skirt. I sloppy-jumpered for England. I did knickerbockers and a sub-Laura Ashley white frilly shirt with velvet shoelace tie, a la early Diana. I did orange shorts with plum tights and lace-ups. I did off the shoulder taffeta and pearls. Nobody could accuse me of slacking in the eighties fashion department, but I was slumming it in an age that wouldn’t know style if it hit it over the head with one of Audrey Hepburn’s ballet flats.

It was the same with the music. Oh, I knew every note, every syllable of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Visage, Kraftwerk, Scritti Politti and even Dollar. I still do. But they depressed me a little. They still do. I was an Ian Dury and the Blockheads girl at heart, ten years too late for myself, and it took me years to realise it.

So when everybody in fashion-land started leaping about with joy that Jane Fonda spandex jumpers and leggings were back, that shoulders weren’t shoulders unless they were padded to within an inch of their lives, that faded grey drainpipes were hot hot hot, I went cold cold cold and ignored them.

The eighties are over, everyone. Only Marc Jacobs had any fun at the time. The rest of us are trying to forget. Get over it and move on.


I was in Topshop Oxford Street earlier today. It’s quite close to Villandry. I didn’t go down to the Dantean Inferno that is the You’re Too Old For This Darling But It Would Look Lovely On Your Stepdaughter fashion levels. I stayed on the relatively safe ground floor.

I was looking for brooches. So past the Big Bangles. Past the Oversize Necklaces. Past the Amusing Totes. To the Johnny Loves Rosie section at the back, where the corsages are. Which were fine, but beside them was the Anna Lou of Londn section and this was FABULOUS. Kitsch hairslides and necklaces and dangly earrings made out of hard, bright acrylic straight out of 1982. The hummingbird and the parrot brought it all back.

I used to LOVE those things. I hankered and hankered. I saved up my pocket money. I had a whole herd of elephants in pink and grey, with little diamante eyes and I used to line them up along my big-shouldered blazer lapels, like something out of Babar.

I wore them with my teeny-tiny real Gucci shoulder bag (enough space for lipgloss and keys) that my rich uncle gave me. They were funny and interesting and really quite beautiful. Amid their excesses, the eighties did accessories really really well.

I wanted to buy something today, but I didn’t, because as I said, Topshop Anna Lou was doing hairslides and necklaces and dangly earrings and I wanted a brooch and there weren’t any. I need one, or possibly several, to brighten up my yes-I-know-I’m-copying-Kate tuxedo for a thing I’m going to in a couple of weeks.

So instead, I’m going to dig out some of my pink elephants from the bottom of my jewellery box and dot them all over my old Jasper Conran black lapel. They’ll be vintage AND recycled AND eighties. I’m going to be so on trend it’ll hurt.


I heart Beth

beth-ditto3Here in South London, debate and controversy rage. Is naked, flame-haired Beth Ditto, on the cover of my new Love magazine, a beautiful icon of femininity or just an obese bird with a serious eating problem who needs help, not exposure?

Luckily, I am the arbiter of fashion magazine taste in our family, and I think Beth’s an icon, so she’s an icon. But I sense mutterings of mutiny among the troops. The troops, I should say, are all blessed with fast metabolisms and full awareness of the dangers confronting the NHS as a result of obesity in the population. The troops prefer Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen. The troops think the cover of Love is a ‘before’ picture in a particularly frightening health information leaflet.

I think it’s gorgeous.

In the picture, Beth has Fabulous Hair, impeccable makeup by Charlotte Tilbury, stunning, peachy skin and utter, impenetrable confidence. In real life, Beth was the belle of the ball during Paris couture week, and that’s the ball you want to be the belle of. I didn’t think, to be absolutely brutally honest, that she always looked fantastic in every single photo of her at parties and in front rows that appeared on the net. It helps if you have Charlotte Tilbury on hand and you don’t have to schlepp around Paris in your flats for hours on end. But for Love, on page after page after page, she looked incredible.

Incredible naked. Incredible with her eyelids half closed and only the whites of her eyes showing (and some underarm hair). Incredible lounging in a Gareth Pugh ‘dress’ that resembled a deconstructed nylon garden chair and struggled to contain a single breast. Incredible looking just the right side of pornographic, and perfectly in control.

Interestingly, none of the troops (who are 50/50 male/female) have complained about the quantity of flesh on display. Merely the volume. We none of us mind artfully-shot naked women on our magazine covers. But some of us mind them being anorexically thin (me) and some of us mind them being well-upholstered (everybody else).

Strange, from an art-historical perspective, where for several millennia women of Beth’s proportions have been worshipped as goddesses or painted as kings’ consorts. What happened in about 1911 to change perceptions so radically? I can only conclude that we fixed agriculture. Suddenly, for the first time in history, the majority of people in leading countries weren’t hungry. Ample bosoms were two a-penny. The only way to show your riches was not to need to eat. And we grew richer and richer and richer. And our icons grew thinner and thinner and thinner.

And then our credit got crunched. More than crunched. Obliterated. And who is our new icon?


I still heart Beth and always will, but I won’t try and sell my house until Kate’s back on our magazine covers, and all’s well with the world.


About five years ago, I got an idea for a story. This happens to me a lot (‘where DO you get your ideas from?’), but this particular story wouldn’t go away. It bugged me when I was at work. It bugged me when I was on holiday. It bugged me when I was chatting with my children.

Anyway, my busy job suddenly ground to a halt. My husband was at home. He offered to continue looking after our toddler for ‘some time’ while I trogged off to our local libraries and coffee shops to write. He even did it after I admitted that I spent at least 2 hours each day Googling while I psyched myself up to be my narrator.

Three days a week I walked across Wandsworth Common, or down to friendly Balham, to find a quiet spot to write. I told people what I was doing, if they were kind enough to ask, but their eyes always glazed over after about a minute. The only people who read the early drafts were my younger stepdaughter and one of her friends.

After five months, a competition deadline was due and I quickly readied the book to send it off. I showed it to my husband, who up to then hadn’t seen a word I’d written. When I’d come home each day, emotionally exhausted and struggling with a character or structure problem, he’d just say ‘you’re a writer. It’s your job. Deal with it.’ Perfect, perfect advice. Anyway, much to my astonishment, he read my little fashion fairy tale (he’s a Harlan Coben man) and loved it. I sent it off.

I showed it to a few daughters of friends. They loved it. I showed it to an ex-model friend of mine. She was very kind about it. I gave it to my brother. He never quite finished it …

Anyway, stuff happened. Then one day I got home to find a yellow envelope on the hall table with ‘Chicken House’ on it. My language on seeing it was totally inappropriate for an aspiring children’s author. I rang Barry Cunningham. He was very complimentary over the phone. I was beyond ecstatic.

I was shortlisted. I got on with the sequel. Another publisher showed interest but didn’t want it. My accountant suggested which tax credits I was eligible for. My bank account strayed into the red more often than I was used to. I won the competition. I couldn’t tell my friends. I nearly went crazy. Not good at secrets.

They liked it. They really liked it. More than that, they got it. It wasn’t just my fairy tale any more. Lots of people I was talking to understood the characters, were moved by the sad bits, were thrilled by the happy bits, enjoyed the humour.

I started starring in my own fairy tale. Weird. Really weird. Only objective results so far are that I can’t eat or sleep and I have impressive bags under my eyes. And my darling husband is worried for my mental health. But one day, not far away, a young teenage girl will be holding my beautiful book in her hands (I love the draft cover design) and some crazy, baggy-eyed woman will accost her tearfully and say ‘I WROTE THAT. THANK YOU FOR LOVING IT.’ And my life will be scarily, utterly complete.

Oh, Michelle

Michelle, Michelle

There are people who say (whisper it) that you are a working woman with a personality and a career and you shouldn’t have to worry about what you wear. It’s beneath you, they assert, forcefully. You never signed up to be a clothes horse for the American fashion industry. In fact, they have co-opted you as a work-horse for the American equality industry, and they want you to look like you mean business – any business but the fashionable kind.

Luckily for the rest of us, you’re a lady who looks good in a frock, and knows it, and works it. Hooray! You understand the whole creating-a- market-for-rising-stars thing and you’re not above helping some of them out, and looking great in the process.

Besides, no-one, to my knowledge, has accused your husband of dressing too well or looking too great. He’s allowed to set trends (tielessness, weirdly, being one of them, which is odd because he’s rarely seen without one, unless in the surf at Waikiki). You need to keep up and, fortunately, you do.

So there you were, hosting the first White House black-tie dinner of the presidency, and what did you do? You chose Peter Soronen, who made his debut at NYFW last month. So that’s him sorted, then. You chose full-length sequins. Not an easy look unless you have Serious Hair and a bod to die for. And you glammed it up/toned it down with about ten strands of pearls/beads (hard to tell from the tiny photo inGrazia) to look AMAZING.

Different. Confident. Not Jackie. Not Nancy. Not a take-off of any current red carpet cutie. Your own woman. The one with the best shoulders in Washington.

We’re still saluting you, girl. Our arms are hurting. We know you’re a super-clever lawyer-hospital-administrator person and loving mom with puppies to worry about. We realise that you’re a supportive and loving wife. We adore the fact that , despite all this, you’re not scared to go out in sequins and do a bit of modelling for the cause.

Sarah Brown, take note. You may support the British fashion industry to the hilt in private, but you’re a bit too nervous to go out there and sit on a front row and work it. Have you any IDEA how good you’d look in Vivienne Westwood? Or what a partnership with Jonathan Saunders might do for your wardrobe?

We’re only telling you to be kind. You’ll thank yourself. Promise. And we’ll thank you too.

Little Grey Dress 2

Thank God for that blow dry.

There’s a law that says that when you’re about to be photographed for the national press, it is essential for your two year-old to wake up at 4.30 with a stinking cold and keep you up for an hour and half. Also, you must be emotionally drained and have not eaten properly for days.

Et voila – the ‘I dragged myself out of bed for this can I go home now?’ look, which your family can admire in their clippings for years to come.

Which is how I looked at 10 yesterday morning. Then I met Alan. Alan is my new blow-dry man (at Partridges, Wandsworth – I know he’d want the ‘shout out’). Alan has met John Galliano (at a couple of clubs in the eighties ‘before he was John Galliano’). Alan can talk for England and understands my hair. By 11 I looked ‘I dragged myself out of bed for this but check the shiny, curly hair’ – which was a distinct improvement and as good as it was going to get.

I travelled to the shoot with Gavin, the photographer, who turns out to live round the corner from me. It seemed a bit mad for both of us to schlepp over to Brick Lane from Balham, but we do what we’re told, us models and our teams.

When we arrived at the location, Gavin wasn’t happy. You could tell. There I was in my little grey dress and the background had been chosen to be as busy and colourful as possible.

‘You’ll disappear,’ he said gloomily.

Then his light didn’t work, because his assistant hadn’t charged it, so he had to operate the flash by hand. And people would insist on shopping in the shop we were using as the location, and cluttering up the background.

We found me a seat near the window, and daylight. I tried a few poses. Gavin looked distinctly unimpressed, but didn’t say much.

Then I tried my ‘author’ pose. The one I’ve been practising for dust jackets since I was about 22. Chin resting winsomely on my clasped hands. I felt ridiculous.

‘Better!’ smiled Gavin. He took a lot of pictures.

I felt slightly less ridiculous.

I found a bright pink, stripey vintage (ie cheap) scarf to brighten up the grey and bought it. Gavin liked the whole scarf thing. After an hour of posing and styling, we were done.

I’m not sure I was exactly Kate Moss. Or that Gavin was ever truly ecstatic. Or that the little grey dress was the perfect solution. Or that it was a good idea to wear opaque black tights. My legs disappear in most of the pictures, and they’re my best bit.

But at least my hair looked nice.

Little grey dress

That age-old problem: what to wear for a photo shoot that’ll appear in the national press?

Can a 42 year-old mother-of-four get away with the little grey mini-dress she got in Topshop last month, accessorised with black tights and patent lace-ups? Or should she play it safe and do the white silk shirt and skinny jeans? Should she go for timeless chic, or what she actually feels like wearing on the day, which will date in about four nanoseconds and would probably look better on her 14 year-old stepdaughter?

OK, everything looks better on the 14 year-old stepdaughter. Pointless to bring that into the equation. If I used that argument every time I’d end up going out in a shroud.

As for the chic thing, I’d normally play it safe and wear the shirt, but the article will be fashion-related and I should probably look as if I have a clue. Besides, Mary Portas does it. Jane Bruton does it. They manage to look like confident, stylish women and not old ladies who forgot to wear slacks.

I’m putting all my trust in the photographer. Flattering angles, stylish poses. All the stuff I normally get wrong. And a last-minute blow-dry.