Back from the smoke

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A recent trip to London had me reeling at the wealth, and wealth of choice, on show.

Just back from spending nearly a week in London – partly work (meeting an editor) and partly pleasure (meeting up with friends etc). But also, of course, it gave me the opportunity to do some shopping.

This Easter, the weather has been unseasonably warm to say the least – instead of the average seasonal high of 16 degrees, London was nominally at 26 degrees but actually in parts far hotter, due to the belching air conditioning, hot-food vendors and the sheer press of people. I lived in London for nearly 20 years, but it was the most crowded I had ever seen it, and I formed some immediate impressions – that white Britons are very fat compared with the French (here I exempt the Asian, Far Eastern and Middle Eastern minorities, most of whom looked fabulous, especially the young Muslim girls in their fantastic sparkly hijab), that young British women don’t half wear a shedload of makeup and that the majority of people remain strikingly badly dressed, given how much good stuff there is in the shops.

Some women, it’s true, had opted for that most gorgeous of all city wear – the maxi dress, worn with bra showing, and pair of flat sandals. In this rig, you can safely float your way through the dirt, dust and diesel fumes, looking as cool as a cucumber. That’s a look for younger (and preferably taller) women, of course, who don’t mind revealing quite a lot of skin, but many of us older types seemed to favour the white cotton smock-front tunic – a cool option, though sadly teamed in many cases with all-too-random a pair of trousers underneath. A Parisienne would team such a blouse with slim beige capris and ballet flats, and look very cool in the process.

The sudden heatwave had clearly taken everyone by surprise and many of the younger women were still in sweater dresses and thick tights. I too was slightly stuck, having packed long-sleeve tees – and popped out of the hotel to the next-door charity shop and got myself a little linen shirt to wear over my thin chinos.

After lunch with my editor, I trawled most of Regent Street, and had a poke round Liberty’s – a ghost of its former self and really most disappointing, especially for a sewist, as the former fabric floor is now only one small section selling nothing but lawn. Gone are the days of Nuno woven steel fabrics and Solbiati linens shot through with gold. Most of the fashion floors was also fairly blah, other than Crea Concepts – lovely thin knits in pastel colours – and Eskandar, where I would have bought everything on the rack, from the heavy slubby linen coats (£540) downwards.

After Liberty I had a look in Jaeger, but the clothes were way too formal for my life – there is a noticeable edge of 1980s formality creeping into fashion these days, along with the zinging colours of that era. Then I turned on my heel and headed for H&M to load up on basics.

Five years ago, when I was last in London, I bought half a dozen tees from here, and I’m still wearing them, so I braved the throng and ploughed into the shop, to find a great white voile shirt (£7), long-sleeve, v-neck, cotton-elasthane tees in black, white and black-and-white stripes (£6.99), and fabulous little cotton cardis (£9.99 – I bought a grey one, as the most useful colour).

That done, I headed for BHS to get bootcut jeggings – my go-to jean these days, teamed with a longer tee and a cotton cardi. These BHS jobs come in severals cuts, of which bootcut and flare are the most useful styles for an over-40s babe, and are made of good quality denim – an absolute bargain at £16.

This year, the firm has also focused on printed cotton jersey tops in a variety of shapes – get them while they’re good, ladies, as these, I reckon, will be among the most useful items in a general wardrobe. I plumped for a taupe smock-front shirt with pink roses, which was pretty, a comfortable cut and – most importantly – needs no ironing.

Zara, which I had heard about but never seen, was interesting but too expensive for what it was, and after realising that my eyes were glazing over in John Lewis, I headed back to the hotel, quite shopped out but pleased with my purchases.

But how, I wonder, with so many good-quality basics in seemingly every shop, do so many women still look so crap in the street? There are masses of very good, plain vests, tees and jeans in basic colours, along with fitted white shirts, black pants, black stretch pencil skirts and mini trenches. But the women that I passed still manage to look mostly badly co-ordinated, shabby, and crumpled, with clashing prints and unflattering cuts.

It’s most bizarre. Some of the problem, I think, MUST stem from there being simply too much choice – personally, I found it unhelpful.

Here in rural France, we’re not exactly spoilt for choice, so many women shop from catalogues, which means you have to decide what it is you want. But in London, there is EVERYTHING at EVERY price, EVERYWHERE, and it is overwhelming. How is one supposed to come to a decision when faced with 40 different types of body lotion, or 100 different styles of black pants?

My guess is that what women actually do is continue to shop at just a few favorite and familiar outlets, and thereby limit their own choices that way, otherwise we would all wear out a hell of a lot of shoe leather.

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