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What fashion awaits older women on the British high street?

Remember how I said I’d go shopping? Well, I’ve been to Canary Wharf on a Saturday morning, which sounds like utter madness, but at weekends the Wharf is a surprisingly calm place because the people who work there aren’t there, and given they’re mostly bankers that can only be a good thing. At size 14, I’m a UK average, good for the purpose of this exercise. I set myself the task of looking for a dress that would work for an “afternoon into evening” event and I went to stores with similar pricing for a fair comparison. The news is both good and bad.

The Invisible Woman in Hobbs
Photograph: Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Hobbs is the “go to” brand for many women looking for good-quality mid-range clothing. An assistant – let’s call her Lucy – caught up with me within two minutes and in the nicest possible way took charge, sending me into the fitting rooms with six different dresses. Yes, the overhead lights made my cellulite look like the foothills of the Andes, but there was enough private space to look in the mirror without feeling self-conscious. I particularly liked the navy Harper dress, and Lucy very kindly took a photo on my phone to help me decide. She also brought me shoes and three belts, not necessarily to buy, but to help finish the look. I give Hobbs top marks for a very wearable collection and spectacularly good service with no hard sell.

Hobbs court shoes
Photograph: Helen Walmsley-Johnson

I have history with LK Bennett. Previous purchases fill my wardrobe, most of them smart frocks, a few jackets – and shoes, lots of shoes. The website looks fabulous but the store itself felt a bit like one of those gallery private views where hardly anyone turns up. I’ve heard of stores only putting out specific sizes in store but never actually encountered it until now. The sizes on the rails were all 6 to 12 and although size 14 would be fetched from the stock room if I wanted to try something on (I asked) I felt sufficiently discouraged not to bother. I tried on the only two size-14 dresses I could find – Jackina, a three-quarter-length-sleeve printed silk dress and Trieste. They fitted but not well enough to make me want to buy them. Oh, LKB, what have you done? I used to love you so much, but if this was a marriage I’d be booking us in for counselling.

LK Bennett, 275
LK Bennett, £275

As a rule, I like Whistles and again I’ve got several good pieces in my cupboards, although I find the sizing comes up a bit on the generous side so getting into the fitting room is vital. The other thing about Whistles is that not everything has what retailers call “hanger appeal”, so it’s worth trying something you wouldn’t normally consider because you might be pleasantly surprised. That said, I really couldn’t see much to get excited about this time unless you like strong blobby prints, which I don’t, and there was very little that would cover the more mature knee if you were anything like normal height, which I’m not. Whatever age you are this is still, to my mind, a muddled collection and there’s not much here for the older woman this season.

Reiss is another label I have often turned to in the past. This season, while there are some dresses that go to size 16, anything tailored or bodycon stops at 14; presumably anyone larger than that is too horrifying to contemplate. Almost all the frocks are too short and if they’re too short on me, goodness only knows what someone of average height is going to do. The long dresses are, inevitably, too long. I need a good 15in lopping off the bottom. Disappointing.

Cos Dress, 79
Cos dress, £79 Photograph: cosstores.com

What a relief then to finally stumble into Cos – simple, straightforward, sensibly priced, running up to size 18 and also a good illustration of something that perhaps looks rubbish on the hanger but lovely on the body. I was very taken with a flared cotton dress, which suits my shape beautifully. I particularly like Cos for its use of cotton and silk, which is less sticky than the Hobbs synthetic mix. The shifts are a bit short, but would work well over knee-length leggings or capris. The dresses here provide a stylish blank canvas to embellish with your own personal touches.

I suppose this is pretty much what I expected, although now I’m beginning to wonder if I have literally outgrown some of the labels I’ve relied on in the past. Stores will, of course, have a typical customer in mind, but it’s still a slap in the face to realise that “typical customer” often means a woman much younger, and slimmer, than I am and I still fundamentally disagree that older women specialist require clothing just for them.

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