Q I have always been hesitant to explore my style. I’m fairly curvy, and being unable to find clothes affects my self-esteem. I want to dress my age and feel comfortable. What type of clothing should I try? How do I reflect the feeling of loving myself in fashion? A desperate teen, 18
A Please, don’t be desperate. Your letter is so very astute. You have grasped something about style that many older people fail to understand: that the right clothes bolster your confidence, and fashion should never be something that makes you feel bad about yourself.
You ask how you can reflect the feeling of trying to love yourself in fashion. Stand in front of a mirror and give yourself permission to like what you see. This is harder than it sounds. Often we see only flaws, brainwashed by some imaginary beauty ideal. This is especially hard in teenage years, when your physical appearance and who you understand yourself to be are changing rapidly, and sometimes it can feel as if the two don’t make sense together.
Next time you try on an outfit, don’t think about whether you look thinner or more like so-and-so on Instagram. Instead, look yourself in the eye and ask if what you are wearing makes you feel happier and more confident. Do you feel at ease? Or fidgety? Personal style isn’t about only wearing 1930s tea dresses or 1990s sportswear – it’s about getting dressed and looking in the mirror and thinking: there she is. I’ve got this. I’m ready for today.
I don’t really believe in dressing your age. Dress to celebrate who you truly are, not according to a dress code that tracks your date of birth. What was the last outfit that brought you joy? Was it the colour, or the slogan, or the fabric? Fashion is about celebrating what you see in the mirror: you. The right clothes will help you do that. Jess Cartner-Morley
Q Do you have any advice for buying reasonably priced ethical clothing for children? Carla, 40
A The best solution I’ve found is getting the bulk of clothing secondhand, whether on eBay, using services such as Loopster, or through friends and family. While having fewer, better, cherished things is my style aspiration as an adult, with children I am unembarrassed about stocking up on hand-me-downs and passing them on when I can.
When the secondhand trawl isn’t a possibility, there are ethical brands out there but they tend to be a bit more expensive. I like Frugi and was reassured to learn that JoJo Maman Bébé has B Corp status. Particularly if you have more than one child, seeking out brands you can trust on durability might cost less in the end. For example, all the garments made by Polarn O. Pyret – a brand I search for on eBay – are designed to be worn by at least three children. Hannah Marriott, fashion editor
Q Fashion is hugely important to me: I use my colourful, quirky style to feel confident. But I struggle to find brands that are transparent, sustainable and ethical in what they do, while catering to a student budget. Rebecca, 20
A You’re already winning when it comes to shopping sustainably: knowing what you like can be half the battle towards successfully expressing your identity through clothes. There are dozens of ways to do so ethically, not least secondhand and vintage shops, which are often a smörgåsbord of colour; try Vinnie’s on Depop.
As for ethical brands selling new clothing for a high-street purse, the pickings are slim: sustainable fashion is in its infancy. My best tip is to use the Good On You app, which categorises brands based on their ethics. Your love of colour made me think of Mayamiko, a brand that actively campaigns for workers’ rights, rated “great” on the app. I love their raspberry-coloured pinafore and vibrant Kuwala kaftan. Also try By Megan Crosby, a tiny brand producing Skittles-coloured clothing in very limited runs, as well as made-to-measure pieces you will have to wait at least 28 days to receive – the antithesis of fast fashion. HM
Q How does a 70-year-old woman who has always loved style and clothes, but now has no justification to buy more (or even be bothered about her looks) move forward interestingly and stylishly? Penny, 70
A I applaud the spirit of your letter. To move forward interestingly and stylishly is a mantra for living, not just for dressing. And I am all in favour of prising apart a love of style from endless consumerism.
However, I am going to pull you up on one point, if I may. You say you have no justification to “even be bothered about looks” because you are 70? Says who? How you present yourself to the world is a vital part of your identity. Age has nothing to do with that.
As for style without shopping, I do have one tip. Take everything out of your wardrobe and think of a new way of categorising it. If you arranged the pieces according to blouses-knits-skirts before, do it by colour now, or vice versa. It doesn’t really matter: the point is to end up with your clothes in a whole new order. This is a bit like rehanging photos on your wall. When they’ve been in the same place for ages, you stop seeing them clearly. New juxtapositions will give you fresh ideas.
And just because you’re wearing clothes you already have, don’t stop looking at what’s new in fashion. Look at shoots, clothes in films, catwalk pictures, magazine covers, and at how the clothes are put together, not at the shop credits. Maybe there is a colour combination you have never tried or a layering idea to take your summer clothes into autumn. Even something as simple as how you pop your collar or roll your sleeves. Style isn’t about shopping. It’s about moving forward interestingly and stylishly. Just like you said. JCM
Q During lockdown, I have felt as if I’ve been wearing the same stuff all the time. Are there two or three pieces I can wear frequently that will make me feel as if I’ve bought an entire new wardrobe? Giulia, 19
A Lockdown has really highlighted how easy it is to reach for the same clothes every day – but this doesn’t have to be a terrible thing, especially if those three pieces can work hard for you alongside other parts of your wardrobe. For example, a pair of great jeans can change everything. I love stylish cutoffs such as the Charley, from ethically made brand Boyish, which can be dressed down with trainers, or up with heels (they look great with ankle boots), and will work perfectly with tucked-in knitwear and shirts. If those are a bit pricey, look in your local charity shop for similar shapes, or a pair of long boot-cut jeans you could shorten with a pair of scissors (simply bang the hem against a hard surface to reveal the frayed edge afterwards – magic!), or try somewhere like Beyond Retro.
I also love a statement skirt: Birdsong has a great midi you can wear with knee-high boots as well as sandals for a night out, but there are secondhand midis everywhere. Dress yours up with a glitzy Lurex top, or wear with a red polo neck for a poppy, autumnal daytime look. Finally, for an everyday piece that slots in with all your T-shirts and jumpers as we head into autumn, a pair of Umi dungarees from Lucy & Yak could become the cornerstone of your new wardrobe. Wear over Breton-stripe tees, denim and polo shirts with trainers; or put an oversized polo neck over the top and style with boots. Melanie Wilkinson, styling editor
Q I want to reclaim a look that is about me rather than about being a wife and mother. I’ve had a clear-out and thrown away stuff I thought was frumpy or mumsy. I seem to have lots of grey and would like to embrace some colour. Where do I start? Anonymous, 50
A A few years ago, I felt I was in a rut – lots of blue and navy, with similar jumper shapes and styles. But I decided that was because I really did like those colours – they were me – so I started to build a new look around them, and think about what would complement them.
Grey is an ideal neutral to which you can add colour, so keep in mind shades you would love to try when you are in charity shops or on eBay. Pink is always a good contrast, but as we head into autumn, look for raspberry rather than pastel tones, perhaps in a midi skirt to offset a grey jumper. Green also goes well with grey, from bottle tones to lighter pistachios, in soft knitwear or silk shirts.
Start thinking about fashion being fun again, which doesn’t have to mean being frivolous or buying things you’ll wear only a few times; look at your accessories and consider statement necklaces (charity shops are great for these) and bold earrings. These comparatively low-cost buys will instantly update your favourite T-shirts, jumpers and dresses, allowing you to start injecting your personality into your look. MW
Q I used to pride myself on buying clothes from charity shops because that was “ethical”. Now I’m realising that conscious shopping is better; it feels as though the ‘wear, wear, discard’ aspect of fast fashion is keeping charity shops in business. I also enjoy buying treats for myself and my daughter on payday, which generally means dresses for under £10. Can I do this in a sustainable way? Jess, 35
A It’s true that charity shops have become entangled in the fast fashion cycle, receiving more donations than they can handle and shipping the bulk overseas. We should all be careful what we donate, yes, but that doesn’t negate the enormous benefits of shopping in charity shops. In any case, conscious shopping and charity shops are not mutually exclusive. With real patience you can precision-target your hunt, only buying things you will really love, perhaps by using online versions, such as re-fashion.co.uk and thrift.plus, which can help streamline the process, allowing you to search by size, item, colour and brand.
You can also find joy in fashion without shopping at all. Perhaps you and your daughter could spend an evening restyling your wardrobes, using the Save Your Wardrobe app to keep track of new outfit ideas. Alternatively, if possible, host a clothes-swap party, or use YouTube to learn how to do embroidery or patchwork to bring an unloved garment back to life. HM
Q I cycle to work every day and struggle to find hi-vis clothing that is ethically made. My bike is lit up like a Christmas tree, but I need something waterproof and reflective to stay safe. Adele, 28
A The two things to check on cycling garments are that they are Bluesign-approved (this means production is environmentally safe and all potentially harmful substances are eliminated from the beginning of the manufacturing process); and that they have OEKO-TEX certification (this means the fabrics used are free from harmful chemicals).
I found VeloElan on Instagram; their clothes are made from 100% recycled fabrics and they support environmental charities. They have a number of hi-vis, high-performance items for both sexes, and their recycled jerseys wouldn’t look out of place off your bike.
Presca use rescued fishing nets in their tri-suits, recycled plastic bottles in their tops, and bamboo in their T-shirts. Meanwhile Howies, based in Wales, use organic cotton made from renewable crops. They’ve got a great selection of bike tops and wool items for layering. Priya Elan, deputy fashion editor
Q I need to be more age-appropriate in the way I dress: I feel a bit too old for a T-shirt/jeans/trainers uniform, but am afraid of looking dull and samey. How can I still look cool and sophisticated without seeming to be trying too hard? Simon, 46
A Let’s take age out of the equation and focus on what you’re feeling, which seems to be that you want to smarten up without fading into anonymity. One garment I always recommend men investigate is the overshirt. It is a brilliant and underused staple; an easy way to mix up outfits and make the most of what you have, whether wearing with tonal colours, such as khaki, navy or stone, or with a pop of colour to step the look up. You could swap jeans out for chinos or trousers, and pair with plain leather lace-up pumps or classic brogues. High-street brand Arket does this elevated minimal look really well. Sustainable brand Asket specialises in stylish basics and has excellent traceable credentials.
That said, perhaps the best way to work out what “cool and sophisticated” means to you is to think about what you like. Look at fashion retail websites such as Matches or Mr Porter and take screenshots of outfits you like. You may find you already have pieces you can style this way in your wardrobe. Helen Seamons, menswear editor
Q I am 27 weeks pregnant and my bra size keeps changing. I don’t have a huge budget, and don’t want to buy loads of bras that are cheaply or unethically made, and that I won’t get full use out of. Instead I have bought nursing bras/crop tops that I might use again when the baby arrives. Comfort is obviously important too, as is support. Any suggestions? Olivia, 30
A It’s a good idea to head down the crop-top route while your bra size is changing, as you can keep wearing them through pregnancy and beyond. I have a few great ones from Gap that are stretchy and thick. I wear them to sleep, do yoga in, and under T-shirts when I’m at home; they wash well and will last, so wouldn’t be a throwaway purchase. Affordable, ethical maternity bras are a bit of an under-represented area, but Boob is a Swedish company that ships to the UK. They are not cheap (from around £45 to £64), but I think they will give you everything you’re looking for in terms of quality, support and ethical credentials, with sizes going up to the equivalent of an F. It’s important to choose non-wired styles, to avoid pressing on your milk ducts and potentially causing mastitis. If you buy around a month before you’re due, go up a size to give you extra room when your milk comes in. MW
Q I’m trying to find men’s shirts and T-shirts that are not just sustainable but carbon neutral. I’ve really struggled in a normal size, let alone tall or broad. Ideally I’m looking for plain black or white Oxford shirts. Steve, 29
Swedish brand Filippa K do some great, simple Oxford shirts and have very strong green credentials. They focus on recycling deadstock into new clothes and have a circular fashion ethos, aiming to keep textiles in a cycle of reuse, and reduce the number of new products being used. Plus all their outwear linings are made from recycled polyester (which uses 75% less CO2 emissions than new polyester). Their Tim Oxford shirts go up to a UK size 46 and come in a range of classic muted tones.
“Storied upcycling” is what Bristol’s Found Hea (pronounced Found Here) does. Every piece of clothing comes with a recycling narrative, such as a coat made from used plastic bottles. Their curated menswear includes a range of classic Oxford shirts in subtly shifting styles and come in sizes up to XL.
You should also be able to find secondhand options. PE