It’s amazing how long it took planet fashion to wake up to the wonders of the working dress. There were always lots of floaty little summer numbers with shoe-string straps and skimpy skirts – perfect for 20-somethings wanting to flash their limbs – but almost nothing for anybody grown-up with a proper office to go to.
I remember a few years ago discussing the lack of grown-up dresses with Josephine Turner, who runs the swish London boutique A la Mode. I described the sort of dress I was looking for: something with sleeves, not too low a cleavage nor too high a hem and in a fabric that wouldn’t look out of place in an office, that was comfortable, didn’t look frumpy but had a bit of allure or dash about it. She said if she could find such a thing she’d have queues around the block wanting to buy it. Her advice at the time, which I still think is something to hang on to, was this: if you find a dress that is almost perfect but that is sleeveless or too bare on top, team it with a toning cashmere cardigan or jacket that you never take off which then becomes an integral part of the outfit. Michelle Obama has shown us how to do it. She uses the cardigan not as the young do (to dress down a ball or evening dress) but to finish off the look, to pull it together.
This year, of course, you could alternate between the cardigan and the boyfriend jacket – Balmain, if you can afford it, otherwise Stella McCartney or a good cheaper version from Zara. The right boyfriend jacket will update everything you already own, add some warmth and help give a single dress a duplicity of looks.
The thing about a dress is that if it’s the right one it simplifies the matter of getting dressed in the most blissful way. It’s perfect for those mornings when pondering the infinite permutations of the separates in one’s wardrobe is too wearisome. Reaching for a dress seems a doddle. Dresses can be sexy and demure at the same time, a winning combination, and they need merely the right accessories before one’s set to go. The best of them can also do that useful thing of going happily from day to night and back again.
Marigay McKee, for instance, the very stylish director of fashion and beauty at Harrods, takes almost nothing but frocks when she travels for business and confesses to owning some 27 black ones which she dresses up with crocodile belts and chic bags (Hermès or vintage) as well as jewellery (also sometimes vintage). When she’s packing for a business trip she chooses her accessories first, matching shoes to bags, then selects the dresses (some five for a week’s trip) around those.
Marigay, of course, has the pick of Harrods but even for the rest of us there’s lots of choice. The blessed Diane von Furstenberg, who was the first to fill the niche for grown-up dresses that could go to sophisticated places when she came up with the wrap-dress, has moved on. She must have realised pretty fast that wrap-dresses didn’t suit everybody, a fact that became only too evident when it was seen on many who weren’t as svelte as the designer herself. They also became a bit too ubiquitous, being seen as the ready-made answer to the working girl’s prayer, so these days she offers crisper alternatives that are much more flattering. This season, look at her beautifully draped red wool felt dress – it’s easy to wear, glamorous and sophisticated. It could happily go to the office and on to any number of evening “dos” and yet at £370 is not as expensive as many of its rivals.
After the von Furstenberg wrap-dress we had the delightful Brazilian Daniella Issa Helayel and her Issa label, created entirely because she couldn’t find the sort of dresses that suited her petite, curvy figure – the kind of problem that resonated powerfully with many Brits. Made of silk jersey, the dresses are quite forgiving of bumps and curves as the fabric does not cling too tightly. Prints are a speciality and allow Issa to add a bit of oomph as well as nod to the trends of the season (this season it is strong on animal prints and there’s a particularly attractive one in grey with variegated white spots, £517). They also come in a variety of necklines and sleeve lengths so that there is always something sedate enough for the workplace.
But there are lots of other designers who’ve sussed that the needs of the working woman haven’t been well attended to and are now beginning to address them. Some of the best are inevitably expensive (my personal favourite being Oscar de la Renta’s wool blend grey, white and black short-sleeved number, which is simply perfect, having an easy, elegant shape, round neck, short sleeves, some on-trend embroidery and sequins on one shoulder but which, sadly, comes in at £3,000).
But this brings me to the matter of investment dressing. When I worked for the late Ernestine Carter, the dauntingly chic fashion editor of The Sunday Times, she always looked the (very elegant) part but she had very few clothes. They were worn in strict rotation and consisted of a series of chic suits and dresses that were always impeccably cleaned. I’ve always thought it was not a bad recipe for a working wardrobe. But it does require initial outlay.
Those who think it worth it could first check out the wonderful Oscar de la Renta dress but then move on to Jil Sander. Raf Simons, who has taken over designing for the label, is clearly looking in a considered way at the matter of what women need to wear to work and how to help them look sophisticated and elegant. He has got tailors and dressmakers to work together and seems to me to have come up with some wonderfully desirable solutions.
There is, for instance, a brilliant slate blue structured dress which looks almost monastically plain – three-quarter-length sleeves, simple round neck – until you clock that there is a quirky bit of pleating on one side, which lends it just that bit of edge and tips it into desirable, as opposed to merely useful, territory (from £800). He has also done the most beautifully cut plain black dress (from £530) – long sleeves, round neck, hem below the knee – which is given a bit of zip by brilliant darts that run down the torso. It would be the perfect background for jewellery, scarves, great shoes and could be dressed up in a zillion different ways. More expensive is the navy and white techno scuba jersey dress (from £1,590), a masterpiece that adds drama to the mix. These are all dresses for real life that many of us could wear.
But there are other designers to look at. Roland Mouret does elegance and hour-glass glamour like nobody else. If your figure can take his penchant for pencil sihouettes, his grey Scirocco pencil dress is more forgiving than some (£1,185). Then DKNY often addresses the needs of women who have to go to offices (Donna Karan famously made her name when, in 1985, she launched an easy, elegant collection with working women in mind) and just at the moment DKNY has a good jersey-and-cotton-blend black dress that would go anywhere (£190), as well as a chic but easy-to-wear short-sleeved red cotton jersey dress for £269. Jaeger, too, is worth a visit – it has a simple three-quarter-sleeved black knee-length go-anywhere shift with a bib front which was £225 but is now on sale at £149.
You’ll find some even more gently costed numbers at well-known sources such as Zara, Banana Republic and Cos. Cos has a fantastically chic grey cowl-necked sleeveless number for just £129. When the winter chill arrives, get yourself a fine-as-a-spider’s-web long-sleeved T-shirt to wear under it. The best bit of advice I can give you when visiting the cheaper chains is this – if you find something you love, buy it in multiples. I have several favourite garments from Zara but the fabric can sometimes give out long before I’ve stopped loving them.
Finally, Brix Smith-Start, owner of chic boutique Start, has her eye on David Szeto, who is a dab hand at “timeless elegance” and has a Vionnet way with “drape” (dresses from £650). She thinks he’s perfect for the modern, cool businesswoman, so keep an eye on his arrival at her boutique.