When, like me, you have a very stylish mother, people often ask, “How come … you … aren’t?” It’s understandable. My mother worked for many years as fashion director and latterly deputy editor at British Vogue, before going on to help launch the iconic fashion magazine in countries from Brazil to India. And she regularly styled fashion shoots with the world’s most beautiful women, including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, and was also personal style adviser to Diana, Princess of Wales.
For as long as I can remember, people have asked her for help with what to wear, and whispered to me, “God, doesn’t your mum look fabulous!” I, on the other hand, do not. Not that I look a complete dog’s dinner (at least, not all the time), but where she dresses with style and flair and looks effortlessly chic, the most you could say about me is that I can get myself dressed without too much trouble.
It’s not that I’m the Saffy to her Edina Monsoon – she’s far too elegant for that, and I don’t see wearing comfortable shoes as an act of rebellion. It’s just that I seem to be missing that thing that makes you look “just so” at all times. She always, always looks immaculate, whether she’s dressing for Fashion Week, a 12-hour flight, or to have lunch in a country pub. She has some magical ability to keep her sweaters from bobbling, she never looks creased, her white T-shirts stay white, her blowdries sit tight for days … In short, to me at least, she is a walking miracle.
I still don’t know exactly how I turned out to be a void where fashion is concerned. It certainly didn’t help that from the age of 14 I was 180 centimetres tall and a curvy size 14 – not good vital statistics when you’re young and self-conscious and becoming aware of what you look like for the first time.
Getting dressed wasn’t much fun; I wanted to look like my petite friends in their Lycra miniskirts and Doc Martens boots – but my DMs had to come from the men’s department, and neither Lycra nor miniskirts have ever been my friends.
Shopping for jeans was a particular type of torture in a world where Levi’s 501s (first designed for men, and therefore the least appropriate cut for anyone with rounded edges) were the only “cool” option for a teenager, and inevitably ended with me collapsing in heaving sobs.
And then, of course, there were no good shops in those days. No style-savvy Topshop or H&M for me, no Cos or Whistles; it was either Laura Ashley florals, or goth weeds and hippie beads from the markets.
On the other hand, my disinterest could be simple laziness. Looking great takes time, effort, and often money. I’ve never been interested in weekly blow-dries; I’d rather spend cash on having fun than regular manicures (at 39, I still bite my nails, to my mother’s horror – “people will think you’re neurotic!”), and I find “fashion” all too often wildly uncomfortable.
I can’t face the discomfort of high heels that torture my feet (though I persevered for many years, staggering about feeling like a bargain-basement drag queen – and that’s when I could find a pair in a size 10, to begin with).
My ideal outfit is one that looks reasonably neat and tidy, isn’t too noticeably stained, doesn’t make me look like the Michelin Man, doesn’t cause any bleeding, and renders me essentially invisible. Conversely, I totally appreciate the power of a great outfit.
When I was 13, my parents came to an event at my school, and into a sea of navy blue, sensible shoes and piecrustcollar blouses walked my mother, in a fuchsia Chanel riding coat and sky-high heels. For the first time I became aware that she was different from most of the other mothers. She didn’t mean to be – when I reminded her about it recently, she was horrified that anyone might have thought she’d intended to stand out – but she looked incredible and every head turned to watch her.
I was thrilled and so proud. Until that moment, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that it wasn’t every little girl who was photographed by Terence Donovan for Vogue, aged three.
Nor that it wasn’t usual to spend school holidays, aged 10, helping pack suitcases in the Vogue fashion cupboard and trying on all the clothes as I went. Even when a Vogue crew – hairdresser, make-up artist, photographer and assistants, two models and case after case of clothes – turned up on our annual holiday to Scotland when I was seven, so my mother could style a shoot, it hadn’t seemed odd to me. It was just fun having all those extra people around, and being allowed to join in.
My abiding memory of it is of going along in the location van to watch the shoot unfold on a windy moor – and being more mesmerised by the van’s tiny kitchen and bathroom than anything going on in front of the camera. I don’t think the “glamour” of it all ever crossed my mind.
Only one thing managed to break through my blithe indifference in all those years: when I was asked to present flowers to the Princess of Wales at a charity event at the Royal Albert Hall, aged seven.
I did know that this was something special that didn’t happen to every little girl – I’d never been so excited – but it never occurred to me that it was anything to do with my mother, whom I had no idea had been helping Diana with her wardrobe for some time. But still, it seemed perfectly reasonable to me that I should be dressed in a miniature Anouska Hempel couture gown for the occasion.
I met the Princess of Wales again, extremely briefly, years later, in my midteens. My mother and I had been to the cinema to see Much Ado About Nothing and we bumped into her on our way out.
I was wearing brown jeans and an oversized sweatshirt. Brown jeans! The horror of meeting the most glamorous and beautiful woman in the world dressed like that has never left me.
I shudder to write about it even now.
But it did teach me, finally, to listen to my mother – because while my goal was essentially not to be noticed at all, my mother, no extrovert herself, long ago realised that people are going to notice you, no matter what, so you might as well make sure you look as good as you possibly can when they do.
It’s sage advice. Over the years, she has made every attempt to help me to look my best. I was probably one of the few 1990s teenagers going to weddings in Versace suits (loaned to her by the designer but always sent in a size or three too big – lucky for me).
And I remember like it was a fairy tale heading home from university on the train and falling in love with a grey wool Alberta Ferretti coat in a magazine fashion shoot, only to arrive and find that exact coat hanging in my wardrobe – Mum had bought it for me in a sample sale earlier that week. And the velvet Alexander McQueen cocktail dress she gave me when I dropped two dress sizes following a minor operation. I only fitted into it once but it remains the most beautiful – and beautifully made – thing I’ve ever owned.
Mum even essentially designed my wedding dress, since I was at a loss. Plus, I was pregnant and worried I’d end up looking absurd. I chose the colour – a pale grey – and left the rest in the capable hands of her and my younger sister (who did inherit the style gene), reasoning that if they were happy with it, I probably would be too. I was.
As daughters grow older, we are supposed to eclipse our mothers, take over as the more glamorous, as they gradually ease into dressing with practicality and comfort, rather than fashion, in mind. It goes without saying that that’s not what’s happening with my mother and me. As the years pass, she continues to always look supremely elegant and, when the occasion demands it, dazzlingly glamorous, and to enjoy clothes in a way I still struggle with.
Sure, her enviable collection of high heels – a rainbow of suede, satin, patent and leather, some of them so high it made your eyes water – has been relegated in favour of flats (but what flats!), and her wardrobe includes fewer designer labels these days.
But her style hasn’t suffered one bit. Even when she comes to visit me in the countryside, there’s something about her cords-and-sweater combo that looks smart. Looks chic. While I, in basically the same outfit, look like I’ve been heaving hay bales in a gale (I haven’t).
And yet, I know she’ll be cross with me about this article. She’ll say that I always look lovely (especially when I’ve bothered to brush my hair), and that it’s a load of nonsense to say otherwise; that she always wears the things I give her (I have a love of anything sparkly, so I often give her jewellery); and that I just need to stand up straight, take off whichever shapeless sweater I’m wearing, stop talking such rubbish and merely take a little pride in my appearance. And of course she’s right. Mother always knows best.