Mary was working for Notting Hill Housing Trust when I started more than 10 years ago. She ran our charity shops, volunteering programme and the fund-raising team. More than anyone she embodies the spirit and values of Notting Hill. She also has a real interest in clothes and I am always keen to see what she is wearing. At 5’10’ with a terrific size 10 figure she looks sensational in a black T shirt, but more often wears interesting colours, textures and shapes. Mary had a terrible accident on her bicycle not long ago, but when we talk about clothes she lights up.”Talking like this makes me think of other lives and guess what – beautiful clothes and fashion bring a smile to my face and though my journey has been strange – that wonderful feeling is still there and I feel it’s part of me now.”
Tell me about your childhood
My childhood was different. I had a very fashionable Mum who did not get married until she was 30. That was pretty late in Ireland in the 1940s. She was working as a Civil Servant in Dublin. When she was single nothing was more important than wearing beautiful clothes and she starved in order to have the latest ball dresses and suits made by a dressmaker. She would often take pictures of Rita Hayworth and Ginger Rogers from the Hollywood films and order a faithful copy! Getting married was a let down for her as she had to move to small rural village. She kept her single woman’s wardrobe and her love of fashion. She produced three small children in rapid succession. When we were 10, 12 and 13 we decided to make her a present to take her when she was in hospital. We took a large pair of scissors to the back of her magnificent three-quarter length ocelot coat, and made her a pair of mittens to keep her warm ! No wonder she cried when she opened her present. She used to make us clothes, and knit rather wonderful matching sweaters and put big bows in our hair which was a bit of a challenge for a tomboy like me.
What about your teenage years?
Ireland of the 50’s and 60’s was deeply conservative and my life there was somewhat suppressed. I actually studied dressmaking as part of my A levels and for the final exam had to make a tweed suit and model it! That’s when I realised there was no place for a young person like me. After you left school you could either go to the university or you had to slowly turn into an old person – follow the tradition and be absorbed by the expectations around you to get married, have kids, look very grown up.
I decided to escape completely and I went to France – and hit Paris in 1968 ! It was so exciting but also confusing – it was not a great time to be Irish as people were not very knowledgeable about “The Troubles”. At that time London was really the fashion capital of the world in terms of the swinging sixties – invention, creativity and young people’s style. Paris, on the other hand, was chic and very expensive and I soon learned that French women were incredibly controlled about how they spent their money. They invested in pieces – it could be as little as one or two a year but it would be a classic piece that would always go with the existing wardrobe. It was very much – navy or black? To be honest I was torn between finding it terribly boring but also being impressed with their discipline and their sense of style. Parisian women would venture to London to have a good look at the fashion trends. They would be excited and shocked by girls with huge eyelashes, wearing tiny little skirts, revealing long legs, wrapped in mad Afghan coats. They saw Londoners as a spectacle, and to some extent envied their freedom. But at the end of the day they still felt superior and safe with their “classic” look. On the other hand Parisian men were very smitten with London!
How did your own style develop?
When I came back to London, I just adopted a uniform of sorts – shorts and little T-shirts in the summer and jeans and boots in the winter. That was when I started getting interested in vintage fashion and loved finding great little shops and markets in London. I had a whole collection of original day dresses from the 1930s and 1940s – knee and calf length crepe usually, but with beautiful details. At the time you could buy amazing vintage clothes very cheaply. I wore them with original vintage high-heeled, peep toed shoes too. On top I would wear a little black or navy jacket. When I thought I’d sorted out ‘my look ‘ I started working for Notting Hill Housing Trust, which was very much an office environment. That was a bit of a shock for me as neither the shorts/jeans nor 30’s dresses were appropriate. I had to work out what to wear for work. That was an interesting journey for me. My mother would have loved that – that I had to discard the jeans and shorts and wear something a bit more dressy. She had always said my look was much too casual.
What sort of clothes do you like wearing for work?
After a brief period of shopping at M&S for what I thought was an ‘acceptable’ office look I realised spending the biggest part of every day dressed in clothes I didn’t love made me feel I was going backwards to the ‘grown up’ look I had avoided in Ireland. So I had lots of fun discovering a whole other level of gear – from Nicole Farhi, bits of vintage, to the ultimate – Vivienne Westwood – then I felt really at home. I developed a passion for cashmere and the trick became to just wear something fabulously expensive in a casual way – a beautifully cut jacket or a skirt with a really unusual cut, as if you had just thrown it on!
The breakthrough came when I thought I don’t have to wear office clothes. I can buy nice things that I love to wear and I will wear them every day rather than have them hanging in my wardrobe as ‘special’. Running Notting Hill’s charity the shops was a great way to keep me on my toes when it came to looking OK. There were so many fashion graduates and people with flair working in the shops, it always felt vital. I did buy things and still have a ridiculous pink velvet jacket with gold and pearl buttons that looks like something from Puss n Boots – a folie that 12 years later has yet to find its moment!
These days there is not such a separation between work and casual wear– the divide is more to do with holiday gear and London gear – obviously dressing appropriately for the weather.
Do you think older women dress badly on the whole? If so why do you think this is?
For years there has not been much choice for women over 50 – for some reason they had to look their age rather than feel good about how they looked. I assume women who could afford to buy expensive things followed a particular style for older women but ready-made clothes for older women were particularly limited and dull. I feel there is so much more freedom now around age, what you can wear and what is available . It helps to know where to look. As long as you get pleasure from pulling a look together, I really do think you can do it, even on a small budget. My honest opinion is that people have become lazy and are far less stylish than they used to be. Looking after clothes also seems to have lost its place, darning, mending and even altering things seems to belong to the past.
My husband often remarks “All you have to do is look at a platform of people in a tube station and almost everyone looks dull. The lack of style is depressing”. It’s such a shame when there is so much choice – perhaps too much choice ! I know problems come with age and at a certain point your feet demand comfortable shoes. It can be costly if you want them to go with clothes – you just have to put in the work and search for shoes that look good and feel good too.
My friend Sue made the Fabulous Fashionistas film which just proved that older women can look fabulous because they care about the way they look and get huge enjoyment from it, no matter how old they are.
Tell me about your favourites garments Mary
Ooh I love my Vivienne Westwood jackets and my hippy skirt from the Hotel California shop. I shall go home now and hunt through my favourite things!