It’s Mary Berry as you’ve never seen her before: the baking queen (and elegant influencer) shares her style rules with Amy E Williams – then breaks them all!
Whatever the official definition of a style icon – for it’s a term that is bandied about an awful lot – the fact that you can look at an outfit and say, ‘Ooh, that’s very Mary Berry,’ surely qualifies today’s cover star for the title.
She has, at the age of 83, become as synonymous with floral-print blazers and satin bomber jackets as she has with double cheese soufflés and the perfect apple crumble.
Naturally Mary would be far too modest to describe herself as an icon of any kind (sartorial, or soufflé), but she’s certainly not immune to the influence she wields, and when she arrives at the YOU photo studio it becomes apparent that the popularity of her fashion choices is something she takes very seriously indeed. ‘I do dress for myself, not to please a viewer or a reader,’ she tells me in her considered and precise manner, so wonderfully familiar and posh. ‘But people know what I like, they’ve got to know my style and if I were to wear something out of the ordinary? Well, they would just know it wasn’t me, and I wouldn’t feel genuine,’ she says.
It’s perhaps not a surprise to learn that Mary has a pretty immovable sense of what she and her fans will and won’t wear. So on the rails of clothes edited by YOU’s fashion director Shelly Vella there are certain pieces she adores: a white blouse by hip denim brand Frame, a red skirt from Coast, a pair of Russell & Bromley loafers and a fawn Lock & Co trilby that she tries on and immediately falls for. But there are items that she quickly dismisses. ‘A little too flouncy,’ she says of a romantic Alberta Ferretti blouse. ‘No, I don’t think so,’ she says to a leopard-print number. ‘I’d be swamped,’ she suggests while holding up a voluminous bell-sleeved top by Roksanda. She won’t entertain a selection of pointy Jimmy Choos. ‘Oh goodness, no!’ she says.
I find it endearing the way that Mary brushes aside the famous designer labels that most of us would leap upon given half the chance. Her style is not at all snobbish, though it is, as Shelly comments, ‘fabulously fastidious’; she appreciates detail and fit, fabrics that flatter and outfits that are practical. Mary is drawn to colour, but the flair for wearing bold patterns for which she is famed should not be confused with flamboyance – she’s won’t play dress-up for the sake of it. What Mary enjoys is tradition with a twist. ‘I think most people my age go for something rather boring and safe, whereas I go for lively and safe!’ is how she puts it.
It’s an attitude that has garnered Mary legions of fans, who snap up items she’s appeared in with the zeal of a Duchess of Cambridge wannabe. A pale pink stork-patterned bomber jacket from M&S that she once sported on an episode of The Great British Bake Off reportedly sold out within the hour. It was a similar tale for a botanical-print biker jacket from French Connection and a pink blazer by Joules. Jackets are a Mary Berry forte. ‘I’ve got an awful lot of them,’ she says. Come on, Mary – how many? ‘Forty, or goodness, maybe 50 of them,’ she says. ‘Many that I don’t wear. I had a lot of floral ones for Bake Off but I have now gone back to preferring the plain.’ She tells me nearly all are high street, but she has a secret weapon in her friend Val, a seamstress who lives in her village and who alters nearly everything Mary buys. ‘She is coming to mine on Friday and I have four pairs of trousers to give her – they are a size 12 and they just need that little bit taken in to fit perfectly. And as I am short, I will often have tops taken up, or shoulders of jackets narrowed. Val is simply wonderful.’
Cashmere jumpers are another of Mary’s great loves – up there with victoria sponges – and they’re top of the list whenever she hits the shops with her daughter Annabel, who is ‘particularly good at picking them out’ for her. ‘They were a must in the Bake Off tent, it was always so cold with the wind blowing through,’ she says. ‘I do love jumpers with a little bit of sparkle. I have star-print cashmere jumpers, embellished ones, some with pearls around the neck. I just love them all.’ She’s not fussy about where they come from – Chinti & Parker’s are ‘sheer luxury’ but she also has several from Tesco. When we meet, Mary is in the process of moving house, from one country village to another, so I hope she has allocated space for a huge walk-in wardrobe in which to store them all. ‘Oh I shall have several walk-in wardrobes!’ she laughs.
What would Mary Berry throw on if she had five minutes to leave the house in the morning? ‘Well it would depend on the weather, and also where I was going and who was going to be there and what they would be wearing. Because you want to fit in with the occasion, don’t you?’ I have to tell her I’ve been asking that question to fashion interviewees for years and no on has ever given such a thoughtful, practical answer. It matters deeply to Mary that she should always feel appropriate. It’s why she can’t bear ripped jeans, or midriffs on show, or trainers, or – God forbid – trainers teamed with skirts. ‘This is something I cannot come to terms with. You are not going to get me in a beautiful skirt with a pair of white trainers. To me, that is the oddest thing,’ she says. ‘I feel the Americans started it. Everyone else can wear that but please don’t ask me to!’
It matters, too, what her husband of 52 years, Paul, thinks. ‘My husband would prefer that I didn’t wear trousers in the evening, but he has sort of weakened,’ she smiles, maybe aware of how old-fashioned she sounds. Paul is also the reason she’d never cut her hair shorter than it is, ‘Oh, he would hate it!’ she says. ‘My daughter Annabel has great style and sometimes has her hair short and the best he can muster is, “Well, it will be good for the summer!”’
It’s easy to forget that Mary has only really been a household name since 2010 when she was first cast as a judge on GBBO, a role she stepped down from last year when the show moved to Channel 4. Before she became a TV star she had little interest in clothes, – even a long stint in France while training in Le Cordon Bleu cooking left little impact on her wardrobe. ‘It’s just in recent years that I’ve had all these exciting things to do. Before that I was never thinking about what I was wearing at all. But now I very much enjoy it.’
During this fashion renaissance she has adored glamming up for the red carpet, especially in anything sparkly. I remember seeing her exuding confidence in a beautiful blue sleeveless gown at the National Television Awards five years ago. ‘Oh, not at all! What you didn’t notice was my arms were behind my back in every photo. I am so conscious of my bat wings! Or what do they call them? Bingo arms?’ I spot her assistant Lucy eyeing up the full-length skirt and white shirt combination Mary is modelling for the cover and noting it for future awards shows.
‘I don’t much like to show my décolletage either,’ she says. ‘You know, my grandson was once sitting on my knee and he put his fingers into my collarbone and said, “What are these holes, Granny? Mummy doesn’t have them!” The team points out that Mary really doesn’t need to worry too much about her appearance, that everyone on set is in awe of what great shape she is in. ‘With effort!’ she says, explaining that she is very careful of what she eats. ‘People say you have to exercise a lot to keep slim. Well, I would hate that. I play tennis and I garden and walk the dogs, but I’ve not stepped inside a gym since I was at school! Better in my mind to control what you eat, to enjoy wonderful food sensibly.’ She eats ‘mountains’ of vegetables, never goes up for seconds and sticks by her mantra that ‘There is nothing wrong with a little piece of cake, but it should only be a small piece and it shouldn’t be all the time.’ Paul, she says, has lost a stone since she hid the biscuit tin.
Keeping slim and healthy is certainly Mary’s greatest investment in the fight against ageing – this is not someone who’s counting her wrinkles. She moisturises with E45 cream, cleanses with Johnson & Johnson wipes, can’t be bothered with foundation (‘life is too short’), only ever wears one shade of lipstick (Max Factor English Rose) and says her one beauty luxury is to get her nails done every three weeks. There’s no time for facials, but she does see a dermatologist once a year. ‘I worry about all these age spots I have, and they check my moles – I think it’s very important.’ She’s lucky to have clear, bright blue eyes that pop with most things she wears, and extremely good genes – her mother lived to 105.
Accessory-wise, Mary sticks to time-tested favourites. She carries neat Longchamp Le Pliage tote bags and owns several in different colours, she wears a simple Timex watch and is rarely seen without a gold and pearl necklace that she and Paul designed in Sri Lanka more than 20 years ago. She has a favourite Gucci belt she’s worn since she was 21 – Gucci belts are very trendy again, I say. ‘Really? Well, isn’t that funny? I would never go into a designer store like that now. I just wouldn’t consider it.’ Rather enviably, she has a collection of Hermès scarves courtesy of Paul’s godmother who used to gift her one each Christmas, and her most treasured possession is her engagement ring, made from a pair of her mother-in-law’s diamond earrings.
On the YOU shoot Mary takes a shine to a pair of sparkly bowed kitten heels from M&S. ‘Gosh, they are so brave and so clever to have done these,’ she says tapping her feet like Dorothy for the camera. ‘Everyone will be wearing them at the Christmas parties, won’t they?’
There is a great joy to the way Mary sees fashion, to the way she has created a signature style later in life within which she feels entirely at ease. And is willing to embrace the new, so long as it suits her. In fact after her initial hesitation about a high-necked broderie anglaise blouse, I think she’s now tempted to run off with it. ‘Isn’t it marvellous? So pretty, but most importantly it fits me so well!’ she says.
As the shoot ends, an assistant is flicking through the studio’s copy of the recent issue of Vogue and lands on an advert for Valentino that features a fabulous pink blazer. ‘Ooh,’ I say. ‘Very Mary Berry.’
Mary’s fashion tips
Have high-street clothes tailored to your size. I even have jackets altered so that they fit me perfectly.
Sprinkle talc in your shoes. I put Mel Giedroyc on to this one: it stops your feet slipping around.
Take someone you know shopping with you. It always helps to have a second opinion.
Hang on to clothes that fit you well – you could be wearing them in 50 years. I have a dress by Frank Usher that I have owned and worn since I was 19.
…and some of her no-nos
- Ripped jeans
- Sleeves that are too long
- Trainers with skirts
- Toes on show
- Anything too tight
Mary’s top shops
M&S I always visit Marks at the start of a new season and have a good look around. And I love that they will smile at you when you return things – it makes all the difference.
Russell & Bromley Their shoes simply fit me. Not too narrow, not too wide – just right.
Zara I’ll often pop in and I’ll always find something I like. Though you have to be careful as the sizing can be a bit odd.
LK Bennett Great for bright-coloured shoes to go with dresses.
Fluidity in Henley-on-Thames: I love to shop here with my daughter. It’s a lovely little local shop where I have discovered lots of new labels (fluidity-f2.com).