Sarah Vine: ‘I had to learn to get dressed again’

The older she got, the more Mail on Sunday columnist Sarah Vine felt she was losing her style mojo – especially after a crushing photo-op left her publicly humiliated. She reveals how YOU’s fashion editor Sophie Dearden helped her reboot her wardrobe

When it comes to fashion, the world is divided into two types of women: those who make it look effortless and those who don’t. My mother, for example, is very much the former. Her sense of style is, and always has been, impeccable. Her ability to throw together an outfit is something I am in total awe of.

Consider animal print and khaki as neutrals. They go with everything and are a great step away from black. Photograph: Dan Kennedy. Picture Editor: Stephanie Belingard. Hair & Make-Up: Nadira V Persaud.

Me, not so much. Perhaps because I’ve always felt deeply insecure about my shape and size, dressing with even a modicum of success is a bit of a challenge. Put simply, when you hate your shape as much as I do, nothing ever looks quite right. My principal aim – whether it be for work, going out or simply a walk in the park – is to minimise my appearance. Inevitably this translates into black. I don’t so much dress to impress as dress to depress.

It wasn’t always that way. When I was younger and slimmer I used to love clothes, colourful ones especially, not least because I grew up in the land of fashion – Italy. For Italians, style is an essential part of life, stitched into the culture in the same way that tea and queuing are for us Brits.

Benetton, Sisley, Superga: these were the brands that dominated my teenage years. And growing up, my mother and her friends were always flawlessly dressed in high-end labels: Armani, Versace, Valentino, Ferragamo. For them – as for most Italian women – looking good was not just a pastime, it was a matter of personal pride.

Nor, in those days, did it require an oligarch’s salary. Because no one ever paid full price. That was for tourists and amateurs. My mother did all her shopping in markets and outlets for which Turin, where we lived, was (and still is) famous.

Milan was the city where the supermodels gathered, but Turin was where many of the designers’ garments were produced. The result was that even the humblest housewife from this small industrial hub in the foothills of the Alps tended to be uncommonly well-dressed. All you needed was a tessera (a membership card) for the outlets, and you had access to a cornucopia of style at a fraction of retail prices. Shoes, bags, coats, dresses, jewellery – there was no end to the gems.

A jumpsuit is an easy way to create a full look in one throw-on piece. A busy pattern in neutral tones keeps it flattering and grown up. Photograph: Dan Kennedy. Picture Editor: Stephanie Belingard. Hair & Make-Up: Nadira V Persaud.

Jumpsuit, £89 (was £179), Ted Baker // Shoes, £295, The Fold

But all that ended when I came to live in the UK permanently. I simply couldn’t get my head around the price of clothes – or nice clothes, at any rate.

While my girlfriends in my 20s and 30s would think nothing of dropping a few hundred pounds, Carrie Bradshaw-style, on a dress or a pair of shoes, I could never bring myself to do so. I knew that back home in Turin I could probably find the same thing for a tiny amount of that price.

For a while I would simply stock up on trips there. But as the years went by, and I started a family, I had less and less time for myself. All the pieces I had acquired in my 20s and 30s gradually went out of fashion, wore out or, sad to say, no longer fitted me. And that is when I lost my way.

Losing one’s fashion mojo is a lot like getting fat: it kind of creeps up on you. You don’t really realise it’s happening until one day you catch yourself from an unfamiliar angle and think: ‘Christ, is that hideous old bag really me?’

That moment came to me in 2016 when I was thrust into the public eye as a result of the Brexit referendum. Like all political spouses, I found myself required to do the obligatory walk-to-the-polling-station snap alongside my husband Michael Gove. It had been an exhausting few weeks, and I was like a rabbit in the headlights. Perhaps that’s why it simply didn’t occur to me that whatever outfit I chose that day would haunt me for the rest of my life. And haunt is the right word: stylistically it was a real horror.

A jacket with three-quarter-length sleeves which looked like it was at least two sizes too small; a very ill-advised leopard-print blouse from Marks & Spencer; a pair of ankle-length trousers which I fancied were rather chic but which in fact only served to highlight the ghostly puffy whiteness of my calves. It was so bad that several readers of my column rather sweetly wrote in commiserating. As my best friend put it, I chose to attend the most important photo-op of my entire life looking like I had got dressed in the dark. In a skip.

The result of that very public humiliation is that I developed some sort of mild fashion PTSD. Basically, clothes scare me. I don’t trust them, or myself around them. Honestly, if someone said to me that I had to wear a uniform for the rest of my life, I’d be rather relieved. Anything to avoid getting it so catastrophically wrong again.

So these days my wardrobe consists of innumerable pairs of almost identical black trousers, similar quantities of black tops, the occasional splash of animal print (will I ever learn?), one or two entirely unworn sort-of-quite-nice dresses that don’t really fit but hopefully one day might, and the occasional ‘fun’ jacket, which basically means a bit ethnic-y but broadly speaking, hideous. Lockdown has not been much help. Where once the prospect of having to look vaguely presentable for the office meant that I would have to make an effort to put together some sort of outfit, working from home has removed that impetus. The result is that I’ve become even more stuck in the elasticated waistband/ black layering rut.

But as the end of lockdown approaches, and the prospect of returning to some kind of normality looms, I’ve decided enough is enough. Like so many of us, I want some colour and joy back in my life. It’s time I learned how to get dressed again.

Belted longline jackets create a fabulous silhouette. Pair with wide-leg fluid trousers for a chic, effortless look. Photograph: Dan Kennedy. Picture Editor: Stephanie Belingard. Hair & Make-Up: Nadira V Persaud.

Jacket, £159, Ted Baker // Trousers, £110, Hobbs // Trainers, £79, Kurt Geiger

My sartorial therapist for this challenge was YOU’s lovely fashion editor Sophie Dearden. She was tasked with assembling a vast array of possibilities with the aim of pulling together a capsule wardrobe both stylish and practical. The brief was simple: pieces that work well with each other, and that can be used in a variety of ways for different occasions. I also wanted a degree of wearability. No point having stuff that’s so out of my comfort zone I won’t ever put it on. Let’s face it, I’m no Anna Wintour. I don’t want or need to be a fashion plate; I just wanted to push my own boundaries a little so I could exit the frump zone and inject a bit of verve into my appearance without going so over the top I ran for cover back to black.

In this respect, Sophie’s choices were very clever. She picked out pieces that not only appealed to my eye but also reflected my personality, the way I see myself. Her suggestions were bold without being outrageous, and she chose colours that were standout without being strident. She managed, I thought, to single out items that were feminine without being girly (not my thing at all), and there was a sharpness to it all that gave the ensemble an edge.

If I had to pick one item out of all the things we tried, it would be the Ted Baker safari jacket [above]. I’ve worn it a lot since the photo shoot and I’ve never had so many compliments for a single garment. It’s incredibly versatile – you can dress it up or down – and the proliferation of pockets is brilliantly practical. And yet I can absolutely say without a shadow of doubt that I would never in a million years have picked it out. Also, I’ve discovered, khaki is a fantastic alternative to black. It has the same kind of versatility but without the dowdy downsides. You can pair it with bright colours and it looks chic instead of cheap. Same is true if you mix it with animal print.

Find bright colours that you feel comfortable but fabulous in – then wear head to toe. Pairing with a leopard-print blouse keeps it sophisticated but fun. Photograph: Dan Kennedy. Picture Editor: Stephanie Belingard. Hair & Make-Up: Nadira V Persaud.

Blazer, £89, and trousers, £59, both Marks & Spencer // Shirt, £655, Victoria Beckham, // Shoes, £295, The Fold

Speaking of which, my second favourite item is the Victoria Beckham leopard print shirt [above], which is everything my catastrophic Marks & Sparks one (long since consigned to the charity shop) wasn’t. Despite costing a fortune, it’s one of those pieces that is truly deserving of the description ‘investment’. There are so many ways to wear it, and it never fails to look anything other than a million dollars. It’s especially good with the olive green trousers from Next [on page 26], which have become such a firm favourite I’ve since bought two more pairs, one in pink and one in a sage green.

As for the pink Marks & Spencer suit [opposite], well, if an outfit ever screamed joy, this is it. I think this will become my party/ eveningwear staple when the weather is nice and the restrictions have finally lifted. It would also be really good for a work lunch. In that category too is the one bit of black I was allowed, the monochrome dress [opposite], which is a truly elegant and beautiful piece – the kind of timeless item that I probably won’t wear very often but which will always have a place in my wardrobe. Not many dresses can be this comfortable and still look stylish. It’s testimony to the skill of the designer that this one is both.

Fabric that drapes always looks flattering. Avoid being swamped by looking for details like a tie waist. Photograph: Dan Kennedy. Picture Editor: Stephanie Belingard. Hair & Make-Up: Nadira V Persaud.

The only thing I haven’t really taken to is the floaty leopard print dress [on the rail page 26], which is one of those things I love the idea of but which, in practice, just makes me look a bit ‘meh’ and also, let’s be honest, fat. I think I’m probably just too long in the tooth for it. The jumpsuit [opposite], by contrast, actually looks much better on than I’d thought it would – although I will need to work on my pelvic floor if I’m to wear it for any length of time.

Has this experience changed the way I dress? Has Sophie managed to kick-start a revolution in my wardrobe? Actually, yes. In the weeks since we tried this experiment I have hardly worn my old top-to-toe black at all. I’ve added several complementary pieces, including neutral accessories and paler colours, which are not only far more uplifting to wear, they are also, I find, much less ageing.

I still don’t love my shape, and I suspect I never will. But I think I now see that it is possible to enjoy getting dressed in the mornings, to look in the mirror and feel a little spark of joy. Will I ever match up to the standards of my mother, or of those like her? No. But in the context of my own relationship with clothes, this feels like a fashion breakthrough.