Tis the Season for… Presents, Party Frocks and Panic!

Another week closer to Christmas and I’ve been on holiday this week, but, as usual, my crazy busy life doesn’t allow for much in the way of resting, and this week has been purely for me to catch up on Christmas preparations, as I only get three days off over Christmas itself.

I am just about ready now. Monday was spent getting those last few presents for the people I am buying for. An aunt and uncle who always buy for Miss F and for whom I always struggle to buy. What do you get for people you don’t know very well, who have no interests or hobbies you know about and don’t seem to want or need anything? Answer, a delightful set of four placemats and matching coasters in duck egg blue with adorable funny ducks on. I mean, who wouldn’t want them?

Tuesday, I had to go into my freelance job for a few hours in the morning, then I went to the supermarket and did THE shop. It wasn’t too crowded, but it still took me almost two hours. Considering that was a normal weekly shop, the contents of a couple of hampers, all the drinks and food we’ll need over the Christmas period and a mega cheeseboard which is my contribution to Christmas dinner, I didn’t think that was too bad.

Wednesday, I went to visit an author friend of mine who lives nearby and had a lovely long lunch and chat with her. Then Thursday morning I went shopping for an outfit for my works Christmas do which was on Saturday night and also find something for Christmas Day. Now, I’m not great with clothes shopping. Well, when you’re (a) only 5’ and (b) have womanly curves and (c) no money, trying to find something that (a) fits (b) looks alright, and (c) doesn’t cost a fortune, is a real challenge. I hate the whole process as well, the trailing around in overheated shops, picking things off the rails and looking at them, clueless as to whether they’ll suit you and wondering if it’s worth the bother of queuing for a changing cubicle and then having the hassle of stripping to try it on.

I tend to look all round the shop first and then try on a great armful of all the potential candidates. Seriously, I only want to do this once! I really wanted to look nice for my staff Christmas do, I wear a uniform for work and the rest of the time look like a bag lady who got dressed in the dark, so for once, I wanted to look and feel feminine and, well, put together.

I had my heart set on a dress. Now, dresses and I are not really a thing – see points (a) (b) and (c) above, but this year I wanted to wear something different from my usual trousers and top combo. Then, in almost the first shop I tried, I found it. A sleeveless shift dress, fully lined, in a lovely velvety material. It was subtle and pretty, with a softly muted pattern of blue, burgundy, reds and yellows, the overall effect of which was like an old, worn Turkish rug.

With a bubble of excitement rising inside me, I took it to the changing room. To my delight it fitted, but I wasn’t sure if it FITTED, if you know what I mean. It’s so hard to make a rational decision cramped into a cubicle with your hair a windblown bird’s nest, no make-up on and your jeans yanked down to your knees. I thought it looked okay, it was beautiful, so I decided to take a chance. Buying a long-sleeved burgundy body to wear underneath – my days of going out with bare arms being a thing of the past – I hurried home in time to meet another friend for our pre-Christmas lunch.

Friday, I ran Miss F out to her work placement, answered a few emails, booked a taxi for Christmas Eve (£15 to get us home at 11.30pm, bargain!) and then dashed to Marks & Spencer to grab a pair of burgundy tights to go with my beautiful new Christmas frock. Rushing through the ladieswear department, I spotted a rack of new in jeans and stopped to have a quick look.

Now, there are only four different types of jeans I can wear – bootcut, slouch, boyfriend and sometimes slim, depending on the cut. Forget all the others, and especially forget the torture of skinny fit jeans. Why, oh why, are they called that? When they neither fit nor make you look skinny. But the stores have decided skinny and super skinny (really?! Have they seen the size of the average British woman?!) are the style of jeans we all want and so the shops are full of them. Seriously, I mean rammed with them, to the extent it’s as if the other cuts no longer exist.

I glanced over the racks. Sure enough, skinny, skinny, super skinny, ankle grazer skinny, high rise skinny, low rise skinny, mid-rise skinny – you get the point. But then suddenly, one lone rack of slim fit tucked away right at the end. They’d already been plundered. Desperate women like me had clearly descended on them like a plague of locusts and ransacked the choicest sizes. With a sinking heart I rattled through them. Nope. My size wasn’t there. Slowly I went through again, this time ignoring the size on the hanger and checking the sizes inside the jeans themselves. It’s rare, but it does happen that sometimes a size will be incorrectly put back on the wrong hanger. Yes! I crowed with delight. I was in luck, there was one pair of slim fit jeans in my size lurking on a size 20 hanger.

What to do? I was on my way to a coffee morning with the Suffolk Authors and didn’t have time to try them on. Luckily, Marks & Spencer have a brilliant returns policy, so I knew there’d be no issue with bringing them back if they didn’t fit. I grabbed them, just as another woman who looked about my size suddenly discovered the rack, and, with a gasp of hope, began rattling the hangers.

I legged it towards the nearest till, just in case it ended in a smackdown. On the way, I passed a rack of gorgeous “going out” blouses. Silky soft, with a bright red base colour and a pattern of large golden dahlias, they were beautiful. The pair of jeans I was holding were a dusky black and the blouse would go perfectly with them. Not stopping to think, I grabbed one my size, figuring having two outfits for the whole Christmas period was not too extravagant, not really.

Friday was its usual busy frantic rush, so I didn’t get time to try on the fruits of my shopping expeditions until Saturday morning. Miss F was home getting ready to go to work, so I asked if she’d have a look and pass judgement, on which one I should wear that evening for the staff Christmas do. Carefully, without removing any of the tags, I tried on the dress first. Burgundy body suit underneath, burgundy tights smoothed on, knee high boots zipped up. Nervously, I went down to get her approval.

She looked at me. Her eyebrows went up and her mouth pursed. She was silent.

“Well?”

“Umm, perhaps if you wore a pair of spanx underneath?”

“I am wearing a pair of spanx underneath,” I informed her through gritted teeth.

She paused and pulled another face, and I could see her urge to be honest warring with her desire to be kind.

“It makes me look fat, doesn’t it?”

“Well, not so much fat, as… chunky.”

And that was it, with that one word – chunky – she’d completely killed any love I had for the dress. Dispirited, I trailed back upstairs to change into Plan B. The jeans fitted perfectly, good quality ones, they hugged where they should, held in what I wanted them to, and flattened what I needed them to, but the blouse… it was ridiculously large and billowy and the sleeves flapped halfway down my hands!

Duly, I went to show Miss F and another face was pulled.

“You look like a kid dressing up in her mother’s clothes.”

Better than chunky, I suppose, but still not good and I was now left in the terrible position of having gone from having two outfits, to having none! Something had to be done. Assessing the situation, I felt if I merely went down a size in the blouse that would solve all the problems and have the added bonus of making me feel better. There had been dozens of blouses in Marks & Spencer only the morning before, so I was confident of being able to simply swap one size for the next one down.

Quickly, I got changed and put the dress and blouse in a bag, along with the appropriate receipts, and scuttled up town – thankful that we only lived a couple of minutes walk away – and took the dress back first, no problem.

Fully committed to the jeans and blouse outfit now, I trawled the shops and found black ankle boots with gold zips, a black belt with a gold buckle, a very useful sized black bag with gold trimmings and amazing dangly black and gold earrings. Then I reached Marks & Spencer and hurried to where two racks of those blouses had hung just the day before. They weren’t there. Quickly searching, my heart rising in panic, I finally located a few tucked behind a horrible brick red shirt. There were only four left. A size 6, a size 8, a size 20 and the same size I’d already bought.

Bugger! Now desperate, I located an assistant, who got panicky with me when I explained the situation and set off to check the stock levels, just in case one was left hanging outside a changing room somewhere. There wasn’t. We looked at each other. A lady about my age, she was clearly feeling my pain and that helped a bit, misery really does love company. Trying to be helpful, she set off on a scavenger hunt around the shop, suggesting lots of different tops but none of them were what I wanted, and the few that were, the sizes had been picked through so I was left with two choices – either lose, or gain, half my body weight by that evening!

I’d like to take this opportunity to send a plea to women’s clothing stores. You know which are the most popular sizes, so please, stock up on those ones! Let’s face it, even if you do have stock left to go into the after Christmas sales, you’re more likely to sell items in the sizes most women are, than the freakishly small and large ones.

Finally, we found a blouse very similar in cut and look to the red and gold one, but in black and gold. Again, only stupid sizes were left but there was one in the exact same size as the blouse I was still clutching. We looked at each other again.

“It’s the same cut as the original one, so will that mean it won’t fit either?”

“I don’t know, but it’s worth a try.”

She was right, it was worth a try, so into the changing room I trotted. Was it a perfect fit? Not particularly. Will it do? Yes, I bought it. Time was ticking by and I didn’t have the luxury of being picky. The same price as the original blouse, it was a straight exchange, Funnily enough, on the way out of the shop I passed the racks of jeans and noticed of the slim fit ones there were only a scant few left – sizes 6, 8, 20 and 24.

On the way home, I found a gold and black choker style necklace to complete the look, and I’ve even been to the hairdressers and had my hair styled into an elaborate up-do. But it’s blowing a force ten gale out there and it fell apart a bit just on the walk home. Rain is threatened for the evening and it’s a ten-minute walk to the restaurant. Will my hair survive? I very much doubt it, but there’s nothing I can do about it other than give it a good blast of hairspray and hope for the best. And, by the time I’ve had a couple of glasses of free prosecco, I probably won’t give a damn.

Why is it that clothes shopping gets so much harder the older you get? Is it because our bodies let us down? We get saggy bits and our tummies bulge, our bottoms droop and our bingo wings flap. Our skin tone changes and colours that once looked great, are now deeply unflattering. I also think we get fussier the older we get. When we’re young we can get away with wearing almost anything, relying on our youth to make us beautiful, but, as age takes its toll, we rely more and more on clothes to be our armour against the judgemental gazes of others.

Women, especially, have it the hardest. We want to dress youthfully, but there’s always the fear of being “mutton dressed as lamb”, that overwhelming dread of appearing ridiculous. For women of my age, we’re caught in that hinterland where skinny fit is no longer an option, but we’re still resisting the siren call of elasticated waistbands. Where the much-loved brighter coloured clothing can clash badly with menopausal hot flushes, yet we don’t want to give in and wear beige.

There is a serious gap in the clothes available to us that a clever clothing manufacturer could fill. After all, most women my age have money to burn and would be more than happy to spend it on well cut, nice quality clothes that are fresh, youthful and, crucially, fit. Clothes that make allowances for bumpy bits, and sticky out bits, and the fact that not all women are 5’7” stick insects. In short, clothes that boost our flagging self-confidence and make us feel good about ourselves. Now, what woman wouldn’t pay a little extra for that? I know I would.

Anyway, it’s now gone 4pm on Saturday afternoon and I need to start getting ready. I’ve suddenly realised that stupidly I wore a jumper this morning, and now have to try and negotiate it over the gazillion hair pins it took to tame my hair into a posh, grown up style.

This wasn’t the blog I set out to write, I had intended to have a light-hearted ramble through the Christmas presents – good, bad and downright hilarious – that I’ve received over the years, but that can be a blog for another week.

Take care of yourselves, and I really hope you all have a great week. As usual, I would love to hear from you, so please drop any comments here or you can contact me on Facebook and Instagram. See you next week, the last blog before Christmas, when hopefully, I will be able to tell you I’m ready and waiting for Christmas to do its worst.

All the best

Julia Blake