I’m late this week I know but I wanted to write this post carefully and yesterday I was being scalped by a new hairdresser who, when I commented that my hair was VERY short replied ‘but it just feels so nice to cut!’ Oh how I wish my regular hairdresser would come back from maternity leave. Anyway we’re on a mission ladies. Some of you saw a comment from a new reader, Sushma, a few weeks ago and were kind enough to jump in and reply to her before me. I should just say again that I love it when you all chat in the comments on my blog, I know some people worry that I’ll feel usurped but I’m finding it so difficult to manage everything at the moment that you are doing me (and each other) a huge favour. Plus I love seeing the chat going on when I’m at work and knowing you’re all out there.

Moving on, I’m finding that the definition of this blog as being for women over 40 isn’t quite right and each week I hear from lots of women (and a few men) whose ages range from late 20s to their 80s. It’s a cliché I know, but I’m finding that it really is about attitude not age so I want to dwell a little today on exactly what it is that seems to draw us together. I have a feeling it might be a long piece so I’m going to try to break it down to make it easier to read.

What is style?

I think that our preoccupation with style is far from being shallow. Style is, in fact, the outward expression of the woman you are or, sometimes, the woman you wish you were. Therefore I’m going to start by saying that there is no right or wrong, I don’t believe in style rules, after all how can there be any if you are using it to express your individuality. However I do think there are style tribes and that each of these fall into a camp which is defined by exactly what they are trying to say with their ‘look.’ Through the survey I did and the dialogue I have with you all, I find that our Midlifechic tribe is primarily defined by intelligence. I’m not being arrogant here I just mean that we take an intellectual approach to what we wear. Other tribes use clothes as their biggest statement however I believe that we use clothes simply to underpin the statement we want to make.

People are very judgemental and I, personally, don’t want to walk into a room and enable anyone else to form such a strong instant impression of me that they may choose not to speak to me. I want to wear my clothes rather than feel that my clothes wear me but – I want to exude sufficient confidence that the people who see me wonder what I’m about and want to talk to me. So, in answer to my own question, I think that style is the end result when a woman knows she looks good and so can go about her day being (and feeling) her brilliant self without any nagging inner voice knocking her down. (I’m really hoping that you are reading this and nodding your head in agreement at this point).

Style versus fashion

I’m not saying that I am an authority – I’m not the coolest or the trendiest of the bloggers out there by a long way. However I do have a good job which requires me to look the part and a key element of that job is knowing what the trends are for the 3 seasons ahead so I have a certain confidence in knowing what’s in and what’s out. However, that doesn’t mean that I slavishly wear fashion – to do that you need to be very rich or foolish or choose to buy the Primark copies. Fashionable isn’t always stylish. There is a subtle difference between the two.

When I look back at photographs of my mum and grandma I always give them a mental high five. They both loved clothes and you can always see a hint of whatever decade it was in what they are wearing but there are none of the shots that my friends have of their mums in 70s outfits that used to make us laugh in the 90s. It was called the decade that style forgot which is why I am a bit nonplussed by the embracing of boho. When you are looking through old photos and you see a teenager in high fashion you smile indulgently but when it’s a woman over 35, you laugh. I’m not going to debate whether that’s right or wrong, it’s a much bigger ageist issue but I do know that it’s not what I want to happen when my great grandchildren are looking back at their grandfathers’ lives. I’d much rather they were thinking ‘she looked as though she knew what she was about, I wish I knew her.’

So, I’ve got that off my chest. I wanted to confront it because my alerts service picks up conversations that are happening about Midlifechic online. Not long ago there was one on mumsnet where I was described as looking like a politician’s wife. Naturally my first reaction was negative but then I forgot Norma Major and thought of Sam Cam, Miriam Gonzalez Durante and Michelle Obama and didn’t mind for long! My point is that I would be very happy to be a part of that style tribe. I might not agree with them all politically but I still think they’re great women. I did mind when they called me smug though and one of you – a regular reader – jumped in to defend me. You have no idea how grateful I was – smug hurt. If you are reading this blog and you don’t like it, why don’t you find something else. It’s simple.

Today’s problem – how to do understated style on a budget

So, assuming you’re still reading, let’s move on to Sushma’s problem. I’m going to recap on the conversation so you have the context. This what what she said: “Hi Nikki, I’m new to your blog and love it! I’m in my mid-30s and have a young child so have the university years still to come. I don’t have the funds to regularly buy any clothes – the nursery costs are wiping me out! So, instead, I wondered if you would consider showing whether it is possible to put together clothes we might all already own, in new ways that are still fashionable and might be considered vaguely chic? I work full-time and my colleagues are beautifully and stylishly put together; in contrast, I feel increasingly frumpy and downcast.”

I’m not going to post the replies from Jan and Nicky who kindly replied before me because Google will penalise me for duplicate copy but they were very reassuring and Sushma then said:

“Hi Nicky B & Jan,
Thanks so much for taking the time to reply! I appreciate your comments and advice. I’ve started reading some of Nikki’s earlier posts and had a (very quick!) look through my clothes. So far, I know that most of them don’t fit (still losing the baby weight), so although my wardrobe looks moderately full, I can’t wear most of what is in there, e.g., I have 6 pairs of pre-maternity jeans in different colours, and only one pair fits. Not ideal!
Anyway, it is a start… and I know I’ve got a long, long way to go, but it is so great to have found this blog and a lovely community of people 🙂 Thank you!!”

I then managed to catch up with my comments and said:

“Hi Sushma, I’m jumping in at the top here (a bit late) thank goodness I have my cavalry of lovely readers to keep these conversations going for me. I remember being mid-30s and paying over £1000 per month for nursery fees – those days do end but when you look back your eyes still water! I also vividly remember the days when I was working bleary eyed alongside vibrant childless colleagues (in marketing at Selfridges… you can imagine) so my heart goes out to you as I know how you’re feeling.
So, first of all, I will do a revision post on the basics as soon as I can, I’ll aim for next Friday. If you read this can you let me know what kind of environment you work in – is it formal or casual, trendy or classic? The other thing I would say (having read further down) is that the only thing that helped me to lose the baby weight was Slimming World, it’s simple and it works. If somebody had told me that after my first child they would have saved me years of sadness. You can go to a class or join online although the discipline of weighing in at classes is more effective if you can find the time – take your little one with you.
The good news is that you have a problem that we can fix between us. I know Nicky and Jan and lots of the other women here will cheer you on and give their advice. As soon as you let me know about the style of dressing you need I’ll work on it. By Christmas you’ll be feeling much better about it all. In the meantime sending you a big hug. xxx”

To which Sushma replied:

“Hi Nikki, It’s good to know I’m not alone – the ‘working blearily eyed alongside vibrant childless colleagues’ is the perfect description of my life right now. And the nursery fees… the thought of them makes me (and my bank account) shudder.
It would be fantastic if you were able to do a post on the basics! I feel lost at the moment: my old clothes don’t really feel like ‘me’ anymore, and don’t really fit my life too well either, but I’m totally stuck because I can’t afford any more at the moment.
Thanks very much for the tip about slimming world. It hasn’t been on my radar, but I will look into it because I would love to reclaim (and regain) my body. In terms of style of dressing, I work in the cultural equivalent of Selfridges, so it is important that I look and dress the part.
This has turned out to be far more helpful and exciting than I had anticipated! I was feeling low and demoralised about myself and how I look, but I finally feel a bit hopeful!
Thank you all so much!!”

I’m sure most of us completely relate to Sushma’s situation. It’s such a difficult time when you’re exhausted mentally, emotionally, physically and financially. So many women struggle through it with their first child only to find themselves defeated by the arrival of the second. All I would say is that for me it was worth getting those extra 3 years of career under my belt – the extra experience I gained meant that I was still marketable when I emerged from the primary school years.

Core pieces

So, this is where I normally suggest you set aside a budget to create a new wardrobe but Sushma and many others who contact me don’t have that option at the moment. I’m adding current pieces for those of you who are reading for shopping ideas but they are all things that everyone will probably have lurking at the back of the wardrobe.

1.Simple black or navy trousers.

Ideally these will be tailored crops but straight or wide legged trousers will work too. If you don’t have any you really do need some. These are the best quality I’ve found at a decent budget and they have 20% off at the moment:

chic workwear on a budget

Slim cropped tuxedo trousers. The tuxedo stripe adds a bit of sass and they are also a good quality blend of 40% wool, 17% rayon plus polyester and elastane so they should look much more expensive than they are, hanging well and keeping their shape.

2. A good white shirt.

Most people have a white shirt in their wardrobe, it may just need a bit of a ‘glowhite’ wash to restore its freshness. There are so many styles of white shirts that you really need to try them and find one that suits you. I find that a shirt that is cut well at the ribs works best, nipping in before it hits the tummy. M&S are reliably good and have 20% off until Monday night with code OCT15EM. This is a good one for a work environment because the panel means there is absolutely no transparency.

chic workwear on a budget

Marks & Spencer bib front shirt

Some people prefer a blouse rather than a shirt and would rather not have a collar – this can sit better under a blazer. You need to be careful with budget blouses, polyester often just looks static and cheap. I would recommend this great value silk touch range – they’re 80% rayon.

chic workwear on a budget

3. A blazer

A blazer makes all the difference. If your office is warm, wear it nonchalantly over your shoulders or if a meeting is daunting, button it up to show you mean business. I prefer jersey blazers to stiff  wool / polyester ones because they move with your body which is much more comfortable. Uniqlo has a great value selection of these, I haven’t tried them but have great confidence in everything Uniqlo does.

chic workwear on a budget

Jersey blazer available in different colours

4 A jersey dress

This is an optional extra but sometimes it’s good to wear a dress. Again I go for jersey because it’s fluid but also because it’s washable. Even if you’re not feeling as confident about your shape as you would like to, it’s often better to skim it than disguise it in a sack. These would be my budget suggestions if you have a hole in your wardrobe and again it’s 20% off this weekend with the code above:


chic workwear on a budget

This drape shift dress is the more expensive of the two but the quality looks fabulous (plus don’t forget the 20%)


chic workwear on a budget

Marks & Spencer cowl neck dress (this is designed to hit above the knee so you might want to order it in long for a work environment).

So, using these simple pieces you have your core building blocks. If you’re lucky you’ll already have them in other colours too so that you can mix and match them until it appears that you have an extensive wardrobe. The next step will be to add panache.

Adding Panache

It’s the accessories that make the difference. Accessories are the small detail that make people wonder about you – the little clue that says there’s more to you than meets the eye. So, let’s go.

A good bag

When you have a little more budget, this is a great place to make a statement. A variety of bags in bold colours really adds contrast to the core outfit. However when money is tight, you’re better off focusing on one black bag with a great shape. You’ve probably noticed that I use my Whistles totes a lot. This tote is a great option from John Lewis at a great price:

chic workwear on a budget

especially because it’s reversible so it also gives you this season’s deep red as an option (and it also comes in navy and silver, another chic combo)

chic workwear on a budget

John Lewis reversible tote

If you prefer leather, this again is a stylish contrast of suede and leather at a good price and is also available in oxblood

chic workwear on a budget

suede and leather tote

and then going up another notch – maybe one for the Christmas list, I make no apologies for featuring this again because I love it

chic workwear on a budget

Kin leather bag

Once you have more budget, add to the colours and also introduce some animal print or a metallic too.

Interesting jewellery

Now jewellery is very personal but it’s definitely important and good jewellery sets you apart from the crowd. Cos is one of my favourite high street stores for jewellery but it’s one of the few things I buy from Zara too. As well as having timeless pieces like pearls and simple gold or silver chains, it’s good to have a few distinctive pieces. Bear in mind that fussy ‘statement necklaces’ with their multi coloured glass diamanté effect stones are starting to look very last season. If you want to be on trend look for rose gold, chunky pieces and longer necklaces.

I wear this orb a lot because it is both silver and rose gold so works with all of my other pieces. It always attracts comments and it revolves as you move, attracting the light

chic workwear on a budget

Orb necklace

This is another on trend, easy piece

chic workwear on a budget

Long necklace

Alternatively go for something striking, these pieces are all great value

chic workwear on a budget

Grosgrain and metal plate necklace

chic workwear on a budget

Perforated plate necklace

chic workwear on a budget

Choker with round stone

Eye catching hosiery

If you’re wearing a simple dress, it’s good to jazz it up with a contrasting block colour of hosiery. Apparently 15 denier barely blacks are set to make a resurgence along with all things 90s – I’m sticking with opaques for now! These all look great with black, navy or grey and there are endless colours available.

chic workwear on a budget

60 denier

chic workwear on a budget

3 pair pack

Alternatively introduce some texture

chic workwear on a budget

Cable tights


I’m sure you have scarves aplenty in your wardrobe so I’m not going to go into those now. A variation on leopard is always a good one and the lovely Avril at Schoolgatestyle was the originator of this trend but her shop seems to be down as I type. Alternatively Alice’s Wonders has a good selection at £10 each. All I would say about scarves is that the large gauzy cotton style that were so popular 2 years ago are now looking tired, go for skinny, wool or a good acrylic.


Leaving the most important thing till last. Shoes of course are where it’s really at. A quirky or brightly coloured good quality shoe is the ultimate weapon in the armoury of understated style. Not easy on a budget… or is it? Ebay is the answer. Don’t be queasy, just buy an antiseptic spray. There are bargains galore to be had. Find a good brand that has consistent sizing – Boden, Whistles, Jigsaw (if you’re lucky) and watch like a hawk. Go for red, leopard, zebra or jewelled and this season favour suede over leather. Use Esnipe. Build your collection. Buy pointed heels, pointed flats – it’s all about the point. It’s simple. Actually hawk Ebay for Boden scarves too. A word on brogues – I think they’re more difficult than they look, they’re great on anybody under 5ft 5 but if you’re tall you risk looking mannish rather than boyish. It’s up to you.


Boots can be less of a find on Ebay because they generally have heavier wear. The two pairs I’ve bought this season are:

chic workwear on a budget

Aquifer Diva – same as Jigsaw and Whistles, a fraction of the cost

And these – I actually bought both of these pairs to compare with the plan of keeping one but I think I’m going to keep them both because these are so comfortable and give a great casual look. They’ll also be great for when I’m rushing around on public transport at meetings in London – plus a bargain with 20% off this weekend!

chic workwear on a budget

Pointed toe ankle boots

The final really important thing to add is grooming but I’m running out of time (and I’m sure you’re losing the will to live) so I’ll move onto that next week. I have a few new beauty purchases to talk about. I’m going to end with a few pictures of me using the techniques I’ve talked about:

Last week – scarf, coloured tights, patterned shoes

chic workwear on a budget

Bright scarf, shoes, bag

chic workwear on a budget

Contrasting necklace and shoes

chic workwear on a budget

contrasting scarf and shoes

chic workwear on a budget

again necklace and shoes

chic workwear on a budget

So, there we have it – a working wardrobe based around what you already have, a few good quality, lower priced buys and I managed it all without showing you my hair! As it’s the half term break over here, we’re spending a few days in London having fun with the younger two this week – I’ll keep Instagram up to date with our antics so you can follow me there (although I might have to find a wig first). Plus lovely ladies, if you can cast your mind back to the baby days and think of any tips for Sushma in the comments please do – it’s lovely to be asked for advice by a young, vibrant woman (and you are that young vibrant woman Sushma, even if you don’t currently feel like it)! Keep in touch everyone.