I think this will be my last post on the main SS24 collections. We’re approaching the longest day so we’re growing ever closer to sale season but as you’ll have seen from the new TV ad, M&S have gloriously defied the traditional retail calendar with a new release that’s bursting with colourful style. And it makes sense doesn’t it? Summer has barely shown its face yet in the UK so there’s no way that any of us want to see autumn clothes starting to creep in (even if it does feel like late October). As M&S continue to work on developing their core ranges there’s a lot to look through on the website so I’ve combed through it to bring you an edit of Summer at M&S – from casual to dressed up. I’ll show you what I pulled out in a minute but first, let’s just see where they’re up to on their turnaround journey.

You’ll remember that I introduced you to womenswear director Maddy Evans in my last M&S spotlight. In that post we looked at her plans for the department’s renaissance; I think her acknowledgement that women’s style is now driven more by attitude than age chimed with us all and she is continuing with her initial message:

“We describe our customer as the modern mainstream – she’s not defined by age; instead, she’s life-stage driven, and her personal style is centred around individual expression. She wants stylish pieces that fit around her body and lifestyle. She’s informed by trends, and her end goal is to feel comfortable and confident.”

Recent figures indicate that M&S are hitting a sweet spot. Last year they revamped their linen offering for summer and everybody loved it, sales growth was exponential and this year’s linen figures are a further 20% up. I talked about that in my last post and the linen jumpsuit I showed you back in March has now accrued lots of five star reviews and has just been restocked so here it is again.

Summer at M&S

Belted linen blend jumpsuit; silver sandals

For me, their denim refresh has been the most exciting thing this season – I’ve worn my superwide denim and lyocell palazzos so much and was delighted to stumble over a restock on Monday so I’ve now managed to buy them in the pale wash too (if you’re lucky you’ll find stock here). So I’m not surprised to hear that M&S is now dominating the high street with its range of affordable denim and sales are 53% up.

Summer at M&S

Denim palazzos (regularly restocked); boatneck vest

And the latest focus has been on summer tailoring which has flown out. M&S has a long term strategy of becoming a destination for occasionwear and here too it’s hit a winning streak this season with sales 125% up.

So for the summer edit it made sense for me to try a range of outfits across the spectrum but especially some of their occasionwear. I haven’t really looked at it before and with it being such a key focus, I wanted to see how it felt. I know a lot of you like to find well priced pieces for nights out so I searched through those rails as well. The number one request though is always for simple day to day outfits that are a little move on from jeans and a breton and I think I’ve cracked that too. Let’s start there.

Summer at M&S – relaxed casual

This is exactly the outfit I want to wear at the moment because it looks summery but it’s actually quite warm. Let’s start with the trousers. One of the things I always look out for with casual trousers is a lyocell or tencel blend, it makes such a difference to the way they hang and move. It means they’re more fluid and so they drape rather than standing stiff resulting in a much more fluid shape on your body (ie they visually take you down a dress size).

These high waisted trousers are really good; M&S describe them as wide leg but I’d say they’re more of a straight fit. I have a size 12 on here and they’re true to size but they come up quite short – I’m wearing a long and they’re just right on me for wearing with flats. One really lovely detail is a buckle in the small of the waist at the back which means you can adjust them to fit you without any gaping. All of the colours are soft and powdery, I’m wearing the mocha here but they also come in pink, blue, green and buff. I don’t often manage to find something that will replace jeans but these do. They really are exceptionally good quality for the price, an absolute winner.

You’ll see I’ve added a utility jacket. I’ve already bought three of these this season from other places but this is by far the nicest I’ve found because it’s lined and it has added stretch. The addition of a little elastane in the blend means that things don’t crease as much and for me that’s important. It has five star reviews which doesn’t surprise me but most people say they’ve downsized. I haven’t because it’s meant to hang loosely as you can see from the shots on the website – it’s up to you to decide how you’d want it to fit. It’s a little more than the usual M&S prices but the quality is high – it’s just so much better than the jackets I’ve bought (grrr!).

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic

Cropped utility jacket; cashmere polo; fluid chinos

Moving on to the polo shirt, it’s made from cashmere and it isn’t just cashmere… it’s M&S cashmere… so it’s weighty. It instantly made me think of my mum who refused to wear long sleeves and was always on the hunt for short sleeved tops that were warm. Now I’m wearing a 12 but it’s very generous so I’d tucked it at the back here to balance the trousers out. Worn loose it would look great with a skinny or slim leg. If you want to wear it with a wider leg or a skirt you’re going to need to size down by one or even two sizes. Nevertheless it’s one of those tops that feels like a hug to wear and it was a cool 11 degrees when we took this photo last week so I was glad.

And the other thing I want to rave about is M&S sunglasses – they’re on fire with them this season, they’re only £15 per pair and they have UV400 protection. With my Selfridges head on I can tell you that it’s lunacy to buy designer sunglasses – most of them are made in the same factory in Italy whether they have a logo or they don’t. An added bonus of finally submitting to contact lenses is that I can play around with simple sunglasses for the first time in years and they make such a difference to your outfits.

Summer at M&S

Cropped utility jacket; cashmere polo; fluid chinos; chunky sunglasses 


Summer at M&S – relaxed night out

Moving on, I’m sure you’ll have seen these trousers in the TV ad. They come with this matching tailored waistcoat which looks great but it’s longline and I don’t feel it would work well on me.

Summer at M&S

However the trousers are such a great price that I wanted to see how they’d feel for a night out and they were a nice choice. I’d have liked to try them in the long version so that I could add a heel but there weren’t any available so these are a regular and the length’s perfect with a flat. What I will say though is that they come up small – thankfully I’d been warned so I ordered a 14 and it fit like a comfortable 12. M&S describe them as satin but I’d say they’re more of a crepe, there isn’t much shine but that’s a good thing – and they’re washable which something like this needs to be or you’d be dry cleaning them after every wear.

I added one of my new favourite asymmetric tops, it’s ribbed and it comes in six colours. It isn’t the heaviest cotton but it’s such good value that you wouldn’t expect it to be.

Summer at M&S

Pink satin trousers; asymmetric tee

And the item that’s been sitting in my basket for ages is this jacket. The thing that kept putting me off was that it’s described as satin so I imagined it was going to be shiny and flimsy but it isn’t. It’s more like a sheeny scuba fabric and it doesn’t crease, I really like it. I have a small collection of summer bombers from M&S that I’ve built up over the years and they’re always great if you’re going out in the evening on holiday or at home, it would be good to slip on over occasionwear too. I sized down to a 10 and it was the right decision but if you prefer a more oversized fit go for your usual.

I’ve added a different pair of sunglasses this time with a slightly squarer frame. I like the way that M&S have included options for frames in lighter colours which are often kinder to a midlife face.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic

Pink satin trousers; asymmetric tee; cream bomber jacket; chunky sunglasses

Summer at M&S – Occasionwear

So let’s look at occasionwear. Maddy Evans says that the team have worked really hard on this category, “we’re planning for a big summer of events, increasing our buy in occasionwear by 34%… and going even bigger at Christmas with our plans to grow the party collection.” I read this before I’d seen the latest launch and I felt a bit doubtful. I just couldn’t see how M&S were going to create an ageless collection for occasionwear. However, in my last post Maddy talked specifically about their streamlined new focus on solid colours, simple shapes and interesting textures. She said that they were intending to move away from patterns and frills into clean lines and strong looks. And they’ve actually done it.

Asymmetric dresses are everywhere this season and they’re often very expensive. I confess I’ve reached the point where I no longer hope to find a dress that fits well for under £100 – but this costs less than half of that. Understandably for the price there’s no lining so you’ll need to wear smooth lingerie underneath, anything lace or seamed would show through.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic

Asymmetric dress

The interesting thing that I notice from the reviews is that apple shapes are saying it works for them too. I tend to avoid column dresses like this but the cut at the shoulder makes all the difference. It’s described as a bodycon dress which made me think it would be stretchy and clingy but it isn’t, it skims more forgivingly than that. This is a size 12 and it’s fine but it’s a close fit so I’d be interested to try the 14 just to be sure that there were no lingerie lines – petite and tall are also available. I’m wearing the jaffa orange colour but it’s also available in black. I chose a more classic pair of sunglasses to go with this outfit, a ‘suits everybody’ shape in the sand colourway, they come in tortoiseshell or black too.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic

Asymmetric dress; classic sunglasses

And trying on the last piece of occasionwear that I picked out really made me wish I had a big summer event this year – I’m coming over all Cinderella just writing this post. We’re going to the races later this month but more for the band that are playing when the horsey bit is over so I’m not planning to get very dressed up. Everything else in my diary is super casual although Mal was so happy to see the pre-lockdown me in a dress with higher heels again that he wondered aloud if he could muster something up.

We’ve talked about crochet already this year, it’s a trend that’s very kind to the body because its texture skims over anything that lies beneath. This dress comes in ivory too although the pink is the more popular colour so it has both petite and tall lengths available. I’m wearing a 12 regular and it’s just right.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic

Cotton rich slip dress

Although I think it would be lovely for something formal, it would dress down easily with flat sandals on holiday too so it’s versatile. There’s a single slit at the side which makes striding out easy and adds movement at the hem. And yet again, it’s comfortably beneath the £100 barrier – and it’s washable.

Summer at M&S

Cotton rich slip dress

So yes, there’s clearly some great work being done at M&S and I like the way they’re tackling it so strategically, working on one category at a time until they get it just right. The collabs are continuing too, no doubt you’ll have seen Sienna Miller’s drop last week which is perfect for anyone who loves boho style and there are more interesting partnerships in the pipeline. Summer at M&S is certainly feeling fresher and more interesting than it has for a long time – shame we can’t order the weather from there too!

Midlife lately

Hopefully you spotted that there was another Tuesday post this week – if you missed it, I’m talking about what travelling solo taught me here. One thing I’ve really learned over the last three years is just how much more depth you get from travelling rather than just going away on holiday. I’m not saying that holidays aren’t important – sometimes all you need is to do nothing for a while in the sunshine. But when you travel you seem to collide with so many different souls and if you open up, each one has something different to teach you. Being in an intense space in Thailand with midlife women whose lives were turning out so differently to mine gave me insight into alternative versions of the future that are so different to the one I hope for.

And with that thought I’m going to leave you so that I can go and bury myself up to the elbows in cake mix. The weekend ahead feels like a particularly precious one because I’ll have all three boys at home for the first time since Christmas. It’s felt like such a long time and I want to make it as special as I can so I can feel a mammoth baking session coming on. If the weather plays nicely we’re hoping to have a feast of a barbecue on Sunday to celebrate Father’s Day – and it will also be 20 years to the day since we moved to this house. I remember it being such a huge event, packing up our three little southern boys and all our belongings to make the move from what had been very glamorous London lives to a small village in the northern backwaters.

What would I tell my 37 year-old self as she juggled all of those boxes with a baby on her hip? That the journey ahead wouldn’t be as smooth as she was anticipating. That instead of a return home to an easier life with parents on hand to help out, it might just be a more difficult route because those parents were unknowingly heading into a very long battle with cancer… but that in the end she’d be glad she was there to hold their hands and be close by them for their last few years.

I’d warn her that establishing a successful business in London is much, much easier than running one in the provinces. However you can’t have freedom and security; if she was absolutely certain that her guiding principle was to have the freedom to be as present as possible with her children while maintaining her career, then she was making the right choice. It wouldn’t be easy but the relationship she’d have with her children at the end of it would be worth any amount of struggle.

I think the last thing would be that as well as the glittering career, she would really, really miss her friendships because although this was a return to where she came from, she wasn’t the same person as the one who left at 18. After almost 20 years of living and working alongside people with diverse and sparkling minds, the hardest thing on a personal level would be the loss of mental stimulation from the people around her and the cultural context of most things she encountered. This persists – and if you’re thinking of downshifting more rurally, please don’t underestimate it. However many lovely people you have around you, an important part of you can feel lonely when you don’t have a group that ignites your mind (start a blog – I find that helps!).

People are always asking me if I think we made the right decision 20 years ago. In terms of career opportunities and mind expansion then the answer is absolutely not. But those are purely selfish reasons and if you have children the choices you make can no longer be for you alone. From a family perspective it was the right move, the boys went to wonderful state schools and grew up surrounded by natural beauty with the freedom of the countryside at their feet. I’m really proud of the decent human beings that they’ve become and I put that down partly to the fact that I was able to be an ever present mum and also because they grew up surrounded by sincere people with strong values who set the foundations I wanted them to have.

As for Mal and me, Newcastle now fills the urban vacuum in our lives and with Eden Project North arriving on our doorstep soon, our NW life will pick up speed too. And of course it’s easy to overlook the intrinsic beauty of a place that’s become very familiar. So while acknowledging that some of the things we left behind were bigger than we realised at the time, we’ll be celebrating our move to The North this weekend along with the wonderful house that’s been our home through the ups and downs of the last 20 years.

So I’m off to plan our little celebration with ‘me hearties’… the 20 years since this picture was taken just after we moved here have gone both fast and slow – and I’m utterly grateful for every one of them.

Garnett boys, summer 2004

Disclosure: ‘Summer at M&S – from casual to dressed up’ was commissioned by M&S but as always, I was given freedom over outfit choices and feedback. Thank you for supporting the brands that help me to keep this blog going.

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