Ask Allie: Where to Shop?

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Gretchen asks:

I have a question: Where can I find affordable, stylish, chic clothing for myself, a woman over 40 who is also petite and roundish. In other words: clothing that is not sleeveless, mini-skirted, ultra-tight, or frumpy? I am discouraged by recent visits to Ann Taylor Loft, J. Jill, and Talbots, formerly good sources.

Hey Gretchen:

I feel your pain, and have many times over the past several years. It’s awful when our go-to stores decide to change their concept and leave their regular customers in the lurch. When Ann Taylor got matronly again, when Express changed their sizing, when J. Crew started charging an arm and a leg for a basic knit top… been there, experienced that. On top of such corporate changes, it’s hard when the season seems to be all about silhouettes and trends you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. My petite curvy body is NOT made for a jersey maxi dress that can’t be worn with a proper bra, and these study legs look ridiculous in pedal pushers.

So what do you do when you hit the mall and hate everything that you see? A stylish woman doesn’t cave in to trends she doesn’t find flattering and she doesn’t settle for less-than-fabulous frocks. A lot of effort and planning goes into having effortless style regardless of the trends. Here’s a few tips to get through the bad fashion spells:

Shop year-round for what you like and what you look good wearing. Find a great dress at a department store in the after-summer sale? Grab it, and maybe in two shades. You may not be able to wear it for several months, but you will be prepared for the next warm spell. When you visit outlet and factory stores, don’t look just for the now, but the five months from now. This is the best way to score cheap quality cashmere, classics like suiting, pencil skirts, boots and trousers for far less. If you buy classic pieces that fit your lifestyle and personality, you should be just as in love with them next season as you are when you purchase them.

Dig a bit deeper. I recently received a J. Jill catalog in the mail and was horrified by many of the fashions on the pages. J. Jill has never been my personal style, but I admired the flowing fabrics, natural colors and feminine silhouettes. This catalog was filled with dowdy, matronly, cheap looking knits in those semi-pastel hues that flatter no skintone on this planet. Melon-colors tanks with nautical-printed elastic-waist shorts in the most awful of lengths, dresses of gaudy florals that made the slim models look as though they were in their third trimester, even the shoes were the most unflattering T-strap (leg-shortening) styles with matronly heights of heels. What the heck happened?

Heading to the J. Jill Web site, I see that this wasn’t the new look of a popular brand, but just one aspect of their current collection. They still had simple pieces (personal fan of their Splendid linen dress) with elegant lines… they just were trying out a new look with a fancy-dancy little catalog sent out to a certain market.

Often times retailers will try out a new look to a test market, or in a small section of their stores. If it sells well, you may see more of the same in the next season. If not, it will be quickly sent to the sale rack. Stores will often put these new collections in the window and on front tables in hopes of enticing new customers. If you usually have luck in these stores, don’t be deterred by the new look; take a walk inside and often you will find your favorites along the side walls.

Speak up! You detest the direction your favorite brand has taken? Let it know. Tell a store manager (in a calm and pleasant way), write a letter or send an email. I have a friend who works for a popular women’s retailer. A couple of years ago they tried a new feel for the stores and for their line of clothing. The new concept hardly lasted a season – though their sales didn’t drop significantly (they still had plenty of staples and accessories), regular customers made quite a stink with letters, emails, calls and complaints to store staff. The company understood that these who took the time to comment were their bread and butter customers; to upset them could mean losing them all. They listened, made changes and kept their customers as well as profit margins.

Most Web sites have a hyperlink at the bottom of the home page for feedback or customer service. Usually an email address is offered along with a toll-free number and mailing address. In this day and age, I have found emails to be responded to far more quickly and professionally than phone calls. However, use the method that makes you the most comfortable. Let your voice be heard – you are the one holding the purse strings!

Go outside the box. You’re a Talbots gal? Well before you walk in those red doors at the mall, take a quick peek in some other retailers. You never know, you might find the perfect garment in Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, Coldwater Creek or Eileen Fisher. Despise the color story in Ann Taylor Loft? You may be shocked to find your new favorite tee at American Eagle, Banana Republic, Chico’s or Limited. Another good place to hit up are the big box discounters like Marshall’s and TJ Maxx. Loved last year’s fashions? You will be more likely to find them at these shops, and for great prices too. You also have the ability to shop a variety of brands in one location.

Clothing shopping can be tough, especially when you aren’t a wealthy 21-year old with the body of a mannequin. Don’t let the trends or the retailers own you; you ultimately have the final say for you hold the power – the wallet. In these financial times, retailers care even more that their customers are happy and returning again and again. Don’t be afraid to flex your shopping muscle and say your piece or take your money to another store.

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. I wonder if it ever occurs to some midage women that the clothes aren’t the problem. It’s your matronly body.

    I’m 45, not model thin by any means, but not obese – and I find plenty of clothes. Do I dress like a teenager? Hell no. I know what fits my body type and I’m open to clothes that may not necessarily fit my “age group”

    Ann Taylor, Talbots, J. Crew, and so on have great clothes for women of all ages with style who know how to dress. “older” women can’t go wrong with a pencil skirt, great slacks (check VS) great boots, a white shirt, and a statement bag. You can even buy basics in plain colors in the juniors department. Yes! I find their blouses have a better shape (nipped waist) that help accentuate your curves.

    Don’t forget to wear structured undergarments and a good bra. If you can’t find clothes and you look frumpy, consider losing some weight. You should be able to wear sleeveless, and you should be able to wear fitted (not tight) clothes.

  2. Great recommendation on J. Crew, Allie! I’ve found their sizing to be great for shorter women. They’re also very forgiving, with classic, rather than narrow cuts in their pieces.

  3. Great article! I don’t shop at these places but I love that last paragraph. It’s nice to remember that the customers have the power of the wallet 🙂

  4. Wow! I thought I was the only one feeling that way about AT. It used to be my go-to store. It was always classic and the pants fit me perfectly. Since Spring of last year, I cannot fit their tops as they have increased the bust size in all sizes. My favorite saleswoman said that she doesn’t fit their tops anymore either (read: both of us wear smalls but have not had any work done). I think the styles are a little dowdy YET the have raised the hemlines on the skirts and dresses and all of the fabrics on the dresses are so loud. I rarely look at the website and it often leaves me cold. I haven’t bought anything at AT …WOW…since around Christmas.


  5. AND what on earth’s happend to Talbots? Can’t find simple classics there anymore. A friend says they were bought out by a Chinese company…

  6. Thanks for posting my somewhat whiny question–just a sign of my frustration. I have gone back and revisited the sites, and a few of the others although I was familiar with them, too. And I already emailed Ann Taylor–good idea! I suspect that’s what’s at the heart of my complaint/concern/dilemma, is that “junior” styles used to stop at the junior age, and classic, tailored, non-frumpy/matronly clothing stated then…but thanks to women of my generation (Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, the Desperate Housewives) who refuse to age gracefully, I feel as if we’re stuck playing teenager too long. The French are, once again, much smarter than us Americans: they recognize that a mature woman is a beautiful, sexy, wise woman with delightful experience she has no wish to hide. And your advice is, as always, spot on.

  7. Whoa. THAT’S the reason I don’t ever find anything in Ann Taylor anymore. I wasn’t sure what it was, but you’re right, they started getting matronly. And yeah, I don’t buy from JCREW as much, and it IS the ridiculous pricing (and when they started selling fur, which to me, doesn’t even go with their “look”).

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