The true English lady is immaculate, but never extravagant; she has no need to impress, only to be polished. Her art is in knowing what suits her age, build and complexion. She religiously avoids brash colours, high fashion gimmicks and juvenile designs. She will, for the most part, also steer well clear of flouncy bows, over-short hemlines, too many designer labels, large flowery hats, black leather and an over-abundance of heavy clanking jewellery.

Within the upper class confines of not deliberately drawing attention to themselves many English ladies have developed a sense of taste and pure grace that sets them far apart from ‘Mrs Average’ and makes them fitting companions to some of the highest ranking and most wealthy men in the land.

Since the 1950’s, when women entered the workplace alongside men, they have enjoyed a new freedom of dress that meant within reason, even then, they can wear almost anything anywhere.

In the British fashion world there is now such a wide range of taste and style in ready-to-wear that there is no excuse for anyone to feel left out. Even those who hate wearing skirts are now socially acceptable, for while jeans are not suitable for every occasion, with very few exceptions smart trousers certainly are, even at evening functions.

The majority of classical clothes found in London stores are ideal for any British social gathering and indeed are invariably embraced by wealthy English county ladies who can’t always find the time to deal with exclusive fashion houses. These women do however usually have a ‘little woman’, in London or the country, who will run up tweedy things from the lengths bought at wool mills or ravishing ball gowns from the yards of cheap silk brought home from The Far East. While anything goes these days, from the outrageous to obscene, most English country ladies still follow a style of dress that has scarcely changed for decades and is still considered by the ruling classes to be the only tasteful way to dress in public.

One of the idiosyncrasies of the upper-class lady is her strange chameleon-like ability to look awe-inspiring when the occasion demands. It is often hard to credit that the muffled up, red-cheeked, windswept figure in sensible walking boots with half a dozen muddy dogs across an open field, is the same vision of loveliness at the society wedding.

The other way of telling a real lady of style is to see her on a horse. Her riding clothes will always be immaculate and in impeccable taste. Her jacket is generally bespoke and so are her highly-polished leather boots. Of course what really sets her apart is her deportment. She will coolly sit any prancing animal with apparent ease and grace. In times past many a ‘good match’ was made in the hunting field, for an attractive and clever lady knew just what a dash she cut with the men and used it to her full advantage!

There are plenty of options currently available for the well-dressed woman to choose from. She can opt for a tailored plain wool or linen trouser suit in exquisite fabric, a rich slub-silk matching dress and jacket, or a brightly patterned dress with a matching hat and plain coat in the same colour tones. She is in truth spoilt for choice; all of these outfits would take her comfortably into any formal social group from a soiree to a day at the races. With skill, each and every one of these outfits could be dressed up or down with the right accessories.

The time is long gone when a woman of leisure spent nearly every hour engaged in her appearance, in part to reflect her husband’s status and wealth. As her own person, she is now fully occupied with more pressing matters than constant primping; even the richest women in the land have busy active lives that don’t leave a lot of time for endless shopping.

With this in mind the English lady will plan her wardrobe with great care so that colours blend and inter-match, making much more than one outfit from the odd extravagant item. She rarely goes for ultra high fashion, preferring classic lines, and it is essential that her clothes are easy to wear and as crease resistant as possible.

She also knows the value of understatement because she is aware that brash, over-ornate outfits in loud colours will have the wrong impact, often drawing unwelcome attention and sometimes ridicule.

Evening outfits are usually more daring and glitzy with beautiful full-length dresses or a little cocktail number with a shimmering jacket thrown over for fabulous effect. At summer balls she relives her youth with lovely, soft pastel creations in raw silk or organza with a wispy wrap around stole.

In the depths of winter a full length, sophisticated dress with a beautiful opera cloak is favourite, or a long romantic velvet skirt with perhaps a high-necked, pearl-button puff-sleeved blouse.

The English lady’s faithful standby, is naturally the little black number. Worn on its own with good jewellery or with a variety of jackets either in bright plain colours or something jolly like black and cream stripes and a cream straw hat, it will take her anywhere stylish.

So often the key to British style is subdued elegance. Clear examples exist within the Royal Family; the Duchess of Kent, for instance, even in late middle age is enduringly stunning.

There is something quintessentially English about a crisp cotton frock in a classic floral design. Invariably less crushed than linen, especially during hot sticky weather, the advantage of a pretty frock is that it can reflect innocent rural charm worn with sandals and white cotton socks. Alternatively, dressed with a chic leather belt, gloves and a gorgeous straw hat, it would not look out of place at a Buckingham Palace garden party. When it is near to the end of its working life it can be demoted to the garden where is makes a fetching picture amongst the rose prunings!

Liberty, in Regent Street, still have cotton dresses, floral skirts and blouses, although sadly not nearly as many as they used to display. On the second floor their fabric department is bulging with some of the prettiest and most unusual cotton prints in the world. Round about springtime and early summer, hundreds of enthusiastic ladies are queuing up at the Liberty’s fabric counters, weighed down with great bolts of material they are taking back to their ‘little sewing women’. These easily recognised designs are almost a uniform for summer lunch parties and country charity functions.

Another good standby are some of the simple Laura Ashley frocks. Bright and cheerful, they are particularly favoured by the young for parties and country outings. Floral cotton frocks are always at their best made with a full skirt. They look fresher, don’t crease so much, and are more in keeping with their original naïve country quality which of course is why they are so timeless and a charming garment for any age group.

Worn on more formal occasions the linen dress usually has a smart jacket or coat thrown over it or is complemented with a lot of noticeable jewellery. Linen can be tricky; what leaves home as a nice outfit can finish up at the end of a long day looking like a crumpled tea towel. As it is an unsuitable fabric for long journeys, many ladies arrive early and change at the last minute. There is an imitation linen made in heavy silk, available in the fabric department at Liberty’s store in London, which is a very realistic copy but doesn’t crease so badly and is actually slightly cheaper. This is an excellent bet if it can be made up by a professional standard tailor or dressmaker.

Full silk dresses in pretty shimmering patterns are perfect for the travelling lady, as these can be dressed up or down depending on the need, some of the best were the Kanga dresses. Originally designed by Prince Charles’ friend, Lady Tryon (now sadly dead), these lovely frocks are stylish, easy to wear and crease resistant and last for years – try to get hold of one on Ebay.

Really smart casual in Britain in winter means a beautifully cut skirt and classical jacket or blazer. An attractive, but softer, alternative to the jacket is a stylish cashmere sweater with a draped and pinned large silk scarf or fine wool square; Liberty and Burberrys sell a wide selection of these.

In summer a linen or cotton jacket or good quality cotton cardigan over a skirt or floral dress is easy to wear but would take a lady comfortably anywhere for lunch except a formal function.

A word about skirts. Straight skirts can look great on the woman with a perfect figure, particularly worn in the formal setting of the business or art world, but as the English lady becomes more mature she is likely to succumb to her husband’s demand for nursery food and may lose the sleekness of her youth. Then she will exhibit sensible good taste and change over to more generously cut and soft pleated skirts in superb fabrics that don’t crease and bunch around her not-so-slim middle. This way she continues to look her old elegant self and no-one, except her nearest and dearest, really notices the extra inches. The fortunate woman, who is built like a racehorse even in middle age will probably drop her hemline slightly, as a concession to the passing years.

At one time these only used to be worn in the privacy of the home or on holiday, a lady would not wish to expose her bare legs in public, especially to strangers. However more and more shorts are seen on the high street and of course in foreign sunshine where all inhibitions tend to drop away and she will happily wear smart cotton or linen shorts although not too brief. Culottes or divided skirts are another matter and are frequently worn with a tailored linen jacket. Tops, polo shirts and tee-shirts are generally in plain-coloured or discretely-patterned quality cotton; there would be no place for loud, lewd emblazoned tops.

At one time jeans were favoured more by the young or for mucking out horses; they would never have been regarded as smart. These days however they are considered just as acceptable as cord, fine wool or linen trousers. Many ladies favour tweedy plus-fours with a checked shirt, tie and sporty waistcoat at country shoots or informal lunches. Surprisingly, the whole effect can be very appealing.

Trousers are accepted just about anywhere in Britain now, especially tailored slacks with a smart top or jacket. However, they are not usually worn in the presence of royalty, nor at funerals or upper-class society functions.

Like her husband and her sons, the English lady will purchase most of her shirts in Jermyn Street at places like Hilditch & Key, or the ladies’ section of Turnbull & Asser. Very often she has an account with these places and buys only bespoke shirts, especially if she lives in the country where she can be sent a sample book of fabrics. Then, as her measurements are already on file, she will order half a dozen or so shirts, for the coming season, in fine cottons and silk for best.

Many of the Jermyn Street shirts are double-cuffed and require the assistance of silk-knot cufflinks. Luckily most of the shirt shops seem to stock a colourful selection of these natty accessories.

In addition to Jermyn Street shirts a lady will have pretty little floral blouses either made by her sewing woman or purchased. For special treats and festivities she will lash out on a very expensive top from one of the better fashion houses or explore the rails for period-style blouses in wild silk.

There is no substitute for cashmere and Burlington Arcade is the place to buy it. A lady will probably add only one or two sweaters a year to her wardrobe.

[wdndadsense]left:300:250[/wdndadsense]Cashmere is very pricey and she would regard a trip to a cashmere house a rather wicked extravagance even though she knows nothing looks as elegant or hangs as well as a fashionable sweater in pure cashmere. Acceptable alternatives, for the not-so-well-off lady, are alpaca or a wool-cashmere mixture. Everyday lambswool or cotton sweaters are purchased at country outfitters or Burberrys and Harrods; (she rarely wears synthetic fibres as these can lose their shape and look baggy). A stylish addition to the lady’s wardrobe would be a selection of very beautiful, high-class hand-knits; but never the home-dyed, itchy offerings that are produced by great aunts or spinster cousins at Christmas time.

Beautiful and creative hats are worn mainly at weddings, funerals and the races, especially Ascot. Here rich and chic women don’t so much let their hair down as hide it under often practical or impossibly large and cumbersome hats.

In the countryside men’s trilbies are frequently seen on stylish ‘horsy’ women, especially at equestrian events; because of possible inclement weather these are usually worn with a waxed jacket or a warm tweedy type coat. In summer the same women wear a straw Panama hat decorated with a smart ribbon or silk scarf, together with a simple pretty floral frock.

Richly coloured silk scarves from Hermes, Gucci or Asprey are an essential part of the lady’s uniform. The English lady has learnt the art of twisting and folding beautiful silk squares into designer accessories. Scarves jolly-up a plain suit, add elegance to a wool sweater and keep freezing ears warm at early point-to-points. A lady will build up, over the years, an enviable collection that is as important to her as her jewel box.

Largely a matter of personal taste and sound feet, but a lady would never be seen in the sort of shoes a rich man would purchase for his mistress. She is more likely to opt for something comfortable, (especially as she gets older), saving her smart high-heeled shoes for social diversions when she wants to look her best at the expense of her feet!

One really good winter coat, preferably cashmere, is the mainstay of a lady’s wardrobe. This may well be in camel or navy. For wet weather in the town, where an umbrella is not enough protection, she will pull out a smart Burberry-type mackintosh, but in the countryside, where she doesn’t need to impress, she is much more likely to throw a waxed full-length jacket over everything.

If Harrods’ coat room has some worthwhile bargains the English lady could end up with several short coats and a nice tweed one for church on Sundays!

In the depths of the English countryside there is only one priority and that is to feel warm, dry and comfortable. More fool the idiot who tries to make a fashionable impression at a country house party and comes back from the obligatory walk or pheasant shoot with soaking wet feet and frozen hands.

Seasoned guests spending Christmas at a stately home know to pack long thermal underwear (as in their schooldays), thick tweed skirts, several pairs of thick trousers, a sheepskin coat, various waterproofs, layers of warm sweaters, sensible walking shoes, woolly gloves and socks, and a couple of pairs of green wellies. The long-suffering wives of dedicated country sportsmen, in particular, know the value of wrapping-up well when they accompany their menfolk on a day’s shooting.

Tasteful jewellery and classic handbags, in a quality calf leather, say a lot about a woman and her dress sense: brassy, brash, shocking-pink, purple or bright-yellow bags with matching shoes are not the done thing in the higher echelons.

Jewellery is often handed down, so can be a mite old-fashioned. Smart ladies sneak it out of the family vault and have it remodelled. Simple pearl strings are worn during the daytime with gold and pearl earrings, but at night, when all the good ladies go to the ball, a shining shimmering goddess will hit the dance floor with her beautifully-cut dress over shadowed by a sensational necklace and long earrings made of fabulous diamonds or sapphires, emeralds or rubies.