How to harness your style super power: The Mail’s fashion editor in the 1980s GAIL ROLFE says finding a ‘forever trend’ like the one she first modelled 36 years ago is the key to lasting confidence
- Gail Rolfe says finding a ‘forever tend’ that suits you is key to lasting style
- The Mail’s fashion editor in the 1980s says understanding what suits you is vital
- She advises to ignore passing fads and find a look and style that empowers you
My lips kept sticking to my teeth, I had no idea what to do with my hands or legs. And how on earth was I meant to pose and smile at the same time?
My first modelling shoot as this newspaper’s new fashion editor was a blur of anxiety and I was relieved when it was all over.
Yet, looking at the pictures nearly 36 years on, they tell a different story. With my big hair, bigger shoulders and powerful hands-on-hips stance, I’m the image of cool, calm composure.
The secret? It’s all down to the clothes. The year was 1986 and that was the thing about 1980s fashion — it was all about emanating confidence. The skyscraper stilettos, back-combed hair, ostentatious jewellery and sharply-tailored blazers with shoulder pads spoke of success and aspiration.
(And I learned that this trick worked even if you weren’t actually feeling it yourself.)
Power dressing reflected a new era of female empowerment as more and more women infiltrated male-dominated industries and set about smashing the glass ceiling.
‘Power dressing reflected a new era of female empowerment as more and more women infiltrated male-dominated industries and set about smashing the glass ceiling,’ Gail Rolfe writes
The trend permeated popular culture, too, with strong, besuited protagonists in shows such as Dallas, Dynasty and, later, Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl.
We had a female prime minister after all and, as for me, only in my mid-20s — an age when my mother had given up work after having me — I had been promoted to run the entire fashion department of a national newspaper.
And what a time to work in this industry. The 1980s were the glory years of fashion, with the birth of the supermodel (Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington famously wouldn’t get up for less than $10,000 by the end of the decade) and the rise of provocative designer labels such as Dolce & Gabbana and Prada.
So I’m thrilled this ebullient era is back with a bang — and suspect many other women of my age will be, too.
One glance at the catwalk trends for autumn/winter emphatically confirms a new love affair with the 1980s is in full swing. Corseted waists were seen at Balmain, Versace and Dior, models were swathed in oversized knits at Chanel and Gabriela Hearst, and big, bold shoulder pads defined the collections from Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton.
Some fashion experts say that if you can remember when you first wore a trend, you should avoid it second time around. But I disagree. In fact, now 63 — an age when women are so often deemed invisible — I’d say it’s the perfect time to harness 1980s confidence. After all, these clothes can be anything but inconspicuous.
I’ve developed a theory over the years: that every woman has a few ‘forever trends’ — the styles that truly suit her, which she can wear again and again, with a few nods to modernity, to look and feel her best. Forget passing fads — true style comes from understanding what suits you.
‘I’ve developed a theory over the years: that every woman has a few “forever trends”,’ Gail explains
For me, as for so many women who came of age in the 1980s, power dressing will never lose its confidence-building allure.
With this in mind, I decided to recreate my first modelling shoot of 1986, using clothes available in the shops today. We stayed true to the spirit and mood of each look, while bearing in mind I am no longer 27.
It was a bittersweet experience. As much as I enjoy the nostalgia, it’s hard to be reminded quite how differently the world views a 27-year-old to a sexagenarian.
Regardless of whether you’re a fashion editor, there’s a point when you walk into the same shops you’ve walked into for 40 years — from upmarket boutiques and Harvey Nichols to the High Street — and it’s as if you aren’t there at all. The days when shop staff used to rush to assist you are long gone.
It can be a hard adjustment to make, this feeling of insignificance.
Flashback: Gail’s piece in the Daily Mail in October 1986, donning 80s style power-dressing outfits
Sometimes it feels that fashion has gone from being full of opportunity to full of rules and limitations — those infuriating proclamations such as ‘you can’t wear jeans past 40’ or ‘bikinis are a no-no after 30’.
In fact, any statement that begins with those confidence-killing words ‘What not to wear over . . .’ slowly kills the joy of dressing up. Whoever decided that women should have a sell-by date?
This attitude is particularly offensive to me because now is a time in my life when I feel I have more to contribute, and more true understanding of what suits me than ever before.
Like everyone, my life has had its ups and downs. I spent 14 years with one partner and 21 with another. I have an amazing daughter and two stepchildren, whom I adore. I lost my father to dementia in 2014, a close friend to cancer in 2017 and in 2009, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It may seem frivolous and flippant to some, but through my worst days, my love of fashion never let me down. I learned how clothes can become more important than ever when at a low ebb.
There was no slouching around in tracksuit bottoms (except on chemo days). Instead, pulling on my navy blazer, silk blouse and jeans said it was ‘business as usual’.
Joan Collins snapped sporting 80s style signature puffed shoulders, emulating the ‘power dressing’ trend
In the 1980s, there was a red power jacket by Catherine Walker I would always reach for when I needed a boost — my armour against having a bad day. Now we can all adopt a little of that decade’s sartorial succour. Who doesn’t like harking back to a time when we felt good about ourselves?
I’ve long been fascinated by the transformative power of clothes, make-up and hair.
As a teenager, I collected vintage copies of Vogue, Harpers & Queen, Cosmopolitan and any other glossy mag I could find at jumble sales.
But it was the Daily Mail I was drawn to from an early age. I could relate to the fashion pages, and I wanted to be like the model, Harriet Close, who appeared in all their adverts for Femail.
I went from studying at the London College of Fashion to working at the fashion industry bible, Drapers Record, before entering Fleet Street. I was 22 when I became deputy fashion writer at the Mail in 1981 — the year Lady Diana Spencer married Charles and became Princess Diana.
Suddenly fashion was on the front pages. Everything the Princess wore was scrutinised, dissected and discussed. Femail ran a rota where a member of staff had to be available day and night to verify for the news desk what she was wearing.
During London Fashion Week, my life was a whirl of receptions and parties. Those held at 10 Downing Street by Margaret Thatcher were rivalled for newsworthy appeal only by Princess Diana’s own Fashion Week parties at Kensington Palace.
Margaret Thatcher was a total surprise. Witty, charming and much softer in person than her public demeanour suggested.
French design house Nina Ricci shows its 1985 spring-summer women’s haute couture line in Paris
I was also lucky enough to meet Princess Diana on several occasions, some informal. She was only a year or two younger than me, and we shared a love of the clothes by designer Catherine Walker. At times, we even owned the same outfit. I, too, was in a difficult relationship, so felt a certain womanly kinship when her marriage ran into trouble.
I’ll never forget one evening function I attended in 1988 when Diana was accompanied by a very young Prince William.
She was wearing a shocking pink and yellow Catherine Walker satin skirt suit, but it was apparent to everyone that she had been crying, her heavy kohl eyeliner highlighting the tear stains.
As for big-name designers, I met many of them. It was standard practice to go backstage after a catwalk show to congratulate the designer. Some, such as Valentino, would host small informal lunches or dinners, while Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, Hermes, and Versace threw huge dinners for as many as 500 people. It was a brave, glamorous new world.
After 14 years, I left the Mail to pursue a freelance career, working for Tatler and writing a book about heels — a lifelong passion — for Vogue. These days I work as a stylist, helping celebrities and normal women look their best at any age.
I still treasure the four cuttings books that contain every piece I wrote — from a minor news story to the launch of the fashion special that heralded the switch to colour pages.
And I’ve kept my favourite outfits, too: a multi-layered silk dress by Tomasz Starzewski, a strapless cocktail dress by Alistair Blair, and forever pieces by Catherine Walker. All too special to give away, even if they don’t fit now.
With so many memories, it was an emotional return to the Mail studio. We had even managed to book the make-up artist from the original shoot.
But it was the cut and feel of the Veronica Beard Miller Dickey jacket (main picture), with its nipped-in waist and defined shoulder pads (here paired with an All Saints animal-print dress), that gave me shivers of nostalgia. I felt my posture improve as I slipped it on.
I didn’t need the 1980s bodycon animal-print skirt of the original shoot (above) — the midi-dress I wore this time around added a sense of femininity and a more flattering silhouette.
Valerie Harper as Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Farrell in Farrell for the People, rocking an 80s style power blazer
I know it may sound far-fetched, but simply by wearing these familiar, powerful styles I became aware once more of an inner layer of steel, a certain ‘don’t mess with me’ spirit. Dressing for success, as we used to call it, can prevent the air of invisibility that creeps in as we pass those milestone birthdays.
I assure you there’s something magically confidence-boosting about stepping into the styles of my favourite fashion era. (Not forgetting a few modern tweaks.)
Much as I adored the main photograph from the original shoot, where I wore a dogtooth check skirt suit by Shirley Wong (far left), I consider it too formal for today. It doesn’t fit the way my lifestyle has changed in the intervening years.
That said, I would add the modern equivalent, a Karen Millen jacket (left), to my wardrobe, teaming it with flared jeans or wide-legged black trousers.
So was my step back in style a success? I think with a few tweaks, some allowances for a changing lifestyle, an older body, and a contemporary approach, it was.
My generation is the first to have such a desire to look the best we can for as long as we can. Yes, we have the benefit of hair dye, exercise and make-up. But it’s clothes that truly lift your mood. Here I am feeling as powerful and poised as my 27-year-old self looks.
- Find Gail Rolfe on Instagram @myageisirrelevant