An expensive habit

Think finding a dressing gown is easy? Think again.

How difficult can it be to buy a man a dressing gown in which to keep warm of a winter morning? I had envisaged something finely spun, perhaps in merino wool, maybe gently and extravagantly mixed with cashmere. Not a bulky dressing gown - definitely not towelling, for instance, which is useful after a bath but has no place otherwise in a man's boudoir.

It might not have been the most exciting present, but I thought my boyfriend (how inadequate that word is for a man with whom I've been for ten years and who is the father of my child) might appreciate not shivering in his pyjamas. And if I picked it right, it could look stylish, too: the sort of dressing gown Cary Grant might have worn. Except that the only dressing gown in which I had ever seen Grant was a marabou-trimmed one in the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby, a film in which Grant memorably uttered the word "gay" meaning homosexual - the first time an actor had ever done so on film.

People imagine Cary Grant wore a silk lounging robe. And perhaps he did. So I considered silk. But while it sounds great and I know silk is supposed to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer, on the hanger silk dressing gowns, even with the help of a vertical self-stripe, did not look stylish or warm enough.

Back to searching London and the internet for a dressing gown. Bonsoir had some in cotton. John Lewis had nothing that wasn't waffle cotton or towelling. Liberty had some that weren't right, ditto Selfridges. Derek Rose had some in silk and one in cashmere, but the latter gave you a penny change from £2,000 (yes, that is two thousand pounds) and was in a camel colour that I thought was all wrong. Anyway, I thought I'd rather just cover my boyfriend with £2,000 worth of fivers to keep him warm - paper is a great insulator. At least I could get them back when he was done and buy something else, like a car.

In short, men were grossly under-represented in the fine wool robe department. In the end, and at the door of desperation, I emailed my friend Charlie Porter, associate editor of GQ. "Surely, Charlie," I said, "someone must do a dressing gown that would keep a man warm but also look good?" He listed all the places I'd tried, plus one that I hadn't, but which did cashmere-only robes that were eye-wateringly expensive. He also mentioned Derek Rose again. I went back to the site to look at the £2,000 minus a penny dressing gown, and the silk ones.

Wait! There was one in navy for £250 that said "merino wool". I clicked on the picture. The belt had a tassel. It was perfect, wonderfully stylish and expensive enough to make it a truly luxurious present, but not so expensive I'd have to get the webcam out to make ends meet again.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.