Personal service

Sometimes, even we experts need a little fashion advice.

Dressing up used to be so much fun, hours spent in front of the mirror and behind closed doors, trying on different combinations of clothes, often to music. Shops were places that inspired excitement, not fear. But somewhere along the line, for some people, dressing and shopping became tense, perfunctory pursuits.

When I was a teenager, it was simply not pos sible to spend too much time in Miss Selfridge; no part of my wardrobe was ever allowed to hang long enough to gather dust, as I was constantly experimenting with ways to wear things. Accessories changed often, and glossy magazines were springboards for ideas, rather than a way to catch up with the stretch marks of the famous, as they are now. But then as life, jobs, boys and finally, children, came along, how I dressed became less important until, one day, I woke up lost.

The funny thing about this was that I had, for many years, been a fashion agony aunt. But, as surely as I had once known the fashion calendar and where to get the most perfect shade of eau de nil chiffon, I now no longer knew what was in fashion, nor what suited me.

A friend of mine, who always dressed exquisitely, had a personal shopper. It took a lot of ego deflating to accept that I might actually need such outside help, but then, growing daily more wretched and bitter, I asked if she would waive her £70-an-hour fee if I baked her obscene amounts of cake. The deal was struck. (I must point out that most department stores provide this service free, but then you are limited to that department store's stock.)

One of the most important skills in dressing well is to keep up with how we change as we get older. It's very easy to stay stuck in silhouettes and colours that once suited us, but no longer do. But to do this requires a rarer talent: that of being able to step back and view ourselves as an outsider would do. Losing this, or never having it, means that as you get older, you stop trying new things. A really good friend could help, but then it's often hard to give advice to a close friend, especially one who is feeling fragile.

I nearly cancelled my first appointment with Karen (said personal shopper) many times, but in the end I was semi-naked in a changing room before I knew it. Karen bossed the shop assistants around in a way I would never have dared and couriered back and forth differing sizes. She brought me trousers that I would never have imagined would suit me: with waistbands that sat well below my navel. Daring things, when I had spent much of my time post-partum wearing elasticated waists. She gently bossed me until I emerged with new clothes, new vigour and, it seemed, a new body.

Life was good again. Sometimes even fashion "experts" need expert fashion help.

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.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning