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Stitches in time

After 24 years in fashion, I've learned a thing or two

This is to be my last Dress code column. Coincidentally, this month marks 24 years since I first entered the world of fashion, through the double columns of the black and brass front doors of the Norman Hartnell couture house in Mayfair, London. I wasn't meant to go in that way and, on my first day as a trainee seamstress, I got severely told off: not for the first, or last, time.

I've never had a job where I was reprimanded quite so many times: for being 15 minutes late over a week, for being cheeky when I was merely inquisitive, for disputing how you make Bolognese sauce with the (Spanish) supervisor, for taking two biscuits at a time out of the tin in my 15-minute tea break, for commenting on the fact that the Queen Mother had ordered 26 dresses which were, essentially, identical (although, had it been 400 years earlier, I'd have been done for treason).

On my second day, I entered via the anonymous, paint-peeled back door, punching in my time card as I did so. I left not long afterwards (I was fired) to become a spy, then joined the Home Office, before finally going back into fashion as a PR and then a journalist. The more involved I've got in fashion, the less well I've dressed. Maybe as a reaction, maybe as protection. The hours I'd spend in front of a mirror as a teenager, styling myself, inventing new looks, became minutes snatched, wincing.

Fashion has changed enormously over that quarter-century. We are all far more individual than at any other time in history: we don't fear social exclusion for wearing our own thing, though we still judge people by what they wear. We've reached a zenith of mass production and are now back to valuing a more artisanal approach. We are, as a nation, fatter than ever. What celebrities wear is deemed of public interest and comment; and if one more PR advises me I should cover something because Gwyneth/ Madonna or, now, Sarah Palin (since when?) is wearing it, I shall swear.

On 13 October we'll be launching The Beauty List exclusively on the New Statesman website. This is a database of the skincare products I've tested in the past 15 years: a "read before you buy" service. It's ideal if you are nervous of approaching the beauty counters (as I am) because you get bombarded with frilly "facts" and it's hard to decipher if a product is for you or not. This way you can read and make your own mind up. There will also be the opportunity for readers to add their own comments on individual products.

In the meantime, I'd like to leave you with a few fashion notes: hemlines should always be at least 20 inches below necklines; if your sleeves are too long and wrap around you, you've obviously offended someone in your family: those bars on the window aren't for your protection; black is always the new black.

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 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008