Green Zara midi dress

Ask Amber | How to Put a Modern Twist on Vintage Style

It’s question time, again, folks! A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from lovely reader, Linnea, who wrote:

As a fellow almost petite mum who feels that a large part of my wardrobe just feels wrong/don’t like a lot of my clothes anymore, do you have any tips on outfits that are grown up/office friendly but still have that vintage feel?
I’m 36 and dresses with ruffles and bows just don’t feel me anymore.

And, honestly, guys, I can’t even tell you how much I relate to this question. I mean, I’m going to TRY obviously, but I probably won’t succeed, because I relate to it a LOT. A LOT lot.

Zara green midi dress with voluminous sleevesMy own post-partum wardrobe crisis started early. Almost two years before Max was born, in fact. (What can I say, I like to be prepared, and I had to schedule in time for it in between other pressing issues like, ‘Wondering if the baby’s head is the right shape?’ and ‘Comparing myself to other new mums on Instagram and wondering how come they totally look like they’ve got their act together, while I’m still wondering if sleeping in my clothes would be acceptable?”)  That was roughly when Terry and I started to entertain the thought of possibly having a baby, and, in related news, it was also when I started to feel that approximately 90% of my wardrobe was desperately in need of being set on fire.

And, I mean, it’s possible that this would’ve happened anyway. Your taste changes as you get older, obviously, but, in my case, the thought that I could one day be someone’s mother definitely made me take a long, hard look at myself, and think, “Does this REALLY look like someone who should be in charge of a small child?” The answer to that one? A hard NO, basically: and I want to say at this point, before you all start yelling at me, that this had absolutely nothing to do with the concept of “age-appropriate dressing” or anything like that.  I still firmly believe that people should wear whatever the hell they want – regardless of their age – and some of the most stylish people I know have a bunch of kids, so I’ve never subscribed to the idea that mums have to dress a certain way, either. So why was I suddenly feeling the urge to burn down my closet?

green midi dress outfitWell, because it just didn’t feel like ME any more, basically. And it’s a tough one, because, theoretically, I still like everything. I mean, I flip through my closet, and I’m like, “Yup: love you! And you! And, ooh, lookit you!” But then I actually put the thing on, and it’s all just a bit meh, really. Like Linnea, I don’t really feel the retro-inspired look is quite right for me any more, so while I’m still wearing some of my favourite pieces, and borrowing elements of that style, at the time of writing, a large percentage of my closet is stuffed into bags and hidden under the stairs, while I work out what the hell to do with it.

In the meantime, I’ve been on the lookout for pieces that are a bit more… I want to use the word “sophisticated” here, but I’m really aware that doing that will imply that the full-on retro look is UNsophisticated, and I don’t think that at all. Linnea described her particular dilemma as wanting to look more “grown up”, and honesty, I think that’s where I’m at, too. Being self-employed, I obviously don’t have any need to be “office appropriate”, but I would like to look like an actual adult, who is good at adulting, and while I know lots of people who do exactly that, while still sticking to a very retro-inspired look, I’m just not one of them. So, here’s what I’ve been doing instead, in a bid to unlock the “Dressing Like a Grown-Up” achievement while giving a nod to the pin-up inspired style that I still love, even although it doesn’t really work all that well with my current lifestyle…

Green full-skirted midi dress with gold wedges01.

Shop on the high street, rather than in speciality stores

I feel like a bit of a cad for saying this, because I’ve spent the last few years singing the praises of retro-reproduction brands, who are still some of my all-time favourites. The problem (If it can be called that) with these brands, however, is that their aim is to make clothes that faithfully recreate vintage styles: that’s FANTASTIC if that’s what you’re after, but it can also end up looking ever-so-slightly costumey if it’s not. The good news, though, is that you can find a lot of retro-inspired pieces on the good ol’ high street, and, because they’re aiming at a much broader target market, those items can often capture a vintage feel, while using modern cuts and fabrics. The green dress in this post, for instance, was from Zara, and while I wouldn’t describe it as “vintage-inspired”, exactly, it does have a huge, swishy circle skirt, and nipped-in waist, which creates that 50s-style silhouette, without making you look like you’ve dressed up as Betty Draper for Halloween.

(Note to self: dress up as Betty Draper for Halloween.)

Brands like Boden and ASOS, meanwhile, also make great use of retro-inspired silhouettes, but will put their own, slightly more contemporary twist on them. If you search for things like “midi skirt” or “tea dress”, for instance, you should find quite a few things that are a little bit vintage, but which won’t make you feel like you’re wearing fancy dress.

Boden Antonia dress in blue polka dot02.

Look for specific prints and patterns

Another way to give a modern wardrobe a vintage feel – or vice versa – is to look for prints and patterns that are associated with the “retro” look, without necessarily being a retro-inspired style themselves. My Boden Antonia dress is a good example of what I mean, here: again, it’s not really a particularly “vintage” cut, but the polka dot print gives it a vaguely retro feel, and I find that polka dots have a way of doing that for just about ANYTHING. The same could be said for gingham and stripes – they’re prints that people tend to associate with vintage style, so clothes with any of those three prints are a really easy way to get the retro look from a modern wardrobe. I personally think that polka dots and stripes are pretty classic, so it’s easy enough to make them feel office-appropriate (Not that I’ve tried, you understand…); novelty prints, on the other hand, can be a little trickier in that respect, so I’ve been sticking to either classic prints, or block colours instead.


Go easy on the hair and makeup

I mean, you’ll prise my red lipstick out of my cold, dead hands, but these days, if I’m wearing something retro-inspired, I’ll normally go with more subtle hair and makeup than I might have done back at the height of my retro-obsession. Again, I really love vintage-style hair and makeup looks on other people, but those looks can be hard to get right, and – on me, at least – I find them a really easy way to tip a simple, 50s-inspired dress into “costume party” territory, so you won’t be seeing me in victory rolls anytime soon. (I mean, I say that as if I have ANY CLUE AT ALL how to actually achieve those looks, which, HAHANOPE.)

Similarly, to look at this one another way, I also find that a red lip and winged eyeliner will make even a pair of worn-out sweatpants look a little bit “retro”, so, you know, that’s worth bearing in mind too.


And go with modern shoes and accessories

This is an easy one for me, because while I’ve always loved retro-inspired clothes, I’m not so keen on the shoes. Again, this is a good thing in my case, because wearing vintage clothes with modern footwear is another easy way to tone down the, er, retro-ness of the look (YES IT IS A WORD), and what could otherwise have been a 50s-style dress, say, just becomes, well, a nice dress. Which is just fine by me.

 *   *  *

Will any of these tips make you look/feel like a “grown up”, though? Er, I mean, they haven’t done it for me yet, to be honest: I still feel about 12 most of the time, and about 102 the rest of the time. So that’s awesome, for sure. This, however, is where my awesome readers come in, so if there’s anyone out there who has some more tips for Linnea on how to put a grown-up/office appropriate spin on the vintage look, I’m sure she’d love to hear them. And, well, so would I

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  • I can’t help smiling my way through this post, because your look has always seemed to me like the epitome of sophisticated style… but then, I am a 36-year-old who describes her day-to-day look as “children’s party entertainer” (despite working in THE most corporate of corporate environments) so I’ll forgive you if you refuse to accept that compliment.

    I hope Linnea got what she needed from this post – your Boden dresses always look incredible, so I reckon that’s an excellent shout.


    July 9, 2018
  • Yes!!! Until now, I couldn’t put my finger on it. But you have helped me figure out what was bothering me about my retro-inspired outfits. Love your suggestions for making these skirts and dresses more wearable in regular life. Thank you so much!!!!

    July 9, 2018
  • Myra Boyle


    This post has surprised me. I love how you dress although I get that you feel too dressy at times, especially with a baby who might be sick all over a beautiful dress at any time. You do need to be a bit more practical I suppose, but when I read this I thought of Angela Strawbeidge in Escape to the Chateau (which I love). She is very creative and artistic and is married to a fat middle aged engineer. They have two young children and she varies from dungarees when working on a really dirty job in their chateau to the most vivid and colourful apparel you’ve ever seen at all other times. Just keep on being you and loving clothes, whatever you choose.

    July 9, 2018
  • Linnea


    Thank you so much Amber! ?? I love all your ideas like borrowing elements of that style, patterns and such but with modern shoes and bags. I will use all these tips for sure!

    July 10, 2018
  • Melissa


    I completely relate to this. Tho I have never gone super retro, I’m always trying to find that balance. My usual method is a retro inspired skirt/trousers, with a high street blouse or top. I often wear a collectif skirt with a plain navy top from Oasis, today my new Hell Bunny Capris will be teamed with a Pepperberry top. Sometimes I wear more retro tops with ordinary jeans, but for some reason it feels easier to go retro in the bottom half.

    July 11, 2018
  • I’ve been a long time reader of yours and have enjoyed seeing your style through the years. I too can relate to all of this. I once thought my style would never change, then a few years later, I’m like who even am I?

    July 11, 2018
  • I’ve been a long time reader of yours and have enjoyed seeing your style through the years. I too can relate to all of this. I once thought my style would never change, then a few years later, I’m like who even am I?

    July 11, 2018
  • Elaine Fraschini


    I love your style! You always look sophisticated and put together.
    If you’ve got bags of clothes you don’t know what to do with, you should sell them on something like depop! Im sure all your readers would want in on the action!

    July 14, 2018
  • Cecilia


    Hi Amber and fellow followers!

    I read this post and was so thrilled with the tips on how to add elements of a style to your look, to avoid feeling costumey and also to get braver with your outfits, which is my challenge. I saw Rachel Khoo, who is a cooking idol of mine, on Insta wearing the brand Sugarhill Brighton, and I think you Amber and perhaps some of the followers would like to check it out. Haven’t tried it myself, just thought of this discussion when I saw the picture. Hope you don’t mind.

    July 15, 2018
  • Hi amber I always love your style, you always come with stunning fashion and great fashion ideas.

    August 2, 2018
  • claireLewis


    I am facing 6 months of getting bigger in my third pregnancy!… maternity fashion seems to improve year on year and I have enjoyed your maternity fashion blogs. Where would you recommend shopping? Im same age size 12 and seem only to find the basics or evening wear, help!!!!!

    August 13, 2018