The word ‘flattering’ when applied to a garment means different things to different people. For some, it might be the illusion of a smaller waist or hips. For others, it could be a more bootylicious derriere. Suffice to say, that one woman’s flattering dress is not another’s. Unless you happen to be talking about Jasper Conran’s Blythe dress (from £200, jasperconran.com), which appears to suit every woman who tries it on.
We have established this via the ultra scientific method of having left a couple of samples draped over the back of a chair in the office. When passing colleagues showed an interest, we’d encourage them to put one on, and thus far, it’s proved a more effective crowd-pleaser than a Richard Curtis film marathon on Christmas Day.
So what’s the big deal? It has a fit-and-flare shape with a high, cinched waist, which creates an hourglass silhouette and the illusion of longer legs. The shirt neckline is roomy enough to accommodate a large bust and a glimpse of decolletage is always sexy (“Undo a couple more buttons for an evening look,” Conran suggests).
It has long sleeves for those who prefer not to show their arms, and large pockets. The cotton-blend material has a nice weight and structure to it that’s forgiving on the body and the full skirt is satisfyingly swishy, something only achieved when the designer hasn’t economised on fabric.
It’s versatile enough to wear all year round (with sandals in summer, and with boots or loafers in winter), and the hem can be easily shortened or lengthened. I styled mine here with a thin roll-neck top, for an extra layer of warmth, but a blazer on top would work just as well.
What really makes the difference, though, is invisible to the naked eye. Many fashion brands will make a sample garment in a size 8 or 10, and just increase those proportions for larger sizes. Conran makes a sample for each dress size and tweaks it accordingly – a more expensive and labour-intensive process. So a size 14 iteration of the Blythe dress is not just a larger version of a size 8 pattern, it’s cut with a real size 14 body in mind. “I put the fit under [the microscope] before I do anything else,” Conran says. “I find it interesting and satisfying to look at the problem and to find the solution.”]
That’s why even the cummerbund is sized accordingly, so that for each one of us who modelled the dress for this feature, the belt narrowed at the right point to create an obi-style [wide sash] tie.
“It suits my pear shape with its flattering waist and full skirt,” says my colleague Lucy Denyer, who wears a size 10. “I can wear it to the office with a pair of flat boots but it’s easily glam-able with heels and a chunky necklace. It’s a quick way to feel like a proper, pulled-together grown up – not to be sniffed at when I’m wrangling three children and trying to get to work on time.”
Fashion journalist Emily Cronin who wears a size 14, agrees: “It’s a classic shirtdress with wearer-friendly tweaks that any woman will appreciate – because who doesn’t adore easy elegance, whatever the season?”
Conran says his dresses are worn by women in their 20s up to their 70s and 80s: “One very famous lady said to me, ‘When you get to 60 you reach a kind of crossroads. You don’t know how you should present yourself. These dresses make me feel like I’m in exactly the right place.’”
I’ll admit I was Blythe’s greatest sceptic; I’m a 5ft 4in size 12, and a 50s silhouette tends to make me look heavier around the hips. Yet I was pleasantly surprised. My personal style is a bit more androgynous, but I can understand why so many women feel good in this dress. Given that even high street dresses can command price tags of £300-400, Conran’s £200-250 range seems like good value. “I like that women don’t feel like I’m robbing them,” he says.
In a cost of living crisis, £200+ on a dress will be out of the question for some, but you can use it as a styling guide. An oversized shirt dress, or a shirt teamed with a full skirt from a high street store, cinched at the waist with an obi-style belt (I like Free People’s £68 leather version) won’t look exactly like Conran’s design, but it would be a chic, figure enhancing look. Experiment with the belt, too; both in terms of knots and bows, and striking the right balance between too tight and not tight enough.
“My objective in my work has always been to give women confidence,” Conran says. “That, for me, is doing my job properly.” In Blythe, he’s achieved that – which is flattering whatever you look like.