Dear Santa

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Please and thank you.

If anyone else would like to own this fabulous creation, you can buy it here.  This fantastic retailer (I ordered this item at 1007 on Thursday, it arrived via standard mail – free delivery – at 1041 on Friday) are also registered with EasyFundraising, so your purchase can raise a free-to-you donation for a charity who are registered with them (I highly recommend Equine Partners CIC, but feel free to make your own choice).

End of PSA.

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The perfect fit

I’ve been having a problem shared by many women: none of my bras are fitting correctly.  It’s been a shamefully long time since I’ve invested a decent amount of time and money into this crucial piece of daily kit, so I set out on the quest which is only rivalled by the search for the perfect pair of jeans.  I ultimately visited three shops, here’s the tale of my labours…

Bra stop the first: Marks and Spencer
I entered a local branch of Britain’s stalwart retailer on a rainy Sunday with an action plan.  As a reasonably clued-up girl, I had made a guess as to how my size has changed, and went on what turned out to be a disappointing hunt.  I’ve worn a 36D for a long time (before you all have an attack of the vapours, I haven’t worn this size because I like it – I’ve had it checked regularly, and have genuinely felt comfortable in it until recently), but was curious about the fact that I may finally fit into a 34, which I knew would probably mean going up a cup size (given that I’ve changed shape, but not deflated, as it were).

I hunted around the (horribly-merchandised) lingerie department and quickly figured out that M&S design bras in two categories: pretty, but for those who only need to support the weight of two peas on their chest; ugly, and in suitable sizes to conveniently double as headgear.  I should have given up at this point, but I knew I owed my bust a favour, so I sighed and gritted my teeth.  I fished through for a selection of bras in a variety of sizes (because, hey, my guess may have been wrong) and headed for the fitting room.

I hovered awkwardly in the doorway for a moment whilst the woman behind the desk at the back of the corridor busied herself with something else, before she – without even looking up – told me to just go in, that they don’t help with fit any more.  I almost fell over in shock, and again very nearly dropped the mic (bras) and walked away.  Instead, I saw myself to a fitting room, closed the door and organised myself.

Then, dearest retailer, I was confronted by something I really didn’t expect to see: I had selected some bras which are sold in pairs, and it wasn’t until I got to the fitting room that I noticed they were tagged together.  Like this:

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I twizzled everything around to figure out the mechanics: should I try them on like this?  I quickly realised this was physically impossible.  Should I ring the bell provided for assistance?  I soon decided none would be forthcoming, given the frosty reception I had previously received.  I chose to break the rules and snapped the plastic.  Something not all people can do.  I tried every bra I had selected on.  Some – in the size I had guessed – were a reasonable fit.  They were comfortable, even.  They weren’t the type of bras you’d see strut down a runway, or in a fashion spread, but I was also going for day-to-day practicality rather than sexbomb on this occasion, so I was willing to ignore that fact.

What I wasn’t willing to ignore was the complete lack of customer service I was receiving from a high street retailer.  And shops wonder why the internet is winning!  I got dressed, having completed my research, hung the bras up on the rail by the fitting room entrance and walked away, vowing never to darken the door of Marks and Spencer for so much as a pair of socks ever again (which is a shame, because their thermal socks helped me survive last winter and their socks with the fluffy padded ankles and toes get me through the rest of the year).

Customer service: -5/5
Fit: 3/5
Value for money: 1/5 (due to poor service)

Bra stop the second: Leia
Unfortunately, the town I was in that fateful Sunday has very few decent options when it comes to bras (as demonstrated by the above!) so I had to persist with my old no-longer-faithfuls for another week, before I had the opportunity to seek out another shopping experience.  I decided that department stores weren’t the way to go – I needed real help from experts in order to feel satisfied and shell out for some decent goods.

Having prepared myself via means of caffeination, I headed to a shop I hadn’t tried before.  Oh happy day, I did not have to ask for help, assistance was volunteered by a member of staff (remember, I work in retail, I am admittedly a picky customer).  She whizzed me straight to the fitting room, asked what I was looking for, what size I was wearing and took a look at me.  She agreed that I needed a smaller band size, but her guess was that I’d require a 34F, not an E.  I was shocked, but decided that it wouldn’t hurt to try.

I was presented with a bra which matched my brief, tried it on and…well, hello glass slipper!  The bra fitted perfectly.  The sales assistant returned to check the fit for me, made sure I was properly in the bra and comfortable, then asked if I needed anything else.  I was slightly reeling from the experience of suddenly jumping two cup sizes, so I decided that I needed to go and take stock of my underwear drawer before making too many purchases.

Having bought the bra I tried on, I went to another shop for different items…and swiftly returned to Leia, having realised that my underwear drawer would require a total overhaul.  I tried on a different bra (as I had additional requirements!) and again, a sales assistant helped me to fit it and made sure it was the right one.

Sadly, the “fun” and “glamorous” end of the shop’s range wasn’t really pushing my buttons this time, so I stuck with a nude t-shirt bra (to add to the black t-shirt bra I’d previously purchased) and was on my way.  But I’ll be keeping an eye on what they have in stock, and was quick to recommend the store to a friend who is a similar size to me…

Customer service: 5/5
Fit: 6/5
Value for money: 4/5

Bra stop the third: Victoria’s Secret
VS cops a LOT of flak on both sides of the pond, but I’ve had some great experiences in there.  First pro of VS: it’s fun – it’s not short on colour, sparkle, glamour and atmosphere.  Yes, it’s like shopping in a nightclub (though without the sticky floor and dry ice), it’s very very dark.  But it’s well-staffed and, although the merchandising could be better, once you know what you’re doing, it’s straightforward (just frustrating that they rarely have all colourways in stock in all sizes).

Having been re-sized, I knew the VS range wasn’t going to fit me very well any more (they generally only stock to a D cup, with some ranges going to DD or DDD), but I was desperate for something fun, so thought I’d try a few bras on.  I repeated my M&S smash and grab, not being too fussy about colour at first, I was just trying for fit.  As I knew the cups would likely be too small, I avoided anything with too much padding or push up (which made me a little sad – I’ve had some great push ups from VS, even though it’s not something I really need) and headed for the fitting room.

The fitting room was well-staffed, I was shown to a room and left in peace, with the offer of help if I needed it.  I worked my way through my selection, trying the different styles.  Unsurprisingly, two of the five gave me some definite “four boob” (where there’s too much breast for the cup and you spill over the tops), but some of the roomier styles weren’t as bad as they might have been.  It was tempting to go back up to a 36 and see what happened, but I decided not to tease myself, and returned to the shop floor armed with my findings to have another look.

I returned to the fitting room, figured out which of my choices felt best and decided to get the opinion of the sales assistant, partly to see whether they confirmed what I knew or tried something else!  The girl who helped agreed with my assessment (and commented that she liked the colour of the one I’d chosen).  It’s tough – the cynic in me thinks she was upselling, as I know the bra could’ve fitted a touch better, but when all you’re dealing with is the range you have available…was she in a position to know any better?  Possibly not.

Customer service: 3/5 (this would actually be a 4/5 for the store staff, but see below for what drags the company as a whole down)
Fit: 1/5 (sad but true)
Value for money: -1/5 (VS, who are you trying to kid with your “charge the same number in Sterling as you do in Dollars” strategy?)

I wanted to go through the good points first, but now it’s time to throw some constructive criticism at VS – I would really love the people in charge to listen to this, because I think this store is good, but it could be so much better (and, get this, more profitable) if those in charge listened.

  1. We do not feel like Xtina in Burlesque in your dressing rooms, we feel like we forgot to pay our electricity bill and it’s December. We want to see ourselves in your products, so that we know what we look like!  We cannot do that when we feel like we’re wearing filter category four sunglasses.  Yes, you have a brand; no, we don’t actually want to get dressed in the dark
  2. Repeat after me: big breasts deserve pretty bras. More cup and back sizes = more customers = more sales.  If you even think about charging more for sizes above a 34C, we will turn tail and run, and we will take the lovely A and B cup ladies with us because, guess what?  Stores like Leia stock everything from a AA to a…well, I don’t know, but I definitely heard mention of K cups when I was in there.  Leave the chicken fillet-filled B cups for your Christmas meat market show and give the high street the E+ cups it needs
  3. Linked to the above: cut it out with the security tag obsession. I admitted that your bras don’t fit me all that well, but the tags hinder things even further.  I was thisclose to asking your lovely staff to take them off, but I honestly thought they’d say no, so didn’t bother.  This too, will be making you lose sales (see a pattern, here?)
  4. This is the most important point, so please listen carefully: IT IS 2015. Stop insulting the UK and crippling your staff by failing to allow them to order stock in, and not allowing us to shop online (in fact, not even having your range online in UK prices is a heinous crime too).  Get yourselves a UK distribution centre STAT.  How you’ve survived this long with a placeholder website is beyond me.  Why you aren’t keeping your costs low and your profits high by offering online shopping is also mind-bogglingly stupid.  The UK loves VS, as do all of the tourists who visit us.  You’re an aspirational, cool, sexy brand with masses of appeal.  And you’re sticking a machine gun to your foot on a daily basis

Marks and Spencer, this advice is for you:

  1. Hire a new Head of Lingerie who has run a successful store before. Give your staff products they can be proud of and the confidence to fit and sell them.  Jump on the VS bandwagon and take the advice I have given them (well, you already have a website, so you’re ahead there.  One less thing to do).  Alternatively:
  2. Stop selling bras. I mean it when I say I’m not buying another sock from you.  I will find fluffy socks somewhere else.  And no-VPL pants (because, damn, they are good, but I will hunt down some other ones now).  Admittedly, I may continue to buy the odd bottle of Prosecco or a sandwich.  But you really can forget the rest, unless you seriously change.  My experience was utterly diabolical and, like many British women, I have been buying your bras since I first needed one

After two arduous shopping trips and one long blog post, I feel relieved.  Anyone care to share their own experiences?  If there’s anything else you’d like to know, please go ahead and ask – as you can probably now tell, this is a topic I’m not shy about!

Finishing touches

With half an eye on the future, and potentially wanting to do some cross country riding again one day, I got a new jockey skull earlier this year.  Safety regulations currently state that riders are not allowed to wear helmets with fixed peaks when riding cross country (seems sensible to me), meaning my existing helmet wouldn’t be deemed roadworthy for that activity.

Although I don’t typically ride around looking at myself (I hate arena mirrors!), I’m quite vain when it comes to helmets, and fully believe that safety can also be stylish!  So I’ve been hunting high and low for the perfect cover for my skull cap.  When I was a child, I always wanted a traditional “proper” velvet hunting-style cap, so I wore my skull helmet with a black velvet cover on it and pretended I was a show jumping hero.  I kind of wanted a silk as a child too, but could never settle on a colour which I liked and matched myself and my trusty steed, so I stuck with the velvet.

I’m still in the position where I don’t have a horse of my own.  Prince’s halter is red, and he’s got a Western saddle which has a green pad with it (pretty mismatched, I know!).  We’ve pretty much settled on blue as the charity’s colours, and the bridle I bought a few years ago has blue crystals and a bit of blue leather piping (it’s mostly black leather), which made me think that blue could be the way forwards.  But I of course wanted a particular blue…

I trawled the trade stands at Hickstead, but could only find what I termed as “boring” blue silks (the very darkest navy, with the alternative being a Team GB one, though I haven’t earned the right in my eyes to even wear a replica one of those!), or ones which were a mixture of colours.  I’ve got a think about wearing too many colours: unless it’s a patterned fabric, you won’t see me wearing more than three colours at once and, in fact, I’ll normally wear a mix of two colours with perhaps different shades of each.  I don’t want to look like a children’s TV presenter!

I rejected everything I saw, and could feel my sister getting bored by my browsing, “In this day and age,” she moaned, “there must be somewhere you can get glittery ones.  That’s right up your street.”  My eyes lit up and my heart leapt at the thought.  My sister quickly regretted opening her mouth.

Sure enough, when we returned home, the internet quickly delivered.  But, again, I was dissatisfied.  Everything I found wasn’t quite right.  Until I found CustomXC, fiddled with their design tool and came out with my ultimate hat silk ordered.  It arrived whilst I was away, and upon my return I wriggled it onto my skull cap.  It’s just what I wanted, and I’m already dreaming of ordering a base layer and a soft shell jacket to complete the look, and give me all of the glittery matchy-matchy equipment I could dream of for my next trip thundering through a field of fences.  Whether I’m aboard Prince or another horse, I know I’ll be pleased with my look.

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I haven’t forgotten my promise to blog about my exploits on my recent equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) training course, it’s just not ready yet!  The EAGALA training was fantastic, but finished less than a week ago and was pretty intense.  I’m still processing the experience, and will bring you a full update on it ASAP.  Stay tuned…

Important kit

This post probably could’ve gone in my other category, but it’s more sporty than “general other”, so here we are.  We’ve got past the “new year, new me” stage for most people now (anyone got a gym membership which is gathering dust now that Dry January is over?), and with the cold and wet weather continuing in the UK (newsflash: it’s like this all year round), enthusiasm for exercise is definitely waning.  Then along came #thisgirlcan to try and get us all out of our comfy PJs and off our sofas (WHY?!), and a few people probably groaned and did as they were told.  And then here comes another problem: we’re doing it wrong.  The media tells us and our bodies tell us, and it puts us off again.  But today’s issue is really easy to get right, and far more important than many women assume.

I’m talking about sports bras.  Whether you’re the proud owner of fried eggs or melons (as an aerobics teacher we had at school put it), you really and truly should be wearing one for anything remotely resembling exercise.  The more-endowed are generally fairly naturally aware of this, as we occasionally bruise ourselves when stumbling down the stairs in a hurry to answer the door early in the morning, yet some still don’t do much about it.  I’m not even sure why, to be honest, because I for one find exercise painful enough without adding ruining my bust to the drama.

Here’s the thing, girls: unfortunately, breasts aren’t made of muscle (life could be fun – if maybe a little awkward – if they were), which means that there’s absolutely no hope for redemption once you do too much damage.  And something I only learned this weekend, is that their motion pattern isn’t a straightforward vertical or horizontal when you break out of anything other than a dawdle: oh no, breasts move in a figure of eight pattern when they jiggle (I was very conscious of this for the first few minutes after I learned it – I began to understand what the fascination is for certain people…).  With those facts in mind, you may want to care for your assets a bit more, but guess what?  You’ll probably get it wrong again.

Many people are aware that “statistically”, most women wear the wrong size bra.  Beware – these statistics even more than usual ones are highly flawed, because they’re generally taken from those who actually know this already, rather than measuring a random sample of women.  However, the point is valid: it can be due to poor measuring, change in size, bad fit or age of bra, but either way, most of us are in the wrong size, which decreases the helpfulness of said garment.  But it’s okay, help is at hand!  Here are my top tips for kitting yourself out:

  1. Admit you need help – congratulations! You have realised that you need to take care of your body.  I would strongly recommend going to a specialist retailer if you can (I don’t mean high street department stores – many of these get it wrong too).  I bought my first “real” sports bras from Less Bounce and haven’t looked back.  If you’re at a show where they happen to be, go and see them!  There are many other good online sports retailers with great advice, but beware the internet…
  2. Be careful – I love the internet, it’s very useful. But it sometimes has too much advice, and with things like clothes and cooking, it can be very confusing.  Because guess what?  A 36D isn’t always a 36D!  Make sure you find a measuring guide which uses your own country’s sizing method, and even then be prepared to be patient in your search…
  3. Get more than you need – check the returns policy of the site you’re ordering from first, but if you’re able to return items, then buy lots of sizes, try them on and send back the ones you don’t need. You probably won’t be able to actually exercise in them, but you should be able to at least figure out what fits.  Sports bras are an investment, and can be pricey, so it’s worth getting it right.  Make sure you do your trying on and returning within the window of opportunity, so that you don’t get charged unnecessarily
  4. Make the right choice – if you regularly do a low-impact exercise and fit into a smaller cup size, you’re not going to need a lot of scaffolding. If, however, your sport of choice is high-impact and you have a larger bust, make sure you don’t just get a glorified crop top.  For several years now, various companies have produced sports bras with underwires, which were a total revelation – they offer greater support and, in my experience, the wires have yet to escape and cause any nasty injuries, yay!  Sports bras have also come a long way in terms of attractiveness (not that this typically matters, but it does make them a more fun purchase these days)
  5. Look after your kit – Less Bounce recommend sports bras shouldn’t have a birthday! Just like helmets and other sports equipment, these things have an expiry, particularly if you’re wearing them daily and washing them in a machine.  Even if (like yours truly) you don’t replace them strictly on time, do make sure you adjust your bra after washing and vigorous activity – bras are not fixed pieces of armour!  They are designed so that they are adjustable, and they therefore tend to do this of their own accord.  If you really can’t be bothered with fixing them all the time, perhaps take a Sharpie to your straps and make a mark where yours are typically adjusted to, but remember that you will change size and shape too, so it’s worth taking the few seconds to make sure it fits every time
  6. Sports bras aren’t just for exercise – I wear mine whenever I visit the yard, even if I know I’m not riding. Inevitably, you end up chasing after some kind of animal, or a stray feed bag, or a child.  And as someone who has taught many beginners over the last couple of years, well that involves some sprinting if you’ve got mischievous horses, excited riders or ones who are just learning to go faster.  Think about what you’re likely to do and dress appropriately.  You wouldn’t go to do turnout in flip flops, would you?

Next time you spot me in the saddle or leading a horse, you’ll know that I’m in my favourite Panache (it’ll take a lot to persuade me into something else) – what will you be wearing?

In the spirit

Some of you are still crying “too soon!” but there’s little you can do about it now: there are only six shopping weekends until Christmas – the annual festive juggernaut is gathering pace, and I’m still excited.  My Christmas season stepped up a gear this week as I attended the Spirit of Christmas fair for the third time.  The event is a pretty insane experience, and I find it fascinating both as an attendee and a former-event manager: the show’s website boasts that attendees have an average household income of £120,000 per year (clearly, they don’t ask me mine, because I’d bring that average down by six figures!), with 71% of their 90,000-strong database coming from the wealthiest ACORN segments in the country (again, I suspect I’ve not been polled).  An easier way to put this into real terms is that I’ve never seen so much Mulberry in one place outside one of the brand’s stores, nor – and this coming from an avid horse rider – have I seen so much tweed worn in a non-ironic way.  If you had a Spirit of Christmas bingo card with “pearl necklace”, “Mulberry handbag”, “driving shoes”, “tweed twinset” and “Dubarry boots” on it, you’d be a winner in no time.

Although what I present here is a slightly comic version of events, it has become an event I enjoy immensely.  I’m a magpie – I love all things sparkly, so this is a fantastic experience for me.  The show seems to gain in popularity year on year, meaning it has become more crowded, but it’s still fun.  I managed to win tickets again this year, thanks to Wue – a jeweller I purchased from last year – running a competition.

As I had previously, I enjoyed wandering around in a state of glitter-induced ecstasy, admiring the beautiful items for sale and gaining lots of inspiration.  I paused for a particularly long time at the Stevenson Brothers stand – in a prime location on the centre aisle – to stroke the stunning rocking horses they make and whisper, “One day” to myself.  I also have a serious lust for the gorgeous lanterns offered by Culinary Concepts, and am currently busy displaying them on the porch of my fantasy home.

This year, my purchases were limited to a dress, some Christmas gifts (the details will have to remain a secret!) and some lovely cheese.  I felt that the food and drink section was smaller this year than it has been previously, but I still managed to sample some great products – a new Canadian apple wine and marmalade vodka being my favourites.

My top tips if you go: if you want to pay via cash, take lots with you – there’s one major cash machine outside the venue and consequently there’s always a queue for it. Of course, there are ATMs inside, but they charge fees. Many delegates take wheeled shopping trolleys – I prefer cotton shopper bags and take my own. Finally, figure out a route for yourself. The fair can seem like a glittery maze and it’s easy to get distracted. Go up and down the rows – you will get back to that attractive stand you walked last as long as you are patient!

My Christmas season has officially been kicked off by my trip: mince pie, tick; Christmas bento box courtesy of Mosimann’s, check.  Bring on the big day!

Step aside, pumpkin – you won’t win my heart

I can already hear you crying, “too soon!”, but I just don’t care.  Christmas is coming and there’s nothing anybody can do about it but prepare, or run and hide under a rock.  I’ll give those of you wishing to do the latter a few seconds… and now I can begin.

I’m in no way religious, but I am a huge fan of festivities.  Anyone who knows me well is aware of my enthusiasm for embracing anything sparkly – often the tackier the better.  When I was a student, one of my housemates returned home following one of the other girls and me getting busy with my tinsel collection and commented that, “it looks like Christmas threw up in here” – which I took as a compliment.

And the retail world gets just as excited as I do about the festive season.  To the point that, prior to my return from the US on 26 September, my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds were already showing glimmers of Christmas, usually accompanied by disgusted comments that it’s too early and that they should put Christmas items away until November.  As much as I enjoy hauling decorations out each year and reminding myself of the story behind them – I collect Christmas ornaments on my travels, having brought three home from my trip this summer – it’s also fun to see what new delights the retailers can come up with in an undoubtedly saturated market.  Here’s my pick of the best so far:

Fortnum and Mason – Twelve Days of Christmas Merry Go Round
Make no mistake, Fortnums is a classy place.  One of the iconic landmarks of London’s Piccadilly, I’ve spent many hours oohing and aahing over their famous displays year-round.  And when they unveil their Christmas windows each year?  Always a treat.  The store launched their Musical Birthday Biscuit Tin to great success (also available in blue, plus nursery rhyme versions for children) – and, yes, I do possess a pink tin – and followed up with a festive edition.  Not only are there three carols to choose from (or collect!), but the tin is beautifully decorated to look like the famous storefront.

This year, there’s a new kid on the block in the musical tin department: macadamia nut and chocolate biscuits covered in spiced chocolate with stem ginger and citrus peel?  Tick.  Cylindrical tin with carousel design featuring the twelve days of Christmas?  Tick.  Key in the base to wind and play the accompanying song?  Tick.  I’ll take several, please and thank you.

New Look – Reindeer Light Up Christmas Jumper
New Look have a great array of novelty outfits and items this year (I will note at this point though, that I draw the line at onesies for anyone over the age of five) but this one instantly got my attention.  I’ve yet to see it lit up, and the website doesn’t mention care instructions other than that the product is man made, but this is on my must-buy list for this season regardless.

It has a reindeer on it!  Which lights up!  Sold.  If I can find a time when it’s in stock.

Pamela Mann courtesy of The Pea’s Knees – selection of festive tights
Last year, I was sad to see that a certain type of tights and leggings became as ubiquitous as the onesie on the high street (ladies – fairisle is lovely.  However, please ensure you wear your tights and leggings with appropriate accompanying dress or skirt), and I fear the same will happen this year.  I am far from against novelty legwear, more the manner in which it is worn.

Behold, my pick of the seasonal tights department – I’m not particularly enamoured with the leaves and berries design offered here, but the Seasons Greetings and Santa Print are more than worth a mention.  I’m hoping these get re-stocked in the coming weeks.

Pets at home – Reindeer hoodie
Let’s not leave the animals in our lives out.  Fancy dress competitions were always a feature of the final horse show of the season when I was little, and I blame that for my continuing fascination with pet sweaters and antlers for cats and dogs.  There are too many gems out there to mention – and that’s without Christmas really going mainstream yet – but I couldn’t let this one go unnoticed.

A reindeer hoodie.  For your dog.  What more could your pet want?

Take a seat, pumpkin spiced goods.  Move over, fireworks.  Christmas is coming and I can’t wait.

Let me know what your favourite festive items are – I’d love to see (and maybe buy) them!