Meet the most versatile item in my wardrobe
As you probably know, I was already a massive advocate of comfy clothes well before lockdown drove us all to a mild obsession with elasticated waists (I haven’t worn heels for over 10 years and I’m very partial to a pair of dungarees). But I have to admit, I was a bit late to the party when it comes to buffet dresses – partly because when they rose in popularity a couple of years ago I was midway through a year-long shopping ban and I didn’t own one, and partly because I always assumed I was too short to actually wear one – but now I confess to being 100% on board with this most versatile of frocks.
As I learnt on the Great British Sewing Bee a few weeks ago, a buffet dress is a long dress, sometimes tiered, always loose, so named because you could easily eat a massive buffet while wearing one and still feel comfortable around the waist! I think they look especially nice when featuring a print like florals, checks or leopard, and they’re easy to style up all year round: just throw a roll neck underneath or a vintage knitted tank top over the top in the winter. Wear them casually during the day with hiking boots, trainers or Birkenstocks, and dress them up for a wedding with some fancy flats and a slick of lipstick. Any item that is flexible enough to wear to the supermarket and a posh do is a winner in my book.
And because this is a pretty classic style, you may well be able to find a vintage version, like this one from my local store The Velvet Pig. Or if you’re nifty with a needle and thread, you could use some salvaged fabric to make your own (my friend Christine made this fantastic buffet dress using some men’s shirts from a charity shop). Many of my favourite sustainable brands make them too, which is a bonus because these are brands designed by women for women, so they usually come with long sleeves and pockets (essential in my opinion).
Before I launch into some responsible stores you could buy one from, I’ll just add my disclaimer that I don’t want to encourage you to buy anything unnecessarily. If you’ve already got two buffet dresses (like me), you probably don’t need a third (as I have to keep reminding myself!). It’s always good practice to give yourself a couple of days cooling off period after seeing something you love, just to make sure you really want it as much as you thought you did. And please, don’t give your hard earned money to fast fashion brands that don’t care about their garment workers and use planet-unfriendly fabrics. But if you’re looking for a hard working addition to your wardrobe that will see you through wedding season, work dos and even just walking the dog, here are some planet and people-friendly options from some lovely small ethical brands.
The dress I’m wearing in the top image is from lovely British label Justine Tabak. It’s not cheap, but I hardly buy any clothes anymore so I am happier to splash out on a really special item than I used to be, and I’ve easily worn it enough times to get the cost-per-wear down to a reasonable amount. I love it so much I also bought the checked version (above), which is made from deadstock fabric.
At 5ft2 (I recently found out I am a whole inch shorter than I always thought I was!) I was a bit unsure whether this would work on my frame, but it’s the absolute perfect fit. I always, without fail, feel brilliant wearing this dress. The sleeves are slightly cropped so it doesn’t look like I’m wearing something that’s too big for me (a problem I have had with long sleeve dresses in the past) but I do have to lift the hem, as if I’m in a period drama, when walking up the stairs, something which I must confess I rather enjoy doing! Justine Tabak does lots of different shapes of dress; this is the ‘Camden Passage’ and comes in 8 different prints. £245 justinetabak.co.uk
Albaray is a new brand I found through Instagram (curating your feed by unfollowing fast fashion accounts is a great way of discovering new and independent sustainable brands via targeted advertising) and I absolutely love the designs. Dresses are made from responsible fabrics including organic cotton and ECOVERO™ viscose, which is a type of viscose made using sustainably sourced wood pulp and produced using environmentally friendly techniques.
It’s great to see new brands like this popping up and using fabrics like these – the price of sustainable viscose seems to be falling from where it was a few years ago, presumably thanks to more and more companies choosing to use it. The knock-on effect is that the price of the end product is also really reasonable. £86, albaray.co.uk
Another new brand, Omnes has some serious cottagecore vibes going on with this square neck, puff sleeve dress. But if the square neck’s not for you, you’ll find buffet dresses with V-necks and high necks, too. The prints are bright and jolly, and the fabrics are environmentally friendly.
I also discovered that the Omnes designer, Freya, is an upcycling wizard in her own right. Head to her Instagram account to see her lovely designs, which are often made from vintage sleeping bags and duvets. She’s definitely one to watch; some of her creations are available to hire from the Hurr pop-up in Selfridges and she recently did a sale with one of my favourite vintage stores, One Scoop. £75, omnes.com
If ever a fashion label encapsulated pure joy, it’s Kemi Telford. Brimming with the personality of its founder, Yvonne (pictured), the sunny prints and patterns are really something to make you smile. I bought a floral print skirt last summer which I adore, not just because it has an elastic waist and pockets, but because you can’t fail to feel happy when wearing it.
And of course, Kemi Telford is a brilliant destination for a fabulous buffet dress. Loads of shapes, an abundance of colours and plenty of use of deadstock fabric. This orange gingham beauty is also available in blue. £120, kemitelford.com
Molby The Label
This cult brand can’t have failed to have caught your eye on Instagram, with its candy colour gingham dresses that just make you want to pack a picnic and head to the park pronto! Everything is made to order by hand (they take up to 5 hours to make), which reduces waste and means there isn’t a load of stock hanging around waiting to be bought. I think we’ll see more and more brands following this model, since it benefits everyone in the long run.
Something else you can pick up at Molby is hair accessories, made from the scraps left over after the dresses are made. There are some amazing oversized bows (anyone my age might also refer to these as ‘Fergie bows’) but my favourites are the scrunchies. Again, I’ve seen lots of brands doing this – it’s a lovely way to make good use of something that would otherwise end up in the bin. Dress, £140, molbythelabel.com