Back to black, sweetie darling
Gucci, Moschino, Gaultier, the most vulgar Versace: Edina Monsoon worked every Nineties fashion fad imaginable. “It’s Lacroix, sweetie, Lacroix” was her tag-line. But Jennifer Saunders, who played the ageing PR exec in sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, wasn’t faking it when she appeared hot and flustered on set. “Eddy wore some amazing stuff but it had to look very pinched, so everything was a size too small for me,” she says. “It was right for the character but it was very annoying for me.”
Haute couture, particularly the garish sort favoured by Eddy, isn’t Saunders’s thing. Her own style, which is more demure and much less constrictive than that of her alter ego, is much admired by our guest editor Miranda Hart. “I splash a bit of colour around but generally I look for black. I think it stems from the Eighties,” Saunders explains, when we meet at private members’ club Home House in London.
She’s stripping off as she talks – unfazed that we’re in a room full of people – out of the dark fur gilet and patterned blouse she has been wearing for a previous shoot (she’s spent the day promoting her book Bonkers: My Life in Laughs) and into a more comfortable black ensemble: a fitted T-shirt, baggy cashmere jumper and skull-print scarf, which she wears over black tailored trousers and her treasured biker boots. “I like wearing a mixture of structured and loose-fitting clothes,” she says, ruffling up her blonde hair. “I could throw a Belstaff jacket over the top or a leather jacket and I’d feel comfortable and edgy.” It’s a dressed-down Hells Angels look, which works on Saunders, with her razor cheekbones and bedhead hair.
As a teenager growing up in Lincolnshire and later in London – her father was in the RAF – Saunders, who is a patron of Chicks, one of the Telegraph’s three Christmas charities, didn’t take style advice from anyone – least of all from her mother, a biology teacher. “No way. Can you imagine?” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Generations didn’t mix in the same way and fashion wasn’t such a big thing. You just bought things from M& S. I grew up either wearing school uniform or riding gear, so I feel very happy in a uniform. Boots, jeans and a dark jacket. I like feeling booted.”
But in her late twenties, when she started to get noticed – first for her eponymous sketch show French and Saunders, which she wrote with Dawn French, and then for Absolutely Fabulous, which starred Joanna Lumley as her best friend Patsy Stone – it began to matter what she wore to parties and awards ceremonies. She called on stylists for help, with limited success. “The problem is they put you in things they think you’d look good in. But unless they fit with your head, you feel ridiculous,” she says. To make matters worse, these stylists would habitually underestimate her dress size. “They say, ‘Oh, you’re a 12,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m telling you I’m a 16.’ And then they’re surprised when whatever they’ve selected for me looks awful. I’d try to tell them that from the start.”
After miserable forays out in public dressed in giant belts and large collars, the wrong kind of shoes and multicoloured jumpers that were at odds with her penchant for dark hues, Saunders’s friend the designer Betty Jackson stepped in. Known for using a lot of black in her collections, Jackson became her style icon, creating numerous outfits for her in the subsequent years. “She was the first person to say, ‘Look, you’ve really got to do something about yourself,’” Saunders explains. “She got me wearing much more tailored lines with narrow shoulders and propercut cleavages, which was great because if you’ve got big bosoms and you’re quite rounded what you actually need is sharper lines rather than flowing stuff.”
Tailored jackets, which can be thrown over anything, now form the basis of her wardrobe, along with the baggy cashmere jumpers, jeans and boots she wears when at home on Dartmoor, where she lives with her husband, Adrian Edmondson, and her three daughters Ella, Beattie and Freya. She’s also invested in a clutch of Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses to wear at the redcarpet events she recently described as “insane beauty pageants”. “They always ask you whose dress you’re wearing. It can’t be your dress. It’s got to be someone else’s,” she says. It’s only since she discovered DVF dresses that the whole experience has become slightly less traumatic, she explains. “They’ve seen me through so many of those occasions. I just wear the same one again and again and dress it up with different shoes and jewellery.”
Did all those years playing Edina influence her style in any way? “Not really, although sometimes I’d put something on and think, Wow, I look quite good in this kind of thing,” she says. “I remember some lovely Moschino jackets and some gorgeous Gaultier: a baggy embroidered silk baseball jacket, which was to die for. I loved it so much that I bought one but it’s lost now. I swear I lent it to one of my daughters but no one has owned up.”
In recent years the girls have become her style gurus, particularly Freya, who studies fashion at Kingston University. “She’s really up on everything and I trust her. I tell her what I’m thinking of wearing and she’ll work it into a style.” Her daughters can also be relied upon to break in her shoes and relieve her of any fashion faux pas. “When I make a horrible error in Zadig & Voltaire I tell myself that if they wear it for a bit I might start liking it,” she says.
The one area in which Edina does seem to have infiltrated Saunders’s psyche is internet shopping. She’s addicted. “I’ve discovered Net-APorter and it’s dangerous,” she says. Recent purchases include a Donna Karan wool polo neck and a Margaret Howell dressing gown. “It’s pure wool and will last forever.” There have been some mistakes, however: jumpers that cling to the bum and a pair of Frye boots that were too small. “You need to click with caution and think hard about the fit,” she warns. “It’s a hassle trekking back to the UPS depot.”
Top of her Christmas list this year is an oversized Stella McCartney jacket. “If I was thinner, I’d wear Stella McCartney all the time,” she says. “I can’t get away with it at the moment. Perhaps if I lose weight in the new year.”
But despite all this talk of designer labels, Saunders insists she’s not too snobbish for the high street. She regularly buys clothes in Exeter, and while in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, a few weeks ago rediscovered Next. She’s yet to return to her old stamping ground, M& S, however. “I’m slightly put off by the adverts,” she says. “There’s something a bit sickly about them, mainly because they didn’t ask me to be in them.”
Any Christmas style advice for her friend Miranda? “No. I think she looks absolutely great. She’s grown into her stardom,” Saunders says. In fact, next week she will be following Miranda’s lead and donning a Christmas jumper for the first time. “It’s red with a reindeer on it. Let’s hope I can carry it off,” she says.
Bonkers: My Life in Laughs is available for £15 + £1.35 p&p from Telegraph Books on 0844 8711514 or books.telgraph.co.uk
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Dressed to the Nineties: comedian Jennifer Saunders keeps it simple in black cashmere with a skullprint scarf; as Edina, far left, she sported giant belts and collars