‘I don't think I am an icon,’ Mary Berry nonchalantly tells me as we speed from one appointment to another in the back of a car. ‘People just seem to like what I’m wearing because I’m bothering.’ She’s promoting her autobiography, as well as filming series four of The Great British Bake Off when we meet to talk fashion – and that moment in September 2012 when, sporting a £29.99 Zara floral bomber jacket, the Queen of Cakes gave the Queen of Shops a run for her money.
‘My mother dressed well and was never scruffy,’ the award-winning writer and broadcaster adds. ‘She certainly had style. She would think about what she was wearing, so everything was coordinated.’
An innate attention to detail blossomed during series three of Bake Off, when Mary’s wardrobe of bright cashmere sweaters, natty floral scarves and jackets gained popularity. But her headline-grabbing foray into high-street fashion turned what she was wearing – down to the way she tied her scarves – into a national obsession. And here I must admit that, even after a personal scarf-tying tutorial, I still haven’t mastered Mary’s nifty way of creating a scarf knot (though the instructions below make it much easier).
Mary was ‘flabbergasted by the fuss’ made over a jacket chosen purely for practical reasons. ‘I have to confess that the main reason I chose the floral bomber (right) was because it looked warm. I am drawn to bright colours, but when I saw it my first thought was, “Ooh yes, lots of room for a jumper”. I get very cold while filming. I wear thermals, too – I have them altered with a bigger scoop in the neckline, so they can’t be seen under my jumper.’
An attitude to style
With 60 years’ cooking behind her, it’s not surprising that Mary prefers the focus to be on her culinary talent, not her cashmere collection. ‘I’m a perfectionist in my career, but not in other areas of my life. I’d wear the same things every day given half a chance. Clothes have never been a priority – I wear scarves because they’re cosy and they cover a scraggy neck.’
‘Her attitude to style is fantastic,’ points out fashion expert Caryn Franklin. ‘The clothes serve her, not the other way around – she is vocal about her choices being based on practicality and functionality.’
The success of the show (Bake Off’s viewing figures for the last series peaked at 7.2 million) and an eye-catching bomber jacket propelled Mary into the world of celebrity style. ‘When she wore that jacket, everyone saw her in a new light,’ says psychologist Professor Karen Pine. ‘We all have a personal style, closely tied to our identity. We tend to buy clothes similar to those we already have – or similar to those other people like us wear. We have a clothing comfort zone. But things around us change: our lifestyles, roles and our bodies.’
In an era when female TV presenters over a certain age are largely invisible, there’s something incredibly refreshing about a septuagenarian being allowed to do her own thing on primetime TV.
‘There are so few older women in the media and women love to see her,’ Franklin says. ‘Her look is one of the things they can fix on – she is inspiring just by being in the media.’
The rarity of the situation is not lost on Mary. ‘It is terrific in one’s twilight years to have something like Bake Off and the wonderful opportunities it has brought me. This is one of the most exciting times of my life – and how many other people, at the age of 78, are lucky enough to say that?
‘The biggest surprise has been the lovely things people have written about my clothes. No one is more astonished than I am when I open a magazine to find people saying complimentary things about what I’m wearing. I couldn’t believe it when The Guardian listed me as number two in The 50 best-dressed over-50 list. I just thought, good gosh, they should see me slopping about in tracksuit bottoms!’
Comfort and warmth
When it comes to her on-screen wardrobe, Mary confesses that although comfort and warmth are still a priority, the media attention has had an impact. ‘Initially I was quite happy to drift into the background, but I’ve become increasingly confident with my look and now I wear much more colour.’ She does, though, acknowledge the influence of her co-stars.
‘I wear jeans on Bake Off because they’re so practical – when I’m dashing about they’re liable to have some sponge mix on them – but also because I don’t like being different. Mel and Sue [the presenters] both wear jeans so I do too, usually a pair from Marks. That’s a bit silly isn’t it? But I do like to fit in with the pack. I wouldn’t wear them otherwise – maybe during the day, or if I’m going to a barbecue. I’m a little sad about the excessive wearing of jeans because I like dressing up to go out for lunch or somewhere special – that’s all to do with my age. And I never wear jeans and heels. I don’t want to be mutton.
‘I love heels but for Bake Off, I wear comfortable flat shoes. I do like knee boots, but not with very high heels – ones you can wear all day. Unlike my mother, who would not wear flat shoes; even when she was 105 she would still wear heels!’
Change your clothing
Maintaining that she never bothered with fashion before Bake Off, a late flourish in what was an already outstanding career has influenced Mary’s working wardrobe and turned the BBC’s ‘doyenne of baking’ into a grown-up style inspiration. ‘When an older woman feels she’s becoming invisible or blending into a beige background, she should grab the equivalent of Mary’s bomber jacket,’ advises Karen Pine. ‘Swap the quilted jacket for a leather one. Change stimulates the brain cells, keeps the mind supple, lifts the spirits and keeps you young. And it can all start with a single item of clothing.’
With fashion as with food, Mary recognises the importance of the perfect finish. ‘Because of close-ups on Bake Off, I have acrylic nails with gel. And I wear spray tan on my face. I do love cashmere – I machine wash at 30° – and if I’m not in a polo neck I usually wear a scarf or Susie Pringle faux pearls. These days I have to be careful not to leave the house looking too scruffy.’ Taking the style status in her nimble stride, she adds, ‘I need 12 outfits for Bake Off and people would be bored if I wore the same outfit every week.’
Get the look How Mary ties THAT scarf knot
1. Twist and fold the scarf in half
2. Drape around neck with looped end on one shoulder
3. Pull one side under and through loop
4. Pull other side over and through loop
5. Tighten and fluff
Mary Berry's autobiography Recipe for Life: The Autobiography is out now (Michael Joseph, £20).