Welcome to the latest highly exciting instalment of Who What Wear UK’s Best Wardrobes in Britain. It’s where we do exactly what it says on the tin: delve into the most fantastical, awe-inspiring, and downright influential wardrobes in this fair country of ours. We’re honing in on the women who cause the street style photographers to press their shutters as much as the characters you don’t yet know—the ones who fly under the radar with secretly incredible clothing collections.
This year, there has been an outpouring of nostalgic adoration for countryside living. After months spent indoors, the idea of decamping to a country pile in rural England has never seemed so charming. Rightmove reported that there was a 126% increase in searches in June and July for houses in villages, and this rural renaissance is not only seen in where we choose to live but how. City dwellers have also been reveling in wholesome activities from baking sourdough and pressing flowers to travelling exclusively by bicycle and hosting meticulously art-directed picnics. Unsurprisingly, this adoration of nature and a slower pace of living quickly became a social media trend named Cottagecore, and Norfolk-based Paula Sutton has been crowned queen of this aesthetic.
Sutton moved to her beautiful Georgian home in Norfolk over 10 years ago after working in the fashion industry in London. She created her blog and Instagram account Hill House Vintage in an attempt to stay connected, as she initially felt isolated in her new remote lifestyle. Her images present a romantic view of village life. We'll see her skipping through her front lawn with baskets of sunflowers and hosting garden parties that look straight out of Country Life magazine. However, she never intends her images to be extravagant or boastful and has put together her luxurious manor-style interior by rummaging through car-boot sales and vintage markets. Her motto is "to live as beautifully as you can," and this applies to how she gets dressed, too. She'll wear 1950s-style midi dresses and pearls on dog walks.
Her Instagram page has been a lockdown fantasy for many, so it was only fitting that Sutton was the first person we photographed for our Best Wardrobes in Britain franchise this summer. In true Hill House Vintage style, we took her wardrobe outdoors, hanging her heels and dresses on a stepladder, and staged an afternoon tea on her front lawn. Keep scrolling for a glimpse inside Sutton's fabulous wardrobe and the story behind how she became a fashion influencer in her 50s.
On Paula: Son de Flor dress; Paul Smith brogues; Boden sunglasses
When did you first start blogging?
We moved here in January 2010, and it was one of those horrible winters where the snow was 10 feet high. And we thought, "What the hell have we done?" You couldn’t use the cars hardly, and the schools were shut, and it was really isolated. I started my blog that year because of the isolation, and it was a lifeline for me. I didn’t know anyone here, and it gave me a community without having to leave my house. At first, it was all about interiors until a year ago. I only showed myself once a year on my birthday, whereas in the last two years, I have been showing myself wearing clothes more. The fashion influencer side really crept up on me. I started a YouTube channel where I was on it a lot, but I was teaching and telling people things, so that felt natural having me in it. I felt like I was speaking to my friends and family. People started saying "Show us more of you on Instagram," so I started to little by little. Then at one point, I noticed I started getting more likes and engagement when I appeared in pictures than anything else, so it encouraged me to do it more. I find it really weird because it was never meant to be a fashion account, even though I love fashion, but it’s grown in that way.
How did you build your confidence to share more of yourself on Instagram?
It came with age. When I arrived here, I just turned 40, and now I’m 50, so it’s been a decade. Something happened to me after 45, and I started to relax and stopped trying to be fashionable or part of something cool, not that I thought I was before 45. But I just stopped caring, and a more eccentric side of me came out. I’m not adventurous, but I’ll wear dresses gardening and wear full 1950s gear to the shops. I don’t dress totally retro, but I always have an air of a different era. The confidence came with not caring if I stood out or looked a bit odd. The longer it’s gone on the more I’m twirling and doing ballet poses—who knows what’ll happen when I’m 60! But I’m enjoying it, and it’s fun, and that’s the most important thing."
You worked in fashion before moving to the countryside. How did you start, and what roles did you do?
My first job out of uni was a work experience at a PR agency helping with London Fashion Week. Then, I did work experience at Elite Model agency, and then I went on to become the head of press. Then, I was bookings editor at Elle magazine. It was the supermodel era when I worked at Elite, so that was incredible. Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford were both with the agency at the time. When Elizabeth Hurley did the whole pin dress, she needed celebrity representation, and she came into the office. You just saw the most amazing people! You’re goggle-eyed at these fashion parties because, although you work with these people, so it should be normal, they were just a different breed of human. They were so glamorous and athletic. As part of my job, I would fend off any calls and organise interviews, and I organised the Elite Look of the Year, which was a big annual competition.
It was that era when you could wing it a bit. I was a work experience and then was taken on as an assistant. I pretended I knew what I was doing, and I suddenly became the head of press after being there for seven months. It was a mad time. I have always been an organiser, and that was the same when I was a bookings editor at Elle. Most of my career was helping other people explore their creativity, and I was the building blocks behind that, and now this is wonderful, as it’s my creativity after years of seeing and watching things.
On Paula: Anna Mason shirt and skirt; Miu Miu shoes that are 15 years old
Has posting outfits on your Instagram account made you even more interested in clothes?
I’ve always been interested in clothes and had a good wardrobe. I have lots of things my girls are salivating and waiting for, but I’ve now starting to wear them again, just when they thought their time was coming! When I first moved here, I did go through a period of doing the dog walk in my husband’s jumpers and jeans, and because I gave up my career, I wasn’t sure what I’d do with myself. I knew I wanted to work and do something, but I didn’t want to do it away from home, and I went through a period of self-exploration, of "Who am I? What will I do? What is my role here?" Being a housewife is wonderful, and if that’s your choice, that is brilliant. That is a lot of my role here, but I also wanted to earn money because I always have and have enjoyed doing it. So I went through a few years where I wasn’t sure how I’d make it work here, but I came out of that by starting to wear makeup and dress up again, and I rediscovered who I was. I realized I could do the dog walk in makeup and pearls, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
How have you found returning to working in fashion?
When I left London, I thought I was leaving anything to do with fashion behind. I was okay with that at the time. I didn’t mourn the loss of that. I remember when I was at Elle and meeting someone who said “I used to be at Vogue,” and I found it sad she was so eager to tell me that. Then, I spent the last 10 years going, “I used to be at Elle!” You feel like you’re getting so far away from it, so you have to prove your relevance. I’m now not having to prove that I did something interesting once because there’s interest in my life again, and that is a wonderful thing. I get her now. You do sometimes feel like you’re disappearing. When you’re in the fashion industry in your 20s and 30s, it’s so exciting, and you feel so lucky, and when you leave it behind, you do feel a moment of loss and that your identity goes a bit. I was thrown when I left even though I wasn’t wanting to keep up with it. It’s now so lovely that my audience is young adults. I could have never guessed that would happen.
On Paula: Rochas dress; Balenciaga shoes
How did you dress when you worked in the modelling agency in the '80s?
I have always had a retro feel to my outfits. When I was younger, I wore lots of 1950s pencil skirts and always wore heels but stopped wearing them when I moved here and got a dog. It was very much running around and catching cabs in heels, and I used to love playing with fashion. And when I worked at magazines, I was always in the fashion cupboard playing dress up!
Has your style changed since moving to the countryside?
I’ve always been into a slightly retro aesthetic although it used to be more 1950s screen siren-y, but I have always loved tweeds and chunky cardigans and have always worn jodhpurs that look like old breeches. I’ve always had theatre in how I dress. There was a time when Prada and Miu Miu used to do granny chic, so when I was 30, I dressed like an old granny, and that was quite cool. Now, I dress the same, but I’m that age. I’ve grown into my clothes now! And now, I only wear flat shoes—either men's style brogues or wellington boots.
On Paula: Isabel Marant jacket; COS dress and shoes
Have you always loved the countryside aesthetic?
My mother was always into Country Life magazine, and I’d look at these proper estates and dream of the country houses and the massive fireplaces. I’ve always been into that sort of interior. I don’t agree with hunting, but I love the look of all of that and was desperate when I was younger to ride side-saddle. On my first day of university in Bristol, I wore a tweed jacket, jodhpurs and dressed like I was in National Velvet.
I’m a Londoner through and through. Before my parents left to go back to live in Grenada, we had a house in South London in an area called Sanderstead. It is Greater London but a pocket away from the busy side. It’s very near Croydon but has an other-worldly feel, and our house was a very old Edwardian house, which was odd for London, so gave it the air of being in the countryside. I wanted to have that lifestyle again for my children, which I did.
On Paula: Rixo skirt; Jigsaw cardigan; Prada shoes that are 19 years old
How do you find having a big following on Instagram?
I have found it to be incredibly supportive, and they get my humour. A lot of what I post is meant to be taken with humour. I got sent some dresses from a brand called Little Women Atelier, and they literally base their clothes on the characters in Little Women. So the clothes are 1830s-ish American puff-sleeve dresses. There’s a photo of me reading a book in front of the house in that dress, and it’s so nice that people understand that I’m playing a character. Of course, I don’t hold an apple like that or read a book like that, but I love creating an image, and it’s like my version of art. This Instagram account is amazing for me to get my creativity out, and my followers, on the whole, tend to see that. I’m creating images that I find beautiful, which is why I play with my shapes and pose in front of my house, as I love the symmetry of the Georgian house. I love styling the tables and my house. The fashion has become an extra bit of styling for the interior.
Do you buy a lot of vintage clothing or mainly second-hand interiors?
I have a few trophy pieces, like a Dior jacket that I have as a beautiful piece of art almost, and I buy vintage tweed jackets and waistcoats. My autumn-winter clothes tend to be more vintage, as I wear men's clothes in winter and a lot of vintage tailoring.
Where do you shop the most?
I have found so many brands from being on Instagram, and I’m finding lots of little niche slow-fashion brands like Cabbages & Roses, Son de Flor, and Little Women Atelier. I still have fun shopping, but I know myself very well now, so it’s very rare that I will send anything back. I don’t buy lots, and when I buy things, I know exactly what I like. I don’t want to wear a new dress every time I take a photograph because I have never been that sort of influencer. But I do love fashion, so there is a balance to achieve.
What are the items you love the most in your wardrobe?
I used to be a shoe addict. I will take them out and try them on, and I’ll get such enjoyment from that. I just don’t go to parties in that way or live the life I used to live when working in fashion. But they are my favorite things in my wardrobe. And then now dresses too, I suppose. At the moment, I’m more known during the summer, but in the winter, I revert back to tweed and corduroy. In the summer, I’m Grace Kelly, and in the winter, I’m a hobbit! I love all the tweeds and brogues, and it becomes real country living, so I have just as much fun.
Do you ever find being on social media overwhelming?
I just have fun now. Through the period of fast growth, it was overwhelming. It has come at a time when my children are getting old again, and so I’m getting my time back a lot more now, and it’s very time consuming. Especially being an older social media person, there’s no end to it. I look forward to being 75 and being in dresses and on social media. It makes you realise there is no closed door. My message is have fun, be eccentric—wear the jodhpurs and the pearls. Don’t worry, and don’t follow fashion. I’ve been in it and enjoyed it, but I’ve never been a slave to what’s in. I personally prefer to look different anyways.
Do you try to keep a lot of your life private and be careful about what you share?
I think people think they know me a lot more than they do. I keep a lot private and think sometimes it’s best not to say too much. I showed my son on his birthday, and that was in keeping with Black Lives Matter, and I had a message. I keep my family private because I feel like it’s not fair on them to share pictures of them. I work very visually, so it’s all about the interior or how my dresses and clothes look in the interior. That’s what it is. I’m not a family blogger. I’m not talking about what they do every day. It’s meant to be an inspirational account—inspiring people to dress up and eat your sandwich with nice vintage china and to use your best things every day because life is too short.
You mentioned that people often have a very grand idea of your lifestyle and think you live on an estate. How do you find that?
I think because so much fashion is sexualised, so I’m a bit of a mystery. When they see a house on its own like this and me dressed in a very old-fashioned way, they fill in the gaps and build in a whole lifestyle around it based on things they’ve seen in films or read in books. I’m always amazed at what people think they know about me. I don’t claim to be anything special, but there’s a lot of comfort in the nostalgic view of my life, and so people run with it and imagine me hosting banquets. I love showing my vintage shopping expeditions, and I’ll show people that my plates cost 50p and that tablecloth is an old piece of fabric. You can make life beautiful on a budget very easily. If people read my captions, they’ll understand that, but if they just look at the pictures, they’ll have a different conclusion of what I am about and what I’m showing. It’s all about the thrift. I have to be careful and not say "woe is me" because it is a privilege to be able to have this house, so I have to make sure I have that balance right. It’s not about being extravagant and showing off but about living within your means and as beautifully as you can.
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Thanks for having us, Paula!