I don’t want to read one more word reassuring women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies that we can wear anything we want—as long as it isn’t shorts, miniskirts, bare-midriff tops, puff sleeves, elderly prints, or clunky shoes. A list of taboos isn’t kind or useful. It makes me feel that I’m walking a tightrope between teenybopper and grandma, as if those were the only two available options.
I already know I don’t want to look ditsy, as if I’m trying, vainly, to seem younger (please spare me the sight of women in very short skirts topped by graven, lived-in faces—like a game of Hangman gone wacko). And although appropriate may be the way to go if one is being vetted for the Supreme Court or addressing a political convention, I don’t want it to be the theme of an entire dreary closet. Think Colette, not Ruth Bader Ginsberg (much as I admire her).
Agnes B, the French designer (I worship her stuff–it seems to go on for years–even though the largest size, a 3, barely fits me. Frenchwomen have teensy shoulders, like Cornish game hens), once said that she wanted her mother to be able to wear any of the clothes she designed. Her things manage for the most part to be chic, cool, and unfussy, as well as cross-generational.
Which suits me. I want to look exactly the age I am (just turned 65)—no older, no younger—and exactly who I am, too.
Some of the well-worn rubrics about “mature” style are correct, of course. Like: Not wearing a lot of makeup, particularly on eyelids that are verging on crepey (of that, more in the coming months). Or: Being careful about sleeveless if your upper arms are flabby (see my blog for yet another reason that we need to do weight work). But for the most part I think the styles prescribed for ladies over 50—neutral, functional, respectable–are the fashion equivalent of the term senior, which I hate. Invented in 1938 (it used to be senior citizen and then, like everything else, got abbreviated), it is supposed to sound tactful and respectful (as opposed to ancient, an adjective that at least possesses a little drama and weight). The French “une femme d’un certain age” (“woman of a certain age”) is elegant, but, let’s face it, euphemistic. What’s wrong with old? Bring it back. It’s a good word that has been cast down and muddied.
Here are some thoughts that may go against what we’ve been told is correct if you are old (and older).
Wear black all the time if you want to. Who cares? Why are women always being pushed to be cheerful? It’s like the idea that we’re supposed to smile constantly. Being serious or even depressed is okay; wearing dark colors is okay. I don’t hear about heads of state being encouraged to “experiment with color.” (However, a little white or pink or something near the face is, I admit, flattering, especially if you are really pale, like me. You can do this with a shirt or scarf.)
Hang loose. Fit, schmit. I love all things elasticized and drawstring. I’m not talking tents (although if you like them, be my guest—the right kind can be sort of wonderful and opulent). I am simply more comfortable in a cut that isn’t tight. Skinny jeans or cinch belts may look better, but how relevant is that if I can’t breathe, eat, or walk down the street without major chafing?
Take chances. Don’t dress scared. Judicious risks are good. Show your legs if they’re well shaped (mine are hanging in there, as long as they are encased in tights or leggings), though I don’t think a wrinkled poitrine exposed to the world is particularly attractive. Wear weird earrings (but not a weird earring and a really peculiar necklace). Mix prints (make sure they involve similar colors). I saw an older woman with green hair the other day, and she made me happy. The color was too bright to be entirely flattering, but it was so brave and outrageous.
Mess things up. I don’t mean you should be messy. There is a fine line between nonchalant and bag-lady, and while young women (unfair, but there it is) can afford artfully uncombed hair, un-ironed blouses, falling-apart jeans, I just look as if I’ve lost my marbles. However, it exudes anxiety to have things too neat and coordinated (a relentless matcher from way back, I learned this and much else from creative director Adam Glassman of O, the Oprah Magazine). So: Combine colors that aren’t supposed to “go”; let’s say you’re wearing two colors and you throw in a third in your shoes or bag (this is for those who are not dressing entirely in black).Rough up a tailored jacket with leggings or jeans or a denim shirt. Try a blouse or tank in a “fancy” fabric with cargo pants. Wear high-tops or rugged boots with something ladylike. With green hair (see above) you could wear the dowdiest thing and you’d look cool.
Keep up with yourself, not with fashion. It’s easy to give away clothes that don’t fit anymore or that are worn out. The tough ones are the garments you once loved and wore a lot, but which haven’t been on your back much lately. Deciding about those is largely a matter of understanding what your life and looks are like at the moment (as opposed to ten or even five years ago, when you bought whatever-it-is). I ask myself, Does that look like me now? When I left my office job, I still had a lot of jackets (some, admittedly, with linebacker shoulders). It took me a few years (quite a few years) to acknowledge that I wasn’t going to wear them again, even if I got another staff job. My style had moved on without my knowing it.
Stay out of uniform. A lot of experts recommend that you come up with a basic everyday outfit, which you then vary with accessories. I like the simplicity of this, the time-savingness. But once, long ago, when I did wear an actual uniform—I worked for a veterinarian and had two white polyester dresses, which I alternated, white stockings, and white nursie shoes–I was bored out of my skull. I think if a uniform grows organically (you find yourself seeking out the same colors and lines because you like yourself in them), that’s fine. But fashion, or so I like to think, isn’t just an addiction. It’s a creative outlet—a means of defining my identity. Maybe it is even natural, an offshoot of the ritualistic courting behavior (and coloration) of birds and beasts. To throttle it with a uniform seems wrong.
The urge to self-decorate doesn’t go away as you get older. What goes away is the fearlessness of youth, the sense that you can get away with anything. So I would like to propose a new form of fashion courage—the kind that comes into play in the over-65 years, when you are free to say, “To hell with it.” When you feel at last that in your final few decades you have a right to look the way you want. When you drop all disguises and costumes and discover the clothes that are closest to your heart. When your own sensibility, not the latest trends, guides your choices. That’s where I’m headed.