Thursday, December 09, 2010

Middle-Aged Style

So I was thinking about why style is such a problem for women over 50. If I asked you, right now, to shut your eyes and picture an attractive style for middle-aged women, what would you see? If you're like me, what you'd see is a bunch of stuff you *wouldn't* expect to find in the closet of, say, you. Or me. Why is it that all fashion is designed (and modeled) by teenagers made up to look 20 ( = the freshest bloom of youth, but not a kid)?


This morning I realized that the problem is that clothing for women is a very, very odd business. For the most part, fashion for us is designed to do one very important thing: make us look young and sexy and available for reproduction.(Of course, that changes constantly on the whims and greed of fashion designers.) I'm a biological reductionist (my own term, but I love it)--I think you can reduce most things in life to pure biology. Not everything, sure, and sometimes you have to REALLY reduce it, but at its core, all of life is about reproduction and survival.


[This reminds me of something the lovely Melissa Zink said to me about art: that there is the possibility that, at its core, art-making is about "showing off for a desirable sexual partner." Think of the bowerbird
as an example from nature.]


So if the goal is to create fashion that makes women look young:




and sexy:
then what happens when we reach the age where society gives up on that, when we can no longer appear "young" in that nubile, gamin way, and where much of society has completely written off our sexuality, since we're no longer available for reproduction? What then? How convenient that many of us get fat and depressed and no longer care much about how we look, if we ever did, and don't feel like we have the right to dress in ways that make us happy. That's why you find rack after rack of boring, colorless, shapeless, frankly ugly outfits for Women Like Us.


(you can take off and do a search of the web for all kinds of musings about the meanings of women's fashion. Here's one to get you started.)


You end up having no idea what to wear. Oh, sure, if you don't care about clothes, it's easy. Jeans and a t-shirt. My standard, all-my-life-until-I-die first choice in clothing? Levi's 501's and a cotton shirt. That's what I'm wearing now, and that's what I wear at some point every day and have for as far back as I can remember. Easy peasy.


But what if you love clothes and love style (as opposed to fashion) and like creating outfits with color and life and zing? Where do you start if you're over 50?


Good question. I see women in their 40's wearing things that frighten me. High-heeled shoes with lacy ankle socks. Bows. But then, those things scare me, anyway. They scared me when I was a kid and had to wear them to church, never mind that I was, hello! A Kid. But adult women? Eeeek. I think about why it bothers me, and what it keeps coming back to is the signals clothes like that send:  I'm innocent, I'm young, I'm cute-n-sexy in a very non-threatening, non-Adult-Woman kind of way. 


I hate that. I don't mind being called "cute." I use "cute" all the time. I refer to my husband as "cute." Also some trucks, various buildings, bald men. It's kind of a go-to descriptor. But I don't like the "cute-and-innocent, aw-gee-whiz" thing in adult women. The word doesn't bother me; the attitude does. Yeah, yeah, maybe I need to find a better, more specific word. Right. I'll get on that.


All of this fascinates me. I go back again and again to blogs that show middle-aged women's style, trying to see what aesthetic guides them and how they react to society's rules for what's OK and what's pathetic, what's gross and what's brave and bold.


I have no idea. On the one hand, I think we should all be out there wearing whatever we want to wear, all the time, every day. I really believe that.


On the other hand, I know I wince when I see someone roughly my age wearing a mini dress or short shorts or lacy socks or a big bow on her head. I don't like it that it bothers me, but, in truth, it seems very pathetic to me, and I'm still trying to figure out why. I think it's because I fear that they don't realize that they're not 20. Which is stupid on my part. Of course they do. 


Then I see someone like this, Bridget Sojourner:


from Ari Seth Cohen's fabulous blog, Advanced Style, and I'm thrilled. Sure, she looks "old." We look at her face and her clothes and see incongruity. I think that's good for us. It forces us to stop and think about our own prejudices. Did you look at her and find your first thought was one of wondering if she realizes her age? Did you look at her skin and wonder if she knows what it looks like? Why do we do that? 


[Why do we think about the skin on our upper arms and our necks and our elbows? Why did Nora Ephron write I Feel Bad About My Neck
and say that "The neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies, and our necks are the truth"? I haven't read the book, but it was mentioned recently in the NYT along with the reviews and mentions of her latest book, I Remember Nothing (I don't read Ephron because celebrity name-dropping makes me gnash my teeth and she seems rather enthralled by the famous people she's known). The title caught my attention because I think about my neck all the time. Oh, sure--my neck has wrinkles in the skin (I just went in and looked to see, since this isn't something to which I pay a lot of attention)--but that's not what I think about. I don't think about what's going on on the outside of my neck; I think about what's going on with the arthritis on the inside of my neck. And as long as I can still turn my head and can have as little pain as possible, thanks to often-twice-weekly visits to the chiropractor and daily exercises, I'm not much concerned what the outside looks like to other people. I'm trying to keep from having to have surgery on the inside; surgery for the outside seems like complete lunacy. From what I glean, that outside part concerns Ephron and her friends quite a lot. In my search, I found this response to Ephron and an interview on NPR. I love this piece by Margaret M. Gullette.


I was so intrigued by Bridget and my reaction to this photo that I checked further, and I found this that Ari wrote after he first met her:


"At 72, Bridget is full of life and energy. She gets stopped all over the world for her fun and fashionable attire and she revealed, "As a young girl no one stopped me. I was quite like a lot of young girls. Now I'm unusual because I'm older.

Bridget had a long career as a health educator, but has always been interested in fashion. As a young girl she copied folios from Balenciaga and Schiaparelli and dreamed of being a designer, nun and actress. She fused these passions together as an educator, interested in peace and development. Her colorful wardrobe is almost a political statement. She says, 

"When people started stopping me about my clothes I thought, I've been through feminism, racism, all the prejudices. I'm an activist and Ageism is the last bastion." She thought about how to fight ageism and the idea that older people have to vanish in society by becoming a model in her 70s."


Go here to read the rest and see more photos of Bridget. Pay attention to your reactions. What do you think?


I have no solution here. I have no advice about how to dress after 50. I don't think there should be any advice, not in the sense of Rules of Middle-Aged Style. Sure, I don't want to see women my age looking ridiculous, but then:  what is "ridiculous," and what does it mean that we can even label anything that way? See? It's all very, very odd.


I wish there were many, many more places where we could see women over 50 dressed fabulously, with a sense of who they are and what they love. I would love that--just page after page of women--and men--who have found their own style and love it. Advanced Style is great, but I always want MORE.


So here's what it comes down to for me:  I'd like everyone--women and men at any age--to take control of their ideas about clothing and style and aging and how they look. I don't mean I want them to say, "Screw it. I'm not going to bath or exercise or take care of myself, and I'm going to spend the rest of my life in this t-shirt from the AC/DC concert I went to when I was 17. Phbbbtttt." I mean I want them to figure out what makes them happy, what cheers them up when they put it on their bodies. Like I said, I don't know. On the one hand, you'd think, "Fishnets after 50? Oh, no, no, no." On the other hand, I'm betting there's someone out there who's making them work in a totally fabulous way.

14 comments:

see you there! said...

My first thought when I looked at the photo was "great colors". I'm well over 50 and find lots of choices in clothes/styles. I don't own a pair of sweat pants or a jogging suit (shudder). My problem is shoes. (Foot problems.) I won't wear those ugly beige things with velcro straps but finding something suitable takes some searching.

Darla

Jonni in Phoenxi said...

How funny, I look at your 'style' and wish I could pull it off!! My style for most of my life, is jeans and t-shirts. I dress the jeans up when I need to in my 'go to church sunday' clothes.

Zom said...

I am on this journey with you. I think this is a fascinating subject.

It is not only that I am "past" looking sexy, it is that I am not interested. My goal is fun expression not attracting a mate.

I have always liked to dress casually and unconventionally. I still want to. When I read articles about how to dress over 50 I get the message to go more expensive and elegant. I have never felt comfortable with elegant -and can't afford 'good fabrics and tailoring'.

And what I thought when I saw the picture? I thought she looked great.

postal orphan said...

The first thing I noticed was the colors, too - I didn't even "realize" her age until I looked more closely. Maybe because the way the scarf was tied around most of her hair. And to me her outfits (on the other blog) don't seem too young for her - they're clean and modern. And she looks so comfortable and confident in those clothes. I think it depends in part on the wearer and in part on what's being worn. I'm a jeans and tennies kinda gal myself, although I would love to be comfortable enough in my skin to wear some of the outfits she's pictured in (I especially love the blue and green with the painted hiking boots).

Megan Noel said...

i think anyone looks better when the dress to suit their body type rather than to wear what is "in". and it can be tricky if your body type changes - you have to figure things out all over again. i see women in their 40s and 50s who actually do have the body to wear skinny jeans and slinky black dresses (i am not one of them). i actually think they'd like more stylish if they opted for something more sophisticated. they have gathered decades of life, experience, living, style, over their 20 year old daughters. i want to somehow see that reflected in what they wear.

kerin rose said...

I suppose I am an " odd one"...my first thought was that she looked absolutely gorgeous!

Anonymous said...

My first thought was that her arms were far too flabby and saggy with poor skin tone to wear a sleeveless top. Second thought was that it was a cool color combo.

Karen Cole said...

I loved this piece!!!
I happen to be in New York with friends at the moment. Last night we were out holiday shopping and we ran into a little shop that sold the most fabulous little outfits all handmade and that "meant for the younger set" look.

Always having dressed in an "artful" way my entire live, I decided....since I will turn 60 next year, that if you only choose a piece or two that is full of funkability, since I'll be damned if I am going to give it up all together and mix it with the boring stuff they think you should wear you will look "interesting" and not ridiculous.

Kym said...

When you wrote about your neck issues (arthritis) vs Nora's issues, I thought of this story. I heard about a woman who was a receptionist at a hair salon and then later at a cardiologist's office. She said that most people are way more upset about hair issues (their appearance) than at hearing bad news about their heart (their health). I thought that was fascinating.

Praxidike said...

Rice, I love this post! I'm almost 43 and having some difficulty with style, not just because of age, but also weight. I wear jeans and shapeless t-shirts as a default. I don't even know what I would wear if anything would fit me.

I read the Nora Ephron and the essay about appearance and aging was pretty good. You should check it out at the library and skip the rest, because that one essay you'd actually like.

Do you get the Gudren Sjoden catalog? It's from Sweden. Everytime I get an email from them, I think of you! I'm sure you'd adore the clothes, and they have women of all ages as models.

--Tamera

Suella said...

There are several words that spring to my mind mind for the grown up women in bows and ankle socks.

The kindest is inappropriate. Less kind are: helpless, powerless, victim.

Are these women really looking for "daddy" figures?

I hope no one sends this sort of message intentionally. In your 40s I hope you don't need to be "taken care of"

On the other hand the women could be ironic, and daring. I think it depends on the personality of the wearer.

Man for all seasons said...

Mostly I work in stage costuming, but I also have a profitable sideline doing made-to-measure for people with difficult figures, and as with any client or actor, I try and work out what is most flattering and attractive for the individual. I have talked white-haired ladies into wearing royal blue for the first time (But I'm a brunette - No darling, you WERE a brunette, try blue!) and similarly, with very tall or wide ladies, we work together to choose colours, styles and detailing until they are confident they have something which will make them look and feel good. This isn't a commercial, just a suggestion to choose carefully and be prepared to be different and unusual. And HAVE FUN!

Anonymous said...

I think that old woman looks fantastic in her clothes. Why should you slink into the wood work at a certain age just because you are considered beyond being attractive or sexual? Just BS. I'm about to be 50 and I wear whatever I want within reason. I know I have a full hourglass figure and I try to dress to accentuate that, spanx if need be.
I wear fitted not tight, bold colors and statement jewelry and all the latest accessories. Sometimes I so feel a twinge of anxiety about the lines under my eyes, but that's life. Anyway, enough about me. What I want to say is the discomfort, dissonance or what have you regarding older women who choose to be stylish in a non-traditional (read: stereotypical) way is mostly ageism. And ageism dictates that older people are not and should not be sexual. Even if you are 40+ no longer young and/or unable to reproduce, you are still a sexual being. You are still a woman and feminine. I remember that as I age. Think Julianne Moore, think Helen Mirren. That's why I continue to exercise and take pride in my appearance and that includes fashion that makes me feel good. Including the latest trends that suit me. I see so many older women just surrender their femininity just because they figure youth = femininity and sexuality. This is wrong.

Anonymous said...

I think that old woman looks fantastic in her clothes. Why should you slink into the wood work at a certain age just because you are considered beyond being attractive or sexual? Just BS. I'm about to be 50 and I wear whatever I want within reason. I know I have a full hourglass figure and I try to dress to accentuate that, spanx if need be.
I wear fitted not tight, bold colors and statement jewelry and all the latest accessories. Sometimes I so feel a twinge of anxiety about the lines under my eyes, but that's life. Anyway, enough about me. What I want to say is the discomfort, dissonance or what have you regarding older women who choose to be stylish in a non-traditional (read: stereotypical) way is mostly ageism. And ageism dictates that older people are not and should not be sexual. Even if you are 40+ no longer young and/or unable to reproduce, you are still a sexual being. You are still a woman and feminine. I remember that as I age. Think Julianne Moore, think Helen Mirren. That's why I continue to exercise and take pride in my appearance and that includes fashion that makes me feel good. Including the latest trends that suit me. I see so many older women just surrender their femininity just because they figure youth = femininity and sexuality. This is wrong.