“Everyone, I’ve found, has view about what I should wear and what’s appropriate for my age”
Hello, my name’s Erika, I’m 55 and I wear faux fur, bright red lipstick and over-the-knee boots (not necessarily all at the same time).
Fashion forward or fashion faux pas? MILF, or mutton dressed as lamb?
Negotiating ‘what not to wear’ can be a minefield for women over 50. Everyone, I’ve found, has a view and it rarely matches up with the image I have of myself or the way I want to look.
‘You’re far too old to wear those bright colours,’ she said (very loudly) as I picked an orange top
Take last weekend, when I took my 85-year-old mum shopping. “You’re far too old to wear those bright colours,” she said (very loudly) as I picked an orange top with gorgeous puffy sleeves off the rail. Other recent octogenarian advice has included ditching the “drapey” clothes, wearing a vest (you’ll catch a chill if you expose your chest like that) and embracing what Eastex and Windsmoor have to offer.
Well sorry mum, but I’m not quite ready to start dressing like the Queen (apologies ma’am, you look lovely in yellow) or abandoning the delights of Zara, where apparently, according to recent news reports, we’re too old to shop after the age of 33.
My early twenties offspring are also quite frank in their views about what is appropriate for their mother to wear. I’m blessed with boys, who have been known to be complimentary when my outfit of the day meets their sartorial standards – but who can be equally cutting. My oldest son hates it when I wear red lipstick and said my recent black Puffa jacket purchase made me look like I was wearing a bin liner. There was a stand-off last year when I came downstairs wearing a top with a partially sheer back (perfectly decent, but in his eyes not acceptable for a family party) and anything with the vaguest hint of leopard print gets a definite thumbs-down. I’m sure there’s something deeply psychological going on there, but we won’t go into it.
“It’s quite formal there you know,” said one colleague when I turned up in a bright blue dress
Attempts to avoid dressing like the typical stereotype of the ‘older’ woman in the office have also met with some interesting responses. “It’s quite formal there you know,” said one colleague, through pursed lips, when I turned up in a bright blue dress and somewhat eccentric shoes, ready for a client meeting. One regular work contact, who until recently had only ever spoken to me on the phone, was clearly taken-aback when we finally met in person. “You’re not at all like I imagined, I didn’t expect you to be so, well … funky,” she said. I took it as a compliment. Think it must have been the purple tights.
Of course if advice from our nearest and dearest isn’t sufficient, the pages of the fashion press are full of helpful guidance. ‘Ten mistakes women over 40 make’, ‘five fashion errors that age you’, ‘how to dress well over 50’. I’m sure you’ve read them. Don’t wear short skirts, get your hair cut, opt for subtle make-up, stick to classic shapes.
In other words, be boring, embrace the beige, get rid of all the fabulousness in your wardrobe and become invisible? The trouble is that this kind of well-meaning advice feeds into the insecurities that women often develop when they get older. Thanks to the menopause, we pile on the pounds, have faces as bright as a belisha beacon and fall victim to wild hormonal fluctuations. Children start to fly the nest, careers stall, and if we’re not careful we end up feeling frumpy, dumpy, directionless, and a shadow of our former selves (or maybe that’s just me).
…what we wear affects our mental processes and perceptions and can literally change our minds and the way we think
Research suggests, however, that if we have lost our mojo, pushing our fashion boundaries can help us develop a renewed sense of identity. It can make a huge difference to how we feel. In her book Mind What You Wear: The Psychology of Fashion, Professor Karen Pine at the University of Hertfordshire explains how what we wear affects our mental processes and perceptions. It can literally change our minds and the way we think. Most women, she suggests, dress up not to look attractive, but to feel confident.
That doesn’t mean of course that we should throw caution to the wind and lose all our fashion sensibility. I personally don’t have the legs to wear short skirts any more (though plenty of older women do), anything midriff baring is not a good look and although I’m partial to a distressed jean, complete knee-cap exposure is far too draughty. Thanks to a knee injury from over-enthusiastic Zumba-ing (and an embarrassing a* over t* situation in the local high street), I have lowered my sights when it comes to heel height. Other age-related physical limitations have also come into play in my clothing choices. Witness the time I got stuck in a pull-on jump suit in the changing room of Debenhams because thanks to a frozen shoulder, I just wasn’t flexible enough to shrug the top half back down.
Thankfully, there are lots of examples of women in their 50s, and indeed much older, to look up to
Thankfully, there are lots of examples of women in their 50s, and indeed much older, to look up to. At 72, Dame Helen Mirren is still rocking the red carpet, and with her innate sense of style, putting younger starlets in the shadow. Nonagenarian Iris Apfel regularly features in the fashion press thanks to her irreverent style, quirky glasses and stand-out statement jewellery. I am particularly cheered by the example of 64-year old university professor Lyn Slater, who thanks to being spotted during New York Fashion Week, looking fabulous in a Yohji Yamamoto suit, became an accidental fashion icon with an Instagram following that has now topped 300,000.
What I love about all these women is the fact they are not bothered about ‘the rules’. They are comfortable in their own skin and wear whatever makes them feel good, regardless of what anyone else might think.
They are examples of mature, female, kick-ass individuality I’m inspired (in my small and much less effective way) to follow. The biggest compliment I’ve received recently was from a friend who rang me up excitedly to tell me she’d seen a giant sparkly red lobster necklace in the window of a local boutique (Tatty Devine, as it turned out). “I had to phone you, because it’s just so “you”, it has your name written all over it,” she said.
Let me know if you want to join the fifty plus fashion revolution I’m planning on starting. You’ll recognise me if you see me. I’ll be the one in Sainsbury’s wearing the leopard print coat and the lobster necklace.