Surely one of the benefits of getting older is no longer worrying about being bust by the Style Police. Wrong. Age seems to be no excuse for Fashion Faux Pas (French for wearing baggy tracksuit pants beyond the front door).
Fashion advice to those over 50 emphasizes how not to dress, with warnings about Top 10 Items You’re Too Old to Wear. We can forget about looking good any more – it seems that the best we can achieve at this stage is to look good for our age. If we’re lucky we’ll “pull it off” or “get away with” whatever we dare to wear.
Words heard a lot in advising elders on fashion are “classic”, “timeless”, and of course “age-appropriate”. We are told to go for comfort and easy maintenance, which sound more like attributes of cars than clothes. We’re urged to stay away from clingy garments better suited to svelte young figures while avoiding “baggy, sloppy, unflattering attire that adds substantial years by authenticating ‘the helpless granny’ look”. Another tip on not looking grannyish is to eschew shawls or capes. Mature men are encouraged to go for that elusive timeless image and somehow avoid a “grandpa look”. (Does this require stepping away from one’s grandchildren when spotted in public, in the way teens shun their parents when dropped off at parties?)
This kind of fashion advice extends beyond clothes to hairstyles, e.g. older women with long hair are often told to cut it short. Yet many of these No-No’s seem like timeless blunders, obviously ill advised at any age. Like low-cut jeans causing unsightly Muffin Top or too-short pants baring excess ankle. Do we really need a style czar to caution us against sandals-with-socks? That’s always been a fashion calamity. And ditto for VPL (although avoiding Visible Panty Line via seamless nude panties – or worse yet, a thong – is no longer advisable).
A worrying trend is that public shaming for age-inappropriate styling is increasingly aimed at those well under 50. I was shocked to see that Top Ten Fashion Faux Pas for Women of a Certain Age is the work of a 32-year-old, who sadly believes she has already reached that “certain age” which requires “a bit more tending and grooming”. Like those several decades her senior, she tries to convince herself that her style will be “fabulous nonetheless”. (Watch out for that F-word which seems to be code for valiant efforts of older women to stay stylish and thus inspire the rest of us, see more on this below.) There’s even a warning to men on Ten Things You Can’t Wear in Your 30s.
Are You Committing These Fashion Faux Pas?
Walk into any mall and you’ll see a 40-something woman wearing every trend from Forever 21: tight tank top, low-rise jeans, metallic platform heels, plastic bangles and oversized earrings. Are you a middle-aged fashionista who just doesn’t know when to quit? Read on for the top 10 clothing items to leave in the past…
– from Top 10 Items You’re Too Old to Wear
With all these caveats on how to dress as we age, it’s no wonder that a recent British style survey of women over 50 showed that 80% are so wary of getting it wrong that they choose “shapeless, dowdy garments” over figure-hugging ones. The older you get, the stronger the exhortations to “dress your age”. Half reportedly do a wardrobe overhaul upon reaching the half-century milestone.
When I turned 50 I felt silly wearing fashionable clothes and thought a lot of people were judging me. I then went out and bought clothes I felt a woman over 50 should be wearing, and not necessarily what I wanted to buy. I have to admit I don’t look very fashionable any more – quite often I’m dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a loose-fitting T-shirt. I’m not happy with this look, it’s just that I was terrified of people thinking I looked like mutton dressed as lamb.
– Laura Matthews, 54, sales assistant from Southampton, UK quoted in the isme.com survey
You didn’t think we’d get this far without that sheepish beast rearing its head and saying Baaaah, did you? “Mutton dressed as lamb” is defined in one dictionary as “describing someone, especially a woman, who is dressed in a way that is more suitable for a younger person”, noting it as “British offensive”.
But most definitions are sexist, e.g. referring to “an offensive way of saying that a woman is dressed in a style that is more suitable for a much younger woman”. Notice there is no reference to the fashion sense of older men trying to dress as youthfully as the women they’re dating, who may be half their age.
Mutton Dressed as Lamb – Urban Dictionary definitions and usage
1. Middle aged women dressing/acting/pretending like they’re much younger than they actually are.
Often abbreviated to “mutton”.
“So how was last night?”
“Terrible, the place full of mutton.”
“Mutton dressed as lamb.”
2. When an older woman tries to dress young to be “cool”. Usually involves jeans with rhinestones, Ed Hardy shirts, multi-highlighted hair, and some serious heels to finish off the look. Usually very embarrassing to her kids who are in either middle or high school. Still lives in the 80’s with her music. Will still wait in line to see Bon Jovi.
“Man, Karly’s mom thinks she is still hot. With her halter top and tight jeans, she definitely qualifies as ‘mutton dressed as lamb’.”
To set the record straight, literary history shows the origins of “mutton dressed as lamb” to be neither ageist nor sexist. One of the earliest references to this phrase in print appeared in diaries kept from 1789-1822 by Frances Calvert, a card-playing chum of the Prince Regent of England. In a digitized reprint of her journal of social gossip Calvert repeats an anecdote in which the prince used the mutton-lamb expresson.
Someone the other day asked the Prince of Wales at the Ancient Music* whether he did not think some girl pretty. ‘Girl!’ answered he, ‘Girls are not to my taste. I don’t like lamb; but mutton dressed like lamb!’
– excerpt from Frances Calvert’s, An Irish Beauty of the Regency, first published in 1911
* name of a club where princes and princesses went to hook up in the 1800s?
Sigh. Two centuries after that prince expressed his predilection for mutton, we are mired in a lamb-loving culture. Yet it is heartening to note a new and a growing movement encouraging people to express themselves through fashion into old age. Advanced Style is a blog that features photographs of stylish men and women over 60 (although most are well-heeled and -clothed New Yorkers) so popular that it has spawned a book and soon a movie.
A new BBC4 documentary, Fabulous Fashionistas, is making waves with its profiles of six women aged 75 to 91 who are still proudly and uniquely stylish. Or one might say, who have the money and inclination to still spend lots of time on their appearance.
Advanced Style editor Ari Seth Cohen (aged 32) and a few of the Fabulous Fashonistas were at a recent conference on attitudes to fashion and ageing held at the London College of Fashion.
It was perhaps unsurprising that one of the first things to be discussed was the lack of positive representation of ageing in the media or anywhere else for that matter. There are no reflections of age and ageing as a good thing – it’s all negative and grumbly, comedic or over-sentimental. Then there is “age as a spectator sport”, something that becomes less funny and more sinister the nearer you get to your bus pass and is, of course, hopelessly superficial because it’s all based on appearance… The day ended with the Fabulous Fashionistas. I totally and unconditionally love these scintillating women because they project a light down the tunnel of age that I personally find tremendously reassuring.
– The Invisible Woman, The Guardian Fashion Blog
I have mixed feelings about the FFs. First of all, it took me awhile to get past the headgear. (What is it with older women and turbans?) Then there’s the F-word. Which reminds me of the glitzy home, chockablock with Fabergé eggs, of the richest American woman of her time, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post – whose tagline is “Where Fabulous Lives!” The latest brand of Fabulous is a group of glam pensioners who live in England. They include a baroness Tory peer, the world’s oldest model and The Gap store’s oldest employee. There’s another who sports a shirt featuring her own face and the one who wins the Best on a Budget prize, dressing smartly on her £100/week pension.
The final Fabulista loves to give advice on how to be like her. “You just mustn’t allow the ageing process in,” counsels former ballerina Gillian Lynne, giving no details on how to ban entry when age comes knocking at the door. She also recommends younger men, like her husband who is 27 years her junior. Another of her anti-aging tips is to adopt good posture. She can’t stand old women who slouch.
You see them hunched over, looking downward. Everything seems to sag. They look dejected. My training as a dancer always taught me that you stand up straight and get those shoulders back. To be crude about it, the nipples should lead – and how can they do that if they are pointing down towards the floor somewhere?
– Gillian Lynne, 87
Although not necessarily led by their nipples into their 90s, older women are indeed becoming a bit more visible in the media. Why has the youth-obsessed fashion industry begun featuring a few more older models in ad campaigns? It’s the economy, stupid: many older women have money to spend on fashion. Women between 55 and 64, especially those in the US and Europe fortunate enough to inherit wealth from parents and husbands, reportedly spend more on clothes than any other age group. What’s more, there are more older people in the world than ever before – especially in places where fashionable clothing is sold.
Young people have traditionally driven fashion but with soaring youth unemployment causing declining spending, the fashion industry needs to address anyone who can afford to dress well. That’s why they’re targeting us.
It just doesn’t seem prudent to marginalize a group that practically rules the world. It’s no secret that due to normal aging our bodies change – and no matter what our ‘body type’ 50+ women look better in specific styles – so why not create a hip clothing line that’s both fashionable AND functional for the 50+ woman of today. We can take these physical changes into account by choosing clothing that fits well and does not accentuate imperfections… It’s your time to thrive and clothes that you feel great in will help you exude confidence. Most of all – have fun. As Ralph Lauren once said, ‘Style is very personal. It has nothing to do with fashion. Fashion is over quickly. Style is forever.’
– gerontologist Alexis Abramson
Is My New Old Self grateful to see a few more of our age-mates styling in the media? Actually not – after a revelation at a recent conference in London on “(a)Dressing the Ageing Demographic” that these brands that have begun researching the older market are trying hard to keep it under wraps. They’re happy to sell us clothes, but they fear that any association with older people could hurt their image!