Women’s choices about what to wear are loaded with memory and cultural meaning. When we were younger we may have gotten dressed to seek attention — or escape from it—, to be provocative, to rebel. Now? Not so much. Now, for the most part, we just want to feel attractive, confident, and hopefully comfortable. The fashion biases of my middle-aged girlfriends range from what is and is not considered “age appropriate” to what might have been popular in the stifling hometown they escaped at age seventeen, to how movies and TV depict “batty old ladies.” We each carry around associations and cultural assumptions that make us shudder or feel good, and while writing up your own personal list of what not to wear may seem a little silly, sometimes being clear about our own fashion boundaries can actually help us to lighten our emotional baggage and paradoxically, loosen our self-imposed rules.
Here goes, my list: I made it for myself, and I’m sure it will change as I age, but as my sense of self is shifting and I’m passing from one phase of life to another, it makes me feel good to be clear to myself about my preferences for the time being.
For the love of God, please know that this list is tongue firmly in cheek. You should wear whatever the hell you want. You look fabulous if you feel fabulous, and I have no skin in the game regarding other women’s choices.
Eileen Fisher (and Chico’s and Talbots and Lands’ End)
A number of years ago, my best friend and I were musing about what we’d wear when we were “old.” We settled on Eileen Fisher but assured each other that would be in the far distant future. (Joke’s on us; here we are already!) “Am I ready for Eileen Fisher?” became our code for “Is it time to scrap my whole style/ wardrobe?” Don’t get me wrong: I think head-to-toe Eileen Fisher can look fabulous on a five-foot-ten master triathlete or a dimpled pixie art gallery owner with stunning silver hair. I own a gold-colored fteen-year-old sateen quilt by Eileen that remains among my most prized bedding, and a couple of pieces of her clothing. But relying on head-to-toe sack clothing makes me feel like I have something to hide.
Last summer I took a trip to Maine and in Kennebunkport wandered into a lovely little shop that looked from the outside like a flower boutique. It turned out, inside, to be cornucopia of midlife/later-life accessories. The proprietor, a lovely woman in her late seventies, had gorgeous white hair in a small bun on the top of her head. She was swathed in owing purple linen and reminded me (in a good way) of Mrs. Piggle- Wiggle. Her store was literally sagging under the weight of her merchandise. On every surface—everywhere!—there were gigantic necklaces and earrings, and rainbow-hued scarves and pleather purses in bright colors. There were fake pearls the size of jawbreakers, huge chunks of amethyst hanging from inch- wide chain links. I felt like an elf in a jewelry store; absolutely everything was oversized. I realized, after walking around in a stupor for a few minutes, that this is a certain kind of place that a certain kind of woman would adore. Not me. I’m not saying this jewelry is ugly; I’m saying for me it’s like screaming, “I’m trying to distract from my changing face.”
Bright-colored reading glasses
I try these on occasionally (again, is the idea to distract from our wrinkles?), and if my teenage daughters are with me, they shudder and say, “Please, no!” But they are awfully cute, and I do love purple . . .
Like birds migrating en masse or sea turtles crawling onto the beach to nest, there was a spontaneous mystery moment when women everywhere apparently made a tacit pact: Birkenstocks are the new stilettos. The German brand that touts its “tradition since 1774,” as if that were a selling point, responded by producing sandals with racy colors, metallics, and collaborations with upscale stores like Barneys, but still, let’s not kid ourselves. Flat, triangular plates lashed to your bunioned tootsies with wide leather straps are comfy, but not a hot look. I’ve owned the occasional chic silver ’Stocks over the years, but I dread becoming the woman who wears them every day . . . the way they make my toes spread makes me feel like eating granola and taking up macramé.
Unless you are part of a coven. On second thought, that would be awesome. Joking aside, we all wear head-to-toe black sometimes, because it’s easy, but as a “look” it seems dour at this stage of life and I’m veering away from it (which is very frustrating because it used to work just fine — why is that?!).
A hotly debated clothing item with powerhouse icons like Diane Keaton, Nora Ephron, and Diane Sawyer on the pro side. They make some women feel safe and cozy and camou aged; they make me feel as if I’m getting hives. Also, as I age I think they accentuate my sagging neck, which might not be the desired look. I’m more of a Helen Mirren wannabe myself— as long as I have breasts, I might as well show some cleavage.
The hipster girls scouring the racks of the Salvation Army for vintage high-waisted Lees are wrong and Tina Fey is right (as usual). However, praise be the demise of the ultralow jean and the comeback of the midrise with a hint of stretch.
Of all the things on my list, I would hope that we are at least all in agreement on the hideousness of Crocs. Unless you are wading in a body of water or mud or are Mario Batali, no one over the age of ten should wear these things.
They seem like a relic of days gone by, but I have an elderly female relative who still wears one when she comes to visit us here in New York City. Not me, please
This is actually not one thing I fear, but a plethora of clothing items I would rather avoid as I become “more mature” but don’t even seriously think I’d ever entertain: Velour tracksuits, UGGs, red hats, shoulder pads, pleated khakis. I wanted to put “beaded eyeglass chains” here, but the truth is, I already have one.
*excerpted and adapted slightly from What Would Virginia Would Do