I began blogging in 2007 partly because I was struggling to figure out how to dress my 50-plus-year-old self. The kind of “grown-up” dressing I’d always envisioned and aspired to leaned mostly toward classic and tailored looks, and in prior decades I’d incorporated them into my wardrobe relatively successfully (especially for work). But once I hit my late 40’s, when I looked in the mirror those styles (on me) had suddenly morphed from sophisticated to stodgy.
In the last few years I’ve experimented with simpler, softer and more casual clothing, sometimes veering a bit too far in that direction to droopy, frumpy effect. Where I’ve landed (at least for now) is in that territory I call “softly structured”…some tailoring and some classic lines, but in fabrics with drape, movement and often stretch. (Like this linen blazer with knit panels, or a soft silk collared blouse.)
It seems that perhaps it wasn’t just me, that fashion itself has been moving in a similar direction. I was re-reading this article from the April edition of Harper’s Bazaar, and realized how close to my own is the broader style direction described in the article, and the current way of looking at “age appropriate” dressing. (Hint: it’s no longer about rigid rules.)
After all, the French (known to give most passing trends the Gallic cold shoulder) are mistresses of dressing age appropriately. You don’t tend to see 25-year-olds in frumpy suits 40 years too old for them. Nor, on the whole, do you tend to catch a 50-year-old Parisienne in thigh-high boots and hot pants. Aging isn’t as much of an issue in France, so there’s less imperative to cling to “lost” youth by wearing wildly inappropriate clothes. For a Frenchwoman, nothing is ever quite lost, because the youthful perks that fade as she gets older are replaced with different but equally alluring qualities: self-confidence, self-awareness, and an intimate knowledge of what suits their body shape.
As much as I chafe at those women-over-x-shouldn’t-wear-y absolutist style rules, I do love the idea of sophisticated, elegant, grown-up dressing. We’ve lived, we’ve loved, we know a pinot from a merlot and I embrace that. I don’t want to look like a twenty-something version of myself; I’ve earned the right to be a woman of substance and dress that way. But “elegance” has a new ease, “sophistication” is tempered with a bit of softness. Fussiness is out, a bit of insouciance is in.
There’s a common thread here, and it’s that trussed-up, overly formal, contrived clothes look staid on everyone. Fashion’s more relaxed, “undone” mood, on the other hand, does all of us a favor. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jane Birkin, Michelle Williams, Clémence Poésy, Michelle Obama,* Iris Apfel—these women have all been doing it right for years.
Even as styles shift over the years toward the more “undone,” there are still some consistent elements that factor into grown-up style.
Quality. Steer clear of dish-raggy or too-stiff fabrics. Watch out for gaping or puckered seams, poorly sewn buttonholes. (These construction defects are often fixable, especially on a garment of otherwise decent quality.) My personal bugaboo is facings that aren’t stitched down and roll out with wear.
Fit. While some pieces may be intentionally cut to fit loosely, a head-to-toe over-sized look at my age often reads as “doesn’t care anymore.” A “swing cut” top or jacket should still fit in the shoulders. Conversely, too tight clothing can either read as “trying too hard” or again “doesn’t care.”
Editing. Whether or not you aspire to maintain a minimalist capsule wardrobe, a bit of restraint when putting together outfits signals a grown-up sensibility. Not all of your jewelry at once. If you’re going to show off a fabulous décolleté, save the short skirt for another day.
Polish. Not an every-hair-in-place-and-everything-matches kind of polish, but rather an I-take-reasonable-care-of-myself sort. Shoes and accessories don’t have to be expensive or new (in fact, sometimes a well-cared-for vintage piece adds more panache), but scuffed toes, worn-down heels, frayed straps or broken hardware detract from grown-up polish. (Again, most of these are fixable.)
Maybe the knack of dressing age appropriately is to keep adapting while remaining true to yourself. Having a signature classic style has become a fashion dictum, but as Tibi designer Amy Smilovic says, “Women who never, ever deviate from their look often turn out to be control freaks.” Now, that’s aging.
I think my style will continue to evolve, and that’s a good thing. I’ve always said I don’t want to look younger but I do like looking current (not to be confused with trendy or “in fashion”). I’m learning to trust that feeling that draws me to certain pieces, even if they’re something I’ve always believed might be “wrong” for me. Sometimes the experiments fail and I move on, but other times they allow me to add a new direction or dimension to my style.
How do you feel about grown-up style? Is it something you embrace, or does it feel too limiting? Whose style epitomizes grown-up dressing to you?
*While I think Mrs. Obama has fabulous style, I don’t know that I’d classify it as “undone.”