Modern Grown-Up Dressing

Grown-Up Dressing Redux

Sophia Coppola style

Sophia Coppola, one of those women who gets easy, grown-up dressing right. A woman of any age could wear these looks.

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?

Top photo sources: Pinterest here and here.

*While I think Mrs. Obama has fabulous style, I don’t know that I’d classify it as “undone.”

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  1. June 2, 2014 / 4:03 am

    Excellent post. Softly structured is where I believe I find myself for work wear. It is amazing to me how much blogging has helped me define my own style. I am the most comfortable with my wardrobe right now than I ever have been. Concentrating on the messages I want to send …then how to send them has also helped immensely. You did such a thorough job with this..thanks!

  2. June 2, 2014 / 6:02 am

    “Current” describes the look well. As “une femme d’un certain âge” it is really important to consider how one presents one’s self. Clothing should be reflection of who we are right now with the flexibility to occasionally try something new if we want. French women truly reflect this.

  3. June 2, 2014 / 6:11 am

    Not so excited by the dress of Ms. Coppola. It seems very normcore to me–very expensive versions of very routine clothes. Easily reproduced look at Target.

    • Duchesse
      June 2, 2014 / 2:45 pm

      The clothes from Target will not look like Coppola’son the body, nor will they wear well… no matter how we wish they did! When you get up close to quality like Vuitton-which Coppola wears-you can see it across the room.

      • June 4, 2014 / 5:53 am

        So, one can only look chic if one is able or foolish enough to drop thousands on a black tshirt?

        • une femme
          June 4, 2014 / 6:47 am

          Danielle, I don’t think that’s what anyone is arguing here. There’s a vast range of clothing options in between the lowest and highest price ranges. Quality and fit are the cornerstone of this look and tougher to find at the least expensive end of that range, but one certainly needn’t spend “thousands” to achieve it.

  4. Ellen
    June 2, 2014 / 6:56 am

    On the last day that I was in Paris, several years ago, my husband and I were wandering along Rue du Bac and a young, very pregnant woman caught my eye. My first thought was that in Paris, even very pregnant woman look amazing, even though she was dressed quite casually (narrow black pants, a dark, plain top…not stretched to the max as is common here…and what seemed to be a military fatigue jacket, oversized but not too much, and seemingly no makeup. When we got just a little closer, I realized that it was Sofia Coppola. (She is much more petite and much prettier than she photographs, BTW.) I think she is definitely a worthy style model, and I think of that moment often, not because of the star spotting aspect, but because at a moment when almost all women feel and look kind of haggard (she gave birth 3 days later) she was effortlessly perfect.

    It is, in part, the very expensive versions that achieve that. Shirts from Target are often cut off grain and don’t hang right on the body. Cheap fabrics generally don’t look well all day. Target pants almost never fit in that perfect way that Sofia’s do, and most people are not taking their Target clothing to a tailor.

  5. Cornelia
    June 2, 2014 / 7:36 am

    I am sure that all your readers differ on what that classic style is that makes some women look great. Period. No matter. To my eye, Iris Apfel looks like a clown, but since I dress more like Ms. Coppola, I am sure that is to be expected.

  6. Marguerite
    June 2, 2014 / 8:10 am

    I’ll take softly structured, modern and quality as my grown up style markers. Great post Femme, perfectly distilled, as usual.

  7. Megs
    June 2, 2014 / 8:50 am

    Great Post! Love your sense of self and of style. This post in particular strikes me as one of your best.

  8. Teresa
    June 2, 2014 / 9:05 am

    I have been “lurking” on your blog as I discovered you while trying to build a travel wardrobe for a recent trip to London. Your advice helped me pack wisely while still feeling current. I love that phrase of dressing “current”. I am in my early 50s, work outside the home and strive to look current. The word really resonates with me. I don’t want to dress like my daughters and don’t want to look like my mother. I like the softly structured look and you do it very well! . I am drawn to solids and finally recognize that while I am still apt to buy prints from time to time, they often go in my closet and are seldom worn. The fact that I recognize that weakness has helped me resist the urge when I shop! I think quality over quantity finally prevails in my closet.

  9. June 2, 2014 / 9:10 am

    Like you my style is evolving as I “mature”…. but still, my basic look remains much the same as in years (and years) past. In university I favoured boots, jeans, and blazers…and I still love that look. Now, of course I can afford better boots and jackets! And a draped top is sooo valuable …now that my tucking-in years are over.
    I agree with Megs…. great post!

  10. June 2, 2014 / 9:18 am

    I love the style you’ve found for yourself, having been a reader since 2009. You use the word “current,” I recently thought that “modern” is another way to say it. We don’t want to be everything the latest, but we don’t want to be stuck in another decade either. Whichever term, I’m with you.

  11. Nancy Karpen
    June 2, 2014 / 11:21 am

    I am in my early 60’s and find my style becoming simpler as I get older. I do like some edgy pieces, like my black leather motorcycle jacket that elevates all my simple pieces. I am planning a black crepe vest as my third piece for summer. Dressing can still be fun even as we age.

  12. June 2, 2014 / 11:45 am

    I agree with all of the above. I sometimes have a look in my mind however it can sometimes b tricky to find the right pieces. I am currently searching for dresses that cover the knee for special occasions. It is proving tricky.

  13. Lisa
    June 2, 2014 / 12:04 pm

    I love the soft structure look you have described and usually live in those type of clothes. I followed the link the Harper’s Bazaar article and enjoyed reading it. I do not like hard rules, but found article followed mostly sensible guidelines. As a petite, I have always had difficulty wearing dresses and skirts that cut me in half. I have maintained my figure, but opt for a simple dress with clean lines in a soft fabric. Usually a straight silhouette. I prefer the length a couple of inches above my knees and then wear tights (not hose) and heels/or booties. The absolute hard and fast rule that hem must fall at the knee or an inch below does not flatter my figure. I usually opt for trousers, but occasionally wear my little cream dress.

    Love this post and admire Sophia Coppola’s style. I am always on the lookout for styles petite women can wear with a casual classic style

  14. pink azalea
    June 2, 2014 / 1:20 pm

    Several things come to mind when I think about grown-up dressing. By the time a woman has reached a certain age, her clothes (core pieces) should look expensive even if they aren’t. I say buy the best you can afford for key pieces, and spend money to get them tailored for a good fit. Mix high with low to keep it relaxed. I like good shoes that are comfortable, a nice bag, and a good haircut. Sophia Coppola has a great look. Another blogger wrote an entry recently about actress Robin Wright Penn and her look for the character Claire Underwood on House of Cards. I adore the simplicity and sophistication of her clothes. Just perfect.

  15. June 2, 2014 / 1:32 pm

    You describe my struggles to a tee. I knew how to put an outfit together in my twenties – forties. The past ten years have found me buying soft, comfortable clothing I think I’ll like, e.g. 3/4 sleeved tees & jean style pants, but after wearing a few or many times, they begin to look frumpy. I’m slowly figuring out what does and doesn’t look good on my 62 year old bod. It’s not always obvious which is why I probably enjoy shoes & handbags more than clothing.

  16. Marilyn
    June 2, 2014 / 1:36 pm

    This article reminded me that I have various things lurking at the back of my wardrobe that will suit my 33 year old daughter better than me! Good purchases that have served me well, still look and feel good but not the softly structured look I now like. Time to pass them on. I love Sophia’s look. Classically elegant without being boring. Luckily I have a friend with a dress shop who lets me know when something I like hits her sale rack!!!

  17. sisty
    June 2, 2014 / 2:03 pm

    Sofia Coppola is 43 years old, although she looks ageless. She is following the style “rules” that we say we aspire to but are more difficult to achieve in practice: simple lines, minimal jewelry and makeup, natural hair, subdued colors. Also, she makes the most of her strong points — her slender legs, ankles and arms. Her clothes bring all the attention straight up to her very interesting face, like women of a certain age do best (and should be doing, in my opinion). If you think about it, you don’t really know what her body looks like, because her clothes don’t cling or draw attention to specific body parts.

    The success of this look absolutely depends on quality items, though — again, the “buy-less-but-buy-the-best-you-can-afford” “rule.” This is another maxim that we often aspire to in theory but don’t stick to in practice.

    She’s my style heroine, and with discipline, I know I can do what she does. I’m getting closer to it all the time.

  18. Duchesse
    June 2, 2014 / 2:52 pm

    What a terrific post, Pseu! You have distilled what it is to look modern, while still allowing for personal style.

    I find the biggest error women make is wearing their softly structured clothes like Eileen Fisher too big and I blame sales staff, who only seem to have two “visions”; super-tight or baggy.

  19. Jill Ann
    June 2, 2014 / 4:07 pm

    At 57, I’m trying (so hard!) to balance age-appropriateness with a slightly edgy, non-matronly style. It isn’t always easy! Right now I’m trying to figure out what to do with my formerly thick, but now thinning, curly, graying hair. Blowdrying my hair straight isn’t necessarily the answer, but frizzy curls are in no way a good look. In my next life, please give me thick straight (or at least smooth) hair! The fashion issue is easy compared to the hair issue, at least for me.

    • Juliewentz.
      June 2, 2014 / 7:24 pm

      Jill Ann. I recently went platinum and it solved my curly frizzy thinning issues. It changes the texture completely because the hair curticle is opened. Smooth and straight. Think about it. Just be very careful who does it and find a experienced colorist.

  20. June 2, 2014 / 5:44 pm

    Jill Ann, sorry your hair is thinning (that can happen with all hair types) but be proud of your “frizzy” curls. The smooth hair imperative is racist. Curls can help your hair look fuller.

    Hmm, I agree with all this, but remember that being “down at the heels” can simply be a sign of genteel poverty, not self-neglect.

    I can’t stand the “Advanced Style” look.

  21. June 2, 2014 / 5:48 pm

    You have nailed my exact sentiments about so many things. Like you, I found that the tailored styles I wore so well for most of my life were starting to make me look old. I’ve worked very hard at experimenting a little bit, trying to jazz things up or soften, without looking like I’m in the midst of some kind of identity crisis. It kind of reminds me of that phase between being a teenager and a young woman, when you had to think carefully about the signals you were sending–without being too self-concious.Then too, my body has changed and I’m figuring out what things look better on me than my old standbys. It’s a very confusing time! I’m still a sucker for simplicity, but I realize that this alone isn’t my best formula.

  22. June 2, 2014 / 8:55 pm

    I do agree with you about Sophia Coppola (and Michelle Obama for that matter – stylish yes, undone no). I am not interested in going back to my twenties and I don’t want to dress that way either. But what works for a 50ish woman is as individual as the woman herself.

  23. adelfa
    June 2, 2014 / 9:23 pm

    This post resonates with me so much, even more so as I recently moved to Los Angeles from a conservative area of Northern California. Figuring out what to wear to work has been interesting! My dress trousers and silk shirts don’t feel right for everyday wear (though now and then I think they’re fine). I’m settling in to a more casual style that is polished, current, and I believe appropriate to my 50+ self! Thanks for the food for thought!

  24. stylecrone
    June 2, 2014 / 9:36 pm

    Beautifully written! Sounds like you have found what feels comfortable and stylish for you and are able to articulate just that. For me, every day is an opportunity for self expression, and I seldom know what direction that will be.

  25. Marilynn
    June 3, 2014 / 10:53 am

    I love these looks. Do they work with an overweight size 18 body? I have no slender anywhere. Also, black on me looks old. What to do. What to do.

    • une femme
      June 4, 2014 / 6:02 am

      Marilyn, I think a simple, chic look can work at any size. I’ll put together some options next week. Navy is always an option if black feels too harsh.

    • Marilynn
      June 4, 2014 / 9:52 am

      Thank you Pseu! I really struggle with dressing this body. And though I am losing the weight, (so,so slowly) I find I get discouraged. Your posts have given me food for thought! Lol

  26. sisty
    June 4, 2014 / 6:29 am

    Marilyn, of course you can wear this look. Anyone can — that’s the beauty of it. And you’ll notice that Coppola isn’t wearing black near her face. What she’s wearing, essentially, is a football jersey and a sweatshirt, but in very refined fabrics. And she avoids trends — I think this look would not have worked if she had put on the ubiquitous but ultimately too-trendy (IMO) nude shoes instead of the black shoes she has chosen. The trick is to make sure that clothes fit as perfectly as you can get them to fit, and then forget about what you’re wearing — the attention should be on your face, where you want it. This balance isn’t easy, though — clothes have to fit without being the slightest bit tight or the slightest bit baggy (as Duchesse points out above).

    Check out one of the last articles that Cathy Horyn wrote before she left the New York Times:

  27. June 7, 2014 / 6:35 pm

    I’ve really enjoyed this post. I admire your style, playful chic with the heart of a biker woman (Vespa or Harley, your pick). You still surprise, which I love. I wrestle with my own style. Sometimes I dress outrageously just to piss people off, especially if I know I’ll be in the banking district, and as a challenge to see how far I can go without hating myself in the morning. I get angry at the disappearing act that seems to go on as the years tick by, and this is one small response I have to it. Plus, without my studio now it’s natural to overflow colour on my body. Sometimes I do a quiet Coppola look and maybe I should post a few sometime. Your strength inside and your demure but powerful looks inspire.

  28. Karen
    June 18, 2014 / 1:26 pm

    Great post. I love the idea of embracing elegance as a grown up. Out with the twee and trendy, in with the elegance and confidence.

  29. August 1, 2015 / 4:47 am

    Such a wonderful post! I find this in-between space the time to reinvent and make something unique and new in terms of personal style. One of your readers said it quite well… We don’t want to look like our daughter and we don’t want to look like our mother. Our generation broke rules and forged new paths and I think we are doing so in regard to how one ages as well. I have to say because of the quality issue and other reasons having to do with social justice I buy many of my clothes recycled. This allows me so much more latitude in what I can wear.

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