Mutton, Lamb and Keeping Our Cool

Wee cutie pie dressed as lamb.

One expression that pops up frequently when it comes to age inappropriate style is “mutton dressed as lamb,” often applied to us old broads when someone feels we aren’t following the rules for our age group, whatever they might be at the time. As offensive as I generally find that expression, I do believe there is such a thing as age-appropriate dressing, and that “age-appropriate” can still leave a lot of room for individual style, for flair and creativity, for elegance, and even for a bit of understated sexiness.

I used to participate in the occasional focus group, and one I did many years ago for face cream introduced me to the phrase, “down-aging,” meaning that women are looking and acting ten years younger at 40, 50, 60 than they did a generation ago. While I think it’s great that we no longer are forced by convention to follow arbitrary dictates once there are a certain number of candles on the cake, tossing the rulebook out the window always results in some floundering.

In our youth-obsessed culture, it’s just assumed that we all want to look 25 years old. It seems to une femme that women who have a large part of their identity tied up in being conventionally attractive seem to have the toughest time letting go of styles that worked for them in their youth. In my humble opinion, there is a point where hanging onto the fashions that worked in our 20’s starts to backfire, and makes us look not only older, but sometimes even ridiculous. (The exception seems to be those fortunate women who develop a unique and timless style early in life, and hang onto it through the decades.) Even if our weight remains constant, our bodies and faces change with time, and what was flattering for us a couple of decades ago may no longer be so. Too much skin, too much “flounce” (ruffles, lace, eyelet, cutesy details), too much makeup, too many trends worn simultaneously…all of these are traps for the not-so-young woman.

But on the other hand, throwing aside all concern for contemporary style can result in looking dated, frumpy and disengaged, which for women (and men) working in a corporate environment is an economic risk when outsourcing, downsizing, realigning and streamlining means we’re often in competition for jobs with recent college grads.

How does one walk that fine line between dressing “too young” and looking like a member of the Sunny Acres Shuffleboard Team? Sherrie Matheison’s book, Forever Cool: How to Achieve Ageless, Youthful and Modern Personal Style has some great pointers. Matheison stresses simple, clean lines, choosing colors carefully (she’s thumbs down on jewel tones, thumbs up on brights and earth tones), keeping accessories clean and current, and not being afraid of bold jewelry. What I like most about this book is that it’s packed full of before-and-after photos of real women of different sizes and doesn’t try to squeeze everyone into a single, boring, cookie cutter style. There’s also a section for men, and shopping suggestions. While her “after” ensembles aren’t universally appealing to me, there’s enough variety to get some general ideas that can be adopted to suit one’s indivdual preferences. This isn’t a book for serious fashionistas, but I think it is one of the more practical style guides out there for les femmes d’un certain age.

These are a couple examples of “after” work looks that appealed to me.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve at times been tempted to hire a stylist, if only for an afternoon to help me go through my closet and figure out what works for me and what doesn’t. While I know what appeals to me when I see it on a hanger, I’m not always the greatest judge of how well certain styles look on me, though I am good with colors. It’s probably a good idea for us all to get the benefit of a discerning but unbiased eye from time to time to help assess whether updates are needed. While looking like a sweet young thing may no longer be in the cards, looking smart, fresh and contemporary is a real confidence booster. And we’re never too old for that.
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  1. This is a subject that takes up waaay too much of my time. I have reached “a certain age” and find it so hard to even define what is age appropriate.
    To add to that, it feels as though the clothes in the shops are only for the 25 unders and the 65 overs.
    (I own that book and I love it too even though, like you, I didn’t care for all the styles)

  2. One day I’m going to post on this — I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. One of my least expressions ever is “mutton dressed as lamb,” the equation of women with meat is sooo unpleasant! (As you probably know, the reference is not to an old ewe dressing as a young lamb, but to a butcher ‘dressing’ the mutton meat to look like lamb! — so the implication is that we’re not just foolish but frauds as well).

  3. Good post! As one who lives in an age-restricted community near Phoenix, I see way too often those dated suits, jackets, etc., even on men (who knew so many men held onto the poly trousers from their leisure suits!). A huge part of the problem, as even noted in those “before” photos, is wearing clothing that does not fit. And, in my community, I tire of everyone wearing shorts all the time! I think age-appropriateness is a great topic for all of us “femmes of a certain age”.

  4. Beautiful. I think I’m struggling with this for the first time, heading out of my mid thirties into my late thirties (plus add three little kids). So this is all uncharted waters for me. Thank you for your handy guides and excellent ideas.

    Although Pseu, I think you’re the last person who needs a stylist! You have a great eye, and resources in the form of time and money. Although I do understand the need for an objective eye. Perhaps a really good tailor/dressmaker to help with both fit and form issues? I used to visit a shop nearby where the husband/wife owners had terrific taste. Of course, there’s the pitfall where it’s a salesperson doing the opining…I guess I wonder about that issue with personal shoppers in department stores, too. Must run.

  5. I cannot help but notice that the ‘after’ photos have an accessory that is missing in the ‘before’ photos. Unfair advantage of a smile to ‘after’ photos..

    The body language in the ‘after’ photos is also more relaxed, even (in the first photo) a tad aggressive. In my view the first lady looks terrible in both photos and the second lady looks very ‘improved’.

    Brings me to the question: In the absence of an inner beauty, isn’t external ‘repair’ work just window dressing? Can any stylist change that?

    PS: I have such few things in the wardrobe now that I am going to buy some so I continue to look to Dejapseu for ideas 🙂

  6. I agree that the posing and smiles in the “after” photos do indeed contribute to the overall effect, and that any ensemble worn with confidence will make one look better.

    But I also think that there’s a feedback loop when it comes to confidence. I feel more confident when I’m wearing styles and colors that look better on me, which probably contributes to my overall effect.

  7. Someone – I’ve actually eased up quite a bit on my “anti-ruffle” stance as well, and in the last few months have purchased two sweaters with some ruffle detail. I think the trick for us over 40 is to keep the ruffles either minimal and soft or dramatic and architectural. What I had in mind when I wrote that post were the more “cutesie” genre of ruffles, which look cute on teenagers, but not so much on the rest of us.

  8. Followed links to this older, interesting conversation.

    I am prompted to comment on one of the potentially faux pas that you list toward the end of your post: ruffles. To my shock and awe, since I am so not a girly-girl dresser, I am liking many of the ruffle-based items coming out now. (Well, some of them are tuxedo style shirt meanderings, so.) I find that ruffles *can* be used architecturally and to excellent effect on all ages if done right.

    Of course, I’m posting from the future, 2009, when we’ve been afforded some quite nice ruffled designs that weren’t to be had in 2007 or previously.

    Hmm…s’pose I should add, I’m 45, a childfree petite hourglass, married to a 32-year-old – and I *do* tend to live life alongside his contemporaries rather than mine. I never believed in too many of those age-based “rules” – ever.