The Age of Irony - une femme d'un certain âge

The Age of Irony

Before too much time goes by, I wanted to catch up with the discussion about dressing ironically after 50 presented in Cathy Horyn’s NYT article, “Irony and the Old Lady,” and commented on by Duchesse at Passages des Perles.


“The fashion message we’re so used to in New York doesn’t translate elsewhere in the country,” said Charla Krupp, a stylist and the author of “How Not to Look Old.” “People don’t get the joke.”

For that reason, Ms. Krupp tells older women to err on the side of classic and elegant. “No irony,” she said. “You can’t wear that porkpie hat. People will think you’ve lost it.”

It may just be that we’ve had a bellyful of abstractions like irony and now hanker for something direct and concrete. This desire for clarity isn’t limited to an age group — young people seem to crave it, too — and it’s not a defense against the standard complaint that you’re not cool enough to get the joke. Who cares if the joke is available to everyone through the Internet?

Duchesse seems to concur, saying:

Dressing with ironic intent is best left to the young, who enjoy irony’s cousin, sarcasm, and think their costumes are highly original. And sometimes they are, but mostly they’re just a goof, a wink, a bagatelle.

Irony is a form of self-referential elitism: I get the joke, do you? I’m willing to miss the recherché humour, and aim for well, instead of ironically, dressed.

In my twenties, I was a frequent flyer in the ironic dressing program, though at the time I didn’t consciously label it as such. My budget relegated my shopping to thrift stores, so I went all in, cultivating a John Waters-inspired aesthetic. Donna Reed shirtwaist dresses, ragged vintage beaded sweaters, bowling and Hawaiian shirts, cat-eye sunglasses with glittery gold frames all were among my wardrobe treasures. “Bad taste as an art form,” was how I probably would have described my style, the sartorial equivalent of plastic pink flamingos in the front yard.

Even so, I longed for a level of disposable income that would support a more sophisticated and elegant style of dressing. As my clothing budget slowly grew, I began to dial back on the irony, to the point that by my late thirties, I had adopted a more serious, classic style (necessitated in part by my office environment). But after a few years, dressing more or less classically and conventionally began to feel stultifying and I realized that there was a part of me that wasn’t being expressed: the irreverent, whimsical, creative, goofy part.

While I do concur with the wisdom that un certain age allows an expression of elegance that would have been misplaced on our younger selves, there is a part of me that is not willing to let go entirely of a bit of humor and whimsy when it comes to mes ensembles. I think of l’amie de ma grand-mère, whom we knew as “A.P.”(Auntie Peg). A.P. was the master of the unique, clever and fun gift, and though she wore the dresses or skirted suits with thick-heeled shoes that seemed to be the standard uniform for older women of means during the 1960’s, she always had one element that was just a little bit tweaked, whether a large brooch in the shape of a lobster, a scarf decorated with a martini glass print, or a charm bracelet with cacti and cowboy hats and boots. She expressed her humorous side subtly, but she always expressed it.

So while I’ve let go of the in-your-face irony of my younger years and still gravitate toward the simple and classic, I’ve made an effort to integrate some humor and joie de vivre into the mix. I think the trick to keep from looking like a parody is to pick one or two elements at a time, whether it be ankle boots with attitude, or a gold brocade “Jackie Kennedy” jacket, or an Hermès scarf tied in knots and worn like a necklace with a t-shirt and jeans. I’ll leave the bowling shirts and gold glitter sunglasses frames to the kids. Dressing like a loopy old lady or conversely comme une jeune fille (e.g. accessories from Hello Kitty or Tokidoki) works either way when one is barely above drinking age, but easily becomes too literal or precious after forty unless one is an honest-to-God eccentric; in that case, anything goes and more power to you.
Horyn again:

Or Anna Piaggi of Italian Vogue, whose highly theatrical style places her above mundane questions of appropriateness. It must be said that Ms. Piaggi’s look, highlighted by bright color and a miniature hat tipped over her whitened brow, demands a commitment few women possess.

As Luca said: “Even in the middle of summer, in the countryside, she doesn’t go out unless she’s dressed like that. It’s her sense of life.”

(bolds mine)

Which is really the crux of the matter, n’estce pas? Regardless of age, if our style is out of sync with our personality, we will look out of place and ill at ease even if we are otherwise impeccably dressed. Certainly we often have the inclination to judge and police another’s style based upon our own tastes, and while I may not always love someone else’s choices or find them appropriate, ultimately it boils down to chacun à son gout, non?

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  1. July 6, 2009 / 1:22 pm

    Wendy, I’d say you dress with a little bit of humor (and a lot of panache!), not irony.

  2. July 6, 2009 / 1:32 pm

    I never felt that I needed to dress in a way that would make some kind of statement, ironic or not. I try to dress in a way that is 1. appropriate for the occasion; work, play, cultural event, date, etc. and 2. makes the people that I’m with comfortable.
    But I do like the idea of dressing like your Aunt Peg in the sense of wearing tradional clothes but adding an accessory with a twist.

  3. July 6, 2009 / 1:33 pm

    From the responses to my post, women are unsure what ‘dressing ironically’ is; there is a difference between humour or “one element a little bit tweaked” and irony”.

    Re Anna Pileggi, not a shred of irony, pure eccentricity.

    Like you I completely support women wearing what they like, and at the same time, the beholder makes assumptions- a story about who you are- based on that. I used to wear bowling shirts, too, and no longer do, it’t not who I am.

  4. July 6, 2009 / 2:06 pm

    Belle – I think we make a statement with how we dress, whether it’s intentional or not. Your statement is tasteful and classic. 😉

    Duchesse – I picture a continuum, with serious, straightforward dressing at one end, total irony at the other, and humor/whimsy somewhere in the middle. I’m not that bowling shirt person anymore either.

  5. July 6, 2009 / 2:23 pm

    Thanks, Pseu, for thinking this through so elegantly and so eloquently. My own tendency is perhaps for whimsy rather than irony, and I’ve certainly learned to express that tendency more subtly over the years. Still, I think that those of us who spend any time thinking and writing about fashion for women of a certain age want to expand, rather than shrink, the possibilities for those women (ourselves!). And while I appreciate guidance about how to dress appropriately for my senior years (yikes! not an expression I’m ever going to love), I never want to be co-opted into making the circle smaller. A much-appreciated post and I thank you again.

  6. July 6, 2009 / 2:29 pm

    I think you’ve targeted the 2 most important Don’ts: childishness and in your face dressing that’s like poking someone in the ribs, braying, Doncha get it!

    I just generally avoid anything that screams I’m so much cooler than you.

    And I’m influenced by the idea – don’t remember from where – that your clothes shouldn’t be relied on to say things – sometimes literally – that it’s your own job to say, should you care to

  7. July 6, 2009 / 4:13 pm

    I’m not a fan of Charla Krupp – I think it’s laughable that a barely-40 year old presumes to tell us how to dress. I agree with Duchesse, and I think by the time we’ve reached 50, we ought to have gotten over the need to push the envelope, and instead developed our own personal style. An element of humour such as an amusing pin or scarf adds some spice in a subtle way.

  8. July 6, 2009 / 4:47 pm

    I’ve had a misunderstood sense of humor my entire life, so I’m used to people often not “getting” what I’m wearing, because I do often dress for a bit of a giggle.

  9. July 6, 2009 / 5:46 pm

    Interesting, and here’s why. I don’t watch that What Not to Wear show, except that I got hooked into a couple episodes over the weekend. One was about a 24 year old children’s television producer who had a bad habit of dessing ironically, or as she described it, wearing things that made her laugh.

    The problem is she looked ridiculous and borderline lunatic. Even for a 24 year old who can “do” irony, it was scary.

    Another trend is women who infantilize themselves with cutsie details. Grown women should not be wearing ducks and bunnies, KWIM? There are a lot of women who get into this bad habit when their childrean are small and I find it disturbing. It’s not done ironically, either.

    On the other hand, clothes for a certain age are taken so seriously at times. It becomes depressing and dull to have to worry about it all the time. I think your Auntie had the right approach.

  10. July 6, 2009 / 5:49 pm

    Sher said: “I view ironic as wearing those christmas bulb earings at Christmas, or putting on that pumpkin sweater at Halloween. I say it’s OK for a teacher to wear those for a grammar school day. But I’m not putting them on to walk the street.”

    Well, I see your point but I’m not giving up my holiday earrings. I’m not dressing like a Christmas tree, but on the other hand, sometimes that little twist is a good thin. Wearing your Santa earrings in December is not irony to me. Wearing them in July would be.

  11. July 6, 2009 / 6:11 pm

    This is a fascinating discussion, as was the one on Duchese’s site. I definitely am questioning everything I wear these days in an attempt to figure out what is “appropriate.” In addition, the whole topic made me think about other “age appropriate” behaviors – particularly language – which I’ve just written about on my blog. I honestly don’t know what is right or wrong anymore, but I have definitely started to feel when something is “wrong” for me. Great stuff!

  12. July 6, 2009 / 8:06 pm

    re doll’s comment, “appropriate” (or inappropriate) is a loaded word. in my experience it means what someone thinks is “correct”. When I find myself using it I pull myself up and ask what I really want to say (or if it’s my kids, to ask.)

  13. WendyB
    July 6, 2009 / 1:14 pm

    I have no idea if I dress ironically or not. Certainly not deliberately! I just wear what I like. Once in a while I think that outfit is maybe a little…amusing. But ironic? Probably not.

  14. metscan
    July 6, 2009 / 3:54 pm

    Hi! I love this post,thanks. During the years, yes my taste has changed. No longer do I desire the this season clothes. I wish to dress comfortably; in clothes that feel right and look right on me. I´m willing to place a lot on quality and less for quantity. I want my clothes to warm me during the winter months and keep me cool during the short summer months. I too wish to dress appropriate for the occasion; some classy, festive clothes, everyday clothes and clothes for sports. Selected accessories ( only a few ), would be my way of identifying me from us.

  15. July 6, 2009 / 11:12 pm

    I would say I alway dress with a peice of whimsy or more; a dressy pant suit with pearls and cowboy boots, plain back dresses with striped socks.

    It’s just who I am. I am always happy to have a point of difference between me and others

  16. Sher
    July 6, 2009 / 4:29 pm

    I view ironic as wearing those christmas bulb earings at Christmas, or putting on that pumpkin sweater at Halloween. I say it’s OK for a teacher to wear those for a grammar school day. But I’m not putting them on to walk the street.

    It’s like theme decorating a room. Sometimes one can go overboard.

  17. La Belette Rouge
    July 6, 2009 / 11:18 pm

    Many years a go a friend said I had a post modern preppy style. I loved that label and I stuck with it even though I wasn’t sure what she met. I think what my friend mean that there was a certain irony to my affection for Lily Pulitzer, charm bracelets and classics that wouldn’t be a miss in a country club even though I am liberal, uninterested in golf, and do my best to avoid functions at country clubs. As I got older I dropped the irony and still wear a similar style. I think I replaced irony with a bit of whimsy. I think whimsy looks much better on me.;-)

    Great post and great post and article that inspired it.

  18. indigo16
    July 7, 2009 / 5:56 pm

    I am lucky in many ways, as being an art teacher seems to allow me a degree of tolerance when it comes to the way I dress.
    The days of ironic dressing are over I have learnt to keep my sense of fun but considerably more pared down. Yet I am glad I did go a little mad, what is it to be young if not to experiment and let it all go.
    My mantra now tends to be, go bold with the accessories and keep the base classic, but cut with a twist and layer.

  19. July 8, 2009 / 3:16 am

    materfamilias – and you do whimsy so well! I agree with you about wanting to expand our choices. Maybe those choices look different than when we were younger, but who wants to be constrained?

    vildy – I will cop to the fact that not a small part of my youthful ironic dressing was that desire to convey “cooler-than-you.” In retrospect, I doubt very much that I succeeded.

    metscan – I’m with you on comfort! I’m no longer willing to wear anything that itches or is too tight or stiff, or shoes that hurt. Life’s too short to be uncomfortable in our clothing!

  20. July 8, 2009 / 3:31 am

    Rita – I’m not much of a Charla Krupp fan either, but thought it was an interesting quote that captured the gist of the article. Krupp’s much more into cookie-cutter do’s and don’ts than I am. I think that there are a small minority of women for whom “pushing the envelope” will continue to be an authentic style statement, regardless of age. I am not one.

    LPC – I knew I’d get myself in trouble with that Hello Kitty reference! 😉 Your necklace sounds cute, and I imagine would be subtle enough especially if worn with a very classic ensemble to not cross into “too much irony” territory.

    Sher – ah,kitch! also a slippery slope after a certain age.

  21. July 8, 2009 / 3:43 am

    Style Spy – when you post your ensemble pics, I always notice that little soupçon of humor in the mix. Just the right amount!

    Nancy – you’re right about the cutesie stuff, not a good look.

    dollcannotfly – I’ve become wary of the word “appropriate” in most cases, as it usually denotes some self-styled expert’s arbitrary standards and rules. Other than funerals and black tie weddings, I think “appropriate” is more about what makes us feel comfortable and ourselves. Trust that inner voice that tells you when something feels right or not.

  22. July 8, 2009 / 3:53 am

    Icy – it sounds like you have a good handle on your own style!

    LBR – “post-modern preppy,” I love it! I think that does describe your style pretty well. I also see you as having a very kate spade-esque style, or tongue-in-cheek preppy.

    indigo16 – yes, it’s good to have pushed the limits when younger. Your style mantra sounds almost identical to what mine has evolved into in the last few years.

  23. July 9, 2009 / 1:53 pm

    Je ne peux pas vous dire toutes mes pensées à propos de Charla Krupp, car ce ne serait ni de bon ton, ni de bon goût…

    I can’t abide that sort of woman. She is just barely in her 40s? That kind of plastic, overly made-up, fakey blonde is a very ageing look indeed, like a superannuated Barbie. (On another blog someone was writing about “Berlusconis and Barbies”).

    I don’t dress at I did as a teen either, but I refuse to look corporate or suburban because I’ve hit 50. There are many somewhat bohemian women of my age in central Montréal, no, not ironic, but not suddenly dull either.

  24. July 9, 2009 / 5:37 pm

    i like to dress not ironically, but dramatically. unfortunately clothing today is either one way or the other — boring, bland and safe, or ridiculous. especially if you’re in the over-40 and plump with it, category.

    but one should dress to suit your personality. for many, many years, my father’s “formal” attire was his kilt, hose, and tuxedo shirt with prince charlie jacket. one year, for a cousin’s wedding, he wore a pale blue jacket, light tan trousers and a blue and tan striped shirt. all picked out by my mother. we all agreed — he was uncomfortable, and we were unhappy with the way he looked in such “normal” attire. the next event, it was back to kilted.

  25. sallymandy
    July 10, 2009 / 5:08 am

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this discussion and the one that Duchesse started. Thank you.

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