When it comes to clothing, the term ‘age-appropriate’ is ill-fitting if not a bit outdated. The prescriptive notion of acquiescing to a quieter, more controlled image with ascending years suggests that matters sartorial have an age limit.
Adulting is challenging enough without the added social pressure of having to fit a style by numbers approach to dressing. Media messages such as: look young but not too young; learn to conceal, not reveal; don’t look like mutton or a lamb, have left many women over 40 feeling sheepish.
Can I pull it off? Do I risk being profiled by Topshop security?
Suddenly buying a pair of frayed hem jeans or rocking a fringed kimono feels like an act of high treason — risky and punishable by the fashion police. Until now.
Social media has created a new breed of digital revolutionaries bent on busting demographically-determined dress codes. The kicker? Not one of them is a millennial.
American university professor-come- fashion influencer Lyn Slater (63) has become an Accidental Icon thanks to her eponymous blog which has seen her star in A Story of Uniqueness campaign for Spanish retailer Mango.
Both model-turned-Instagram star Colleen Heidemann (68) and Bag and a Beret blogger Melanie Kobayishi (54) throw shade at any dimmer switch with their vibrant visual identities; while retired Playboy Bunny and Senior Style Bible auteur Dorrie Jacobson (82) takes a more activist approach by waging wardrobe warfare on prevailing style semantics.
And that’s not the half of it. From the cult popularity of Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog (which espoused a self-titled coffee table book and documentary) to the Emmy-nominated costume design for Netflix TV series Grace & Frankie starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, style citizens are demanding equal fashion opportunities, regardless of age.
As Jane Fonda proved herself at the Emmys.
So, why the hue and cry? Our increasingly mobile lifestyles aided by the fact that we are leading longer, healthier lives and, in turn, retiring later, have made the feeling of youth a valuable personal commodity.
Although, most women don’t want to look like our 20-something selves (mine was an ode to hipster jeans and questionable boob tubes), neither do we wish to be excluded from exercising our right to self-expression.
Why fit in when we can stand out?
Ironically, this civil disobedience is nothing new. The exponential rise in deconstructed silhouettes, athleisure and sports luxe trends has testified to this shift much in the same way as the 1920s saw Coco Chanel co-opt menswear and sportswear influences into her collections and flappers swap out constricting corsets for dance- friendly drop waist dresses. Disruption by design.
The biggest revolution was yet to come. The 1960s ‘youthquake’ saw dress codes implode as baby boomers rejected the social norms of previous decades. Street style usurped established couture houses in terms of influence with the emerging generation demanding freedom of speech through the language of fashion.
Mary Quant, credited with introducing the controversial mini skirt, answered this call. Her King’s Road boutique, Bazaar — a popular mod and rocker hangout — became the first showcase for the skirt which soon became a symbol of social, political and sexual emancipation. The truncated hem, measuring four to seven inches above respected codes of decency, was actually a practical measure designed to help women run for a bus. As hemlines rose, so did the trend-led ready-to-wear industry and, with that, a style suffrage was born.
Granted, every day dressing can be more pedestrian than political. We all need go-to garments that’ll successfully navigate a school run, late alarms and a packed schedule but it’s those special amulets of change that create magic in the mundane; clothing that makes us feel impervious, special and powerful in one hedonic swoop. After all, it’s not just what you wear; it’s why you wear it.
Irish designer Joanne Hynes, known for her disruptive approach to traditional style tenets, alluded to this alchemical approach in her spring/summer 17 collection for Dunnes Stores — A Rousseau Rendezvous.
Holding a fashion show in the supermarket aisles of the St Stephen’s Green department store, the Galway native unleashed a cacophony of texture, kaleidoscope colours and plenty of Perspex using models of all ages including septuagenarian Lorna Brittain — who first catwalked for the designer in 2004.
Ditto for the recent London Fashion Week presentation of her Dunnes Stores autumn/winter 17 collection, A Complicated Relationship With. Inspired by strong women of substance like Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz — her diverse choice of models (sporting military motifs and ribald roses) championed this semantic irreverence.
“I’m interested in the idea of true democracy within fashion,” explains Hynes. “I look at real people of all ages and get truly inspired. It makes perfect sense for me to use models of different ages because that’s how I logically think and I’m connected to that emotionally when I design.”
Indeed, the designer’s seer-like ability to tap into demographic-free fashion is reflected in her army of age-inappropriate followers (Amy Huberman, Ruth Negga and Daphne Guinness to name a few). “There’s is a whole ‘generation’ (“a diminishing concept”) of people out there who are longing for connection and meaning and want to play with the idea of preconceived roles within society, adds Hynes. The Joanne Hynes woman? Someone who seek to stand out rather than fit in.
Jan Brierton, creative director at Morgan The Agency, shares a similar sentiment. “I’ve used fashion as an expression as I’ve matured — a ritual of getting up in the morning and putting on something that tells the world exactly what you want it to see. If ‘age appropriate dressing’ in our older years means developing a ‘safe’ style then that’s a real shame.”
I’m inclined to agree. At 44 years old, I feel safer in my braver choices, ironically due to the benefit of age — wisdom. Whereas I experimented with trends as a 20- something in a bid to know who I was; I am free to dress myself with confidence now that I know who I am.
Self-actualisation aside, surely physical changes dictate a more realistic set of sartorial norms? Rocking a crop top without rock hard abs is a challenge at any age.
“I think the term in relation to fashion is quite patronising,” says Brierton.
“However, as a 40-something year old woman, my internal ‘age appropriate dressing’ switch is well and truly on. It’s not anything that I consciously considered but seems to have developed with the changes in my body.
And from speaking to other women, the changes in body shape inform their fashion choices as they age, and not in fact their age.” True. Fashion may be a revolution but personal style — that’s evolution. Put simply, it’s a matter of stocktaking — making small adjustments where needed.
It doesn’t require a cautious, hermetically-sealed approach to ‘getting it right’. It’s simply a matter of proportions — nothing more, nothing less.
Brierton cites the fearlessness of former J.Crew scion Jenna Lyons (48), actress-singer Charlotte Gainsbourg’s (45) insouciant ease and boyish beatnik Patti Smith (70) as fitting examples of a new age of dressing — where conduct is codeless and individuality rules. Equality, after all, is as much in the mind as the masses.
Age-appropriate style? It’s an attitude; a way of life; a peaceful protest that whispers, “I don’t care what you think; I care how I feel and I feel good.”