Re-Writing The Age Rules

rewriting the age rules

For those of us in our 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and beyond, developing and evolving our personal style has often meant factoring in what’s age appropriate for our cohort. But “age appropriate” has come to be a concept that like “chic” has a rather broad, subjective and divergent definition.

This wasn’t always the case. Up until the last couple of decades, the parameters of what was considered “appropriate” for women of a certain age were fairly clear. We were supposed to tone it down, cover it up, and fade quietly into the background. Yes, we were allowed a bit of “elegance,” and maybe just a hint of eccentricity, but trends, Fashion and the style limelight were the purview of the young. (As was dressing to convey any hint of sexuality.)

Those old rules seem to have been tossed out the window, and we women of a certain age are no longer accepting being relegated to invisibility. While it’s mostly for the good to shake off those shackles, it does sometimes leave us floundering. How short is too short? How trendy is too trendy? Do I have to stop wearing pantyhose (or “sheer tights” as they’ve come to be called) or risk looking dated? Can I still wear motorcycle boots? Skinny jeans?

And unfortunately for those looking for a clear and consistent direction, the answer is still a big fat, “It Depends.” But the silver lining, if you’re open to it, is that age doesn’t have to limit our choices any more than situation, budget, or taste do. In fact, I think that occasion or situation are far more important yardsticks to help determine what’s appropriate, regardless of age, and easier to gauge.

But being the kind of person who functions best with even a rudimentary roadmap, I’ll share some of the new “age appropriate”guidelines (very, very general and flexible guidelines) I’ve sussed out for myself over the last few years.

1. Don’t dress with the sole purpose of looking younger. You’ll only convey the impression of trying too hard. Rather dress to express your best and truest self, whatever your age. Maybe that’s a pair of skinny jeans with moto boots, maybe a full-skirted vintage dress, or a Chanel suit, or maybe something else entirely depending on your personal style and mood.

2. Conversely, if an item sings to you, or wearing a particular outfit gives you that “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” feeling, then don’t worry about whether it’s “too young” for you, just wear it and ROCK it!

3. Stay open to trying something new, but trust your own taste. I do warn against dressing expressly to look young (see #1 above), but keeping aware of and incorporating current cuts, colors, and a few select trends will keep your look fresh and up-to-date whatever your age. I never thought I’d wear mixed patterns, but I’ve really warmed up to the concept. However, I like it best in limited doses and couldn’t pull off a head-to-toe kaleidoscopic look.

4. Proceed with caution when it comes to literal interpretation of recycled trends. That expression “if you wore it the first time around, don’t wear it the second time around,” doesn’t have to be a hard-and-fast rule, but there’s a grain of truth in it. For example, many aspects of 80’s styles are back in fashion, but resurrecting your favorite big-shouldered, double-breasted, pleated-pants suit from that decade could create the impression you’re stuck in a time warp. Be selective.

5. Don’t give up on fit! You’ll look and feel more energetic and vibrant in clothes that fit your body, regardless of size or shape. You don’t have to sacrifice fit for comfort either. Baggy, shapeless clothes will make you look tired, frumpy and older than your years.

6. Most important: have fun! Style can be a wonderful form of self expression, and one that we can enjoy at any age.

Image courtesy Advanced Style.

_ _ _

Already Pretty contributor Une Femme is fifty-five, married to the same wonderful monsieur since 1995, the mother of a special-needs teenager and two hooligan dogs, a full-time administrative professional, a coffee-holic, Paris-obsessed, native Californian, and a petite and curvy femme d’un certain age. She believes that personal style is an essential form of self-expression, and started her blog, Une femme d’un certain âge, in 2007 hoping to start a conversation about style for women over 50.

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31 Responses to “Re-Writing The Age Rules”

  1. Pam@over50feeling40

    Une Femme has been a leader of this conversation for the rest of us 50+ bloggers who have joined in. Fit is so important…no matter what you are looking for! She has some great advice here.

  2. Renita Domek

    Great post! The lines really have been blurred as to what’s age appropriate anymore. I think the six age appropriate guidelines you lay out are “spot on”. I just love your “damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead” description. You’ve got to follow your gut in every aspect of your life, including fashion!

  3. Tracey Jennings

    I think it is rather funny that women my age (late forties) talk about skirt length a lot and then it seems that women in their 60’s rebel against the entire idea that there is an appropriate length they should adhere to. I think women in our forties may, like me have daughters we don’t want to dress like and as we age that falls away and is no longer in play. Nice to see an article that opens up the options instead of listing restrictions!

  4. Jill

    I feel like I’ve stopped worrying about what others think, which is SO refreshing. I’ve never been what you would consider a “daring” dresser to begin with; I’m more of a classicist overall. But I have my own style and I’m very comfortable with it.

    I turned 45 late last year and it was almost like “aha! Now it doesn’t really matter” (not sure why 45 was the kicker) what anyone else thinks. And in some ways it’s a relief not to get the sexual attention (except in limited amounts) that my curvy body has always gotten. It’s freed me.

    Those old fashion rules – “no miniskirts after 35” “don’t have long hair after 40” etc are so ridiculous. I agree with you – DO WHAT’S BEST for yourself without worrying about how “young” you might look, and you can’t go wrong. 🙂

    • tina

      Wow! It’s always refreshing to see someone snub conventional ways! I love her glasses!

    • MJ

      Sorry, but I think she looks ridiculous in the first several pictures. Not my role model at all (and I’m not all that conservative a dresser).

  5. Viktoria

    Seems to me like there is more angst about appropriateness when you are passing from youngish to oldish and not sure where you stand (and kicking and screaming), but when you are safely on the other side, so to speak (=acceptance), it´s not so much of a problem any more. Perhaps because no one is going to take you for a young thing any more anyway. Even at a distance. And that is ok. And, as someone said, “Who cares what others think?”.

  6. cecelia

    What’s a good resource for keeping track of the current trends? I’ve given up on most magazines because they’re always trying to sell stuff, and it seems by the time I catch onto a trend it is on its way out…

    • sarah

      Cecelia, I always like to read the trend-round-ups from the latest fashion shows for the upcoming seasons: so, for example, if you did a google search for “spring/summer 2013 fashion trends” right now, you’d get results from a number of sources: marie claire, elle, Pantone (for colour forecasts), etc. I think it’s fun to read up early, and to see what trends appear among all the “trend reports” as we get closer to the season. I like to keep these things in mind when I’m shopping, even if I’m not interested in a lot of the upcoming trends (in fact, this year’s spring roundup isn’t inspiring me very much – but pre-fall is!). We should have HEAPS of new style inspiration in a couple weeks, when fashion week happens and all the fall collections are debuted!

  7. Maggie

    I always appreciate this conversation: there have been times that I have shown my son (18) an outfit to ask his opinion of whether it is too “jeune fille” for me (plus he gets to learn French LOL). There was a dress I must have shown him three times, which he pointed out suggested that I was nervous about it my own self. (See Wilderflora Dress, Byron Lars for Anthropologie) It reminded me of things I had worn as a younger woman (think Gunne Sax) so I was keeping the adage in mind about “if you were in on the trend once….” etc. But I loved the dress, kept it and wore it for a holiday open house and felt fantastic…. So guess that put one rule in conflict with another, and in my case, the torpedos won!

  8. Carol

    I’m 58 and I often feel like I shouldn’t wear jeans so much. But I love jeans! I’m not talking about tattered, dirty jeans or super tight jeans with a 5 inch rise, I mean nicely fitting, simply styled jeans in perfect condition. I look fine in them, and paired with a pretty sweater or blouse, or a good quality colorful tee accessorized with a scarf and jewelry, they’re perfect for my casual lifestyle. I don’t have any in bright colors, but have a few pairs in classic denim blue, black and dark blue wash. I don’t wear them absolutely all the time – sometimes the situation calls for dressier clothing – but maybe I should get over feeling that I’m too old to wear them at all. Thanks for the post!

    • Anna

      Carol, I am a few years older than you, and you have described my style almost exactly. When I wear good jeans (black or dark wash) with nice tops well accessorized. I feel just right for my age, the rural and small-town area where I live, and my desire to look well put together and casual but not sloppy. It’s a good adaptable look. My only fear is that I will come to rely too much on it, and abandon my few nice dresses and skirts!

    • lagatta à montréal

      Carol and Anna, well-cut jeans in black, dark indigo or surprising but non-flashy colours such as coffee or deep green are fine in Paris and NYC too. At any age. And even teens seem less keen on the very low-rise ones that give them all plumber’s cleavage.

      I love skirts, but that is also because I have a big bum (though firm from cycling). And love cycling in a skirt.

  9. Sonja

    Today I took the subway and noticed a man who was probably in his seventies, wearing a kind of punk look: purple Doc Martins, grey-black skinny jeans in one of these psychodelic bleaching-patterns and a coarse jacket that I don’t remember correctly, I think it might have been a grey wollen blazer with a colourful scarf.
    He looked stunning, but in my eyes this was mostly because he had put some thought into his general appearance – he was neatly shaven and had beautiful white hair, that obviously gets trimmed often, with a kind of fifties quiff.
    Of course he struck me as “excentric” in a city where most elderly man wear brown cardigans and nearly any hairstyle at all. And yes, he looked as if he might have worn something similar in the eighties. But who cares?
    This man has shown me that putting some thought into your outfit and looking polished and put together is much more important than what kind of clothes you wear. Of course anybody is free to do whatever they want, but for me it has been an interesting lesson that I intent to have in mind, for both my current and future style.

  10. LinB

    The worst, worst thing you can do that makes you look like “mutton dressed as lamb” is to try to cram yourself into something that is too small. Our bodies change as we age, and our shapes shift. What once fit you perfectly a few decades ago may now be far too tight in the waist now; or not long enough for your back, so that blouses and jackets either ride up in the back or choke you from the front. Proper fit is more important than style, to me.

    • LinB

      Also, apparently, use of the modifier “now” is extremely important to me. Edit out one of them in that penultimate sentence as you read it, please and thank you.

      • sarah

        I agree, LinB! To me, accepting that one’s body changes – and choosing clothes to flatter the body one HAS (as opposed to *had*) is a key part of my concept of “aging gracefully.”

  11. Moira

    Great post. I think the “if you wore it the first time” rule is useful in terms of knowing that “if you wore it the first time and it didn’t work for you then, don’t wear it the second time!” I love the return of some of the ’80s brights and more forgiving cuts, but I won’t be dipping back into the blousy/oversized trend again, because if it didn’t look good on my 20-year-old body, it won’t look good on my 40-year-old body for sure. But that is one of the up sides of aging — you learn more about your own strengths and weaknesses, sartorially as well as every other way, and you can dip into current trends in a more assured way.

  12. Connie*

    I worked for years at boutiques that cater to la femme d’un certain age, Eileen Fisher and few others so I’ve helped dress quite few women and the only rules are Fit and a Good BRA!! After that just do what makes you feel pretty and comfortable.

  13. Kelly R

    I needed this LAST month! I was so excited about the outfit I picked to wear NYE and my husband said it looked too young for me. So I changed and I wasn’t happy (even though I WAS warmer). I ended up wearing JEANS… nice dark trouser-cut jeans, but still! I know what looks best on me and I love playing with fashion (I stay home with two girls, so I can wear whatever I choose). Having fun with clothes and styles is one of the best parts of being a girl! But I also don’t want my little girls growing up too fast, so I have to use my best judgement to keep from sending them the wrong message about what’s appropriate. There’s a lot of gray area when it comes to dressing little girls (they’re little kids, so I don’t care if they want to be topless at the beach, but one-shoulder tops are out of the question for daily wear). I wish society would loosen up and stop oversexualizing. Getting all of us dressed in the morning would be so much easier!

  14. dressperado

    Great post! “have fun! Style can be a wonderful form of self expression, and one that we can enjoy at any age.” Fashion is such a great way “to express your best and truest self” and a great way to discover your truest self. Love this!

  15. Sam

    Yes!!! And I laughed when I saw “skinny jeans with moto boots” because that’s one of my favourite looks.

    The one area I find myself being more selective as I age is accessories. I think that having a really nice handbag or boots lets me get away with wearing what might be considered “young” looks (particularly in casual wear – converse & jeans look really different with a killer handbag).

  16. Lainie

    Great post! I am turning 39 this month, and have had this on my mind lately. I wear what I love, combination of 40s swing/secretary with gothic trappings/accessories. But I am wondering if my full skirts and peter pan collars are just too….young. I almost feel like I should sharpen my wardrobe. Also, at what point should a specific look-say Rockabilly or Gothic-be toned down? Never?

  17. sarah

    yay! I *adore* Un Femme and Advanced Style – these are some of my sartorial heroes! I’m so happy, as a woman in her 30s (but with a tendency to actually dress a bit older than my age) to have these women blazing a joyful trail of sartorial creativity for women over 40! I look up to you all so much, and look to you as role models for my own future; I just wanted to say, thanks! I *love* reading about your experiences and your tips. =) Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

  18. Anne

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this post and all the comments. One thing that really strikes me is that so many of us, over so many ages, are grappling with this issue. As we stay more active, and take better care of ourselves, we seem to be pushing all these age related rules aside. It’s a great thing but its complicated as well. I love these guidelines because they’re so open ended and down to earth. When I turned 40 I bought into this idea that I was now a “Big girl” and had to buy “Big girl clothes” (I interpreted this to mean more formal, more sophisticated clothes) No that I am staring down 50, I find myself really wanting to be a little looser and less formal in the way I dress. I’ve given myself permission to break my previously established rules. I’m having more fun with clothes and I honestly think I look better. I’ve broken the second time around rule and worn flares and platforms. This year I’ve been really drawn to Moto-styled sweaters and jackets; they been just the thing to dress down all those big girl clothes!


    Great advice from a blogger I admire. I especially like #1 and #2. Might I add that it also helps to find a “go to” designer or brand that works for one’s body shape, aesthetic and lifestyle through the years. It makes shopping much easier, at any age. The type of items I wear will work for me even when I’m 70.

  20. The Style Crone

    Great post and love the photo from Advanced Style, which illustrates your commentary. Having fun with style adds so much to life and vitality. Why stop now?