Invisible woman makes a fashion statement

June 17, 2013
ari seth cohen woman in burgundy

If you see me wearing trackie dackies, shoot me. I’m turning over a new leaf now that I’m beyond middle-age and working from home. It’s tempting to wear track suit pants for the quick dash from study to shopping centre or corner cafe. It’s an effort to change. But after decades of caring little about fashion, I have a horror of being a frumpy older woman. “Older woman” I don’t mind; it’s the “frumpy” that rankles. And track suit pants are synonymous with frump.

It came over me a few months ago, just after I’d left full-time work and was lined up at the ATM. In front of me were two older ladies dressed in the aforementioned loose-fit leisure pants with the usual accessories: big tee-shirt, greying jogging shoes. They looked so comfortable, so tame and invisible – like nuns in civvies – that in an epiphany I saw my natural inclination, my sartorial future, and decided not to go there.

It’s not easy dressing well as an older woman. Finding the ground between frumpy and “mutton dressed as lamb” is an art known only to the initiates. I’m not the first woman to complain the fashion industry is unkind to women beyond a certain age. Despite all we hear about the spending power of the boomer generation we’re poorly served. Not every woman past 55 wants to wear shapeless sacks, elastic waistbands, and Capri pants; nor has the legs for leggings; nor the desire to spend hundreds of dollars on couture suits that will rarely get an airing any more.

Why is this suddenly an issue for me? For most of my adult years I’ve been something of a dag. It’s a reason I loved being a print journalist. It’s a profession full of daggy dressers. The female managers and the female business reporters had to don proper outfits for their business lunches. But for the rest of us it was casual Friday every day. Once when I came to the office wearing two odd shoes (a fashion faux pas I attribute to the fog of pregnancy) no-one noticed; when I came with tell-tale smears of baby vomit on my shirt collar (a hazard of working mothers) no-one saw anything amiss. Admittedly a female editor once told me in all kindness, “Adele, sometimes you’ve just got to throw clothes away.” I put on my glasses, took a closer look at my wardrobe, and saw the sense in her advice.

The clean-out left me with a stable of black pants and a handful of silk or cotton shirts and my leather jacket from Rome that I kept even though it was my oldest possession and going a bit mouldy. This all-season uniform served me well for years. Now that I don’t even have to change out of pyjamas to travel to my desk, now that donning track suit pants can be an effort, why is “frumpiness” exercising my mind? Is it because from an early age we imbibe through our skin tales and warnings about women who “let themselves go”?  The story handed down from mother to daughter was of sad sacks who at some post-menopausal moment just stopped caring – about lipstick and fitted jackets and good haircuts, and sex. These women looked not to their French counterparts as role models but to Americans in their sweat pants and baseball caps.

The term “letting yourself go” didn’t used to worry me in my younger days. It sounded rather freeing: letting yourself go of trivial obsession with appearance, letting yourself go of silly fashion trends.  But now I’ve entered the terrain of invisible woman, easily overlooked woman, woman in that indeterminate space between middle-age and old, I feel it’s important to make an effort to stay in view, to not be complicit in society’s tendency to ‘disappear’ us.

If men have stayed the course in reading this, the same message applies to you whether in the workforce or retirement. Balding and paunched, it’s men on the other side of middle-age who may need, perhaps even more than women, to re-assert their relevance, to not fade away in faded comfort clothes that needed to be binned years ago.

Yes, brains and skills, what we say, think and do matter more than our appearance at any age. And enjoying being ourselves – feeling confident and less troubled by other’s opinions– is one of the pleasures and freedoms of getting older. But in an ageist world, the trackie dackies and similar dreary apparel can undercut our message and re-inforce stereotypes about boring, out-of-touch, older people.

So what will it take to stay visible? I love these older New York women featured in the Advanced Style blog who have made an art of being stylish. But I know I’m not that game. I took a baby step last week, laid my mouldy leather jacket to rest, and bought myself a new coat. It’s got a wicked fake fur collar you can’t ignore.

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