How can you use the metaphorical language of fashion and style to say, “sexy woman over age fifty”?
It’s been a while since I’ve done a Fashion Friday post. It’s not because I’ve lost interest in the subject, or because I’ve run out of fashion topics to write about. Far from it. It’s because I’ve run through the easy, light-hearted topics that I could toss off in an hour (for the time being, anyway), and haven’t had the time or energy to get into the more serious, meaty topics I’ve been chewing over in my head. And it’s because I’ve been putting off one particular serious topic: one I’ve alluded to in passing in several other fashion posts, one I’ve been chewing over for a long time, one I keep promising to write about and keep putting off.
I want to talk about fashion, age, and sex.
I want to talk about how, as a woman over age fifty, I am trying to use fashion to express my sexuality. I want to talk about some of the difficulties I’m running into with this project. I want to talk about some of the ideas I’m chewing over on how to deal with this… and I want to solicit ideas that I might not have thought of.
I’ve written before about how I see fashion and style as a sort of metaphorical language, in which different pieces have different meanings (assigned/ evolved somewhat arbitrarily), which we choose and combine in our own personal style to express who we are and how we see our place in the world. (And no, I don’t want to re-hash that “fashion as metaphorical language” argument here. If you feel compelled to re-hash that argument, do it in the original posts.)
So here’s the situation. I’m a woman. My sexuality is important to me: it’s a central part of my identity, a central part of how I experience myself and my body and how I relate to the world. I have recently turned fifty. I want to express all that, using fashion and style, in how I carry myself in the world.
And I’m finding it difficult to find a way, using the metaphorical language of fashion, to say, “sexy woman over fifty.”
Now — to beat the “fashion as language” metaphor into the ground — the problem isn’t that the vocabulary for this phrase doesn’t exist. All the metaphorical “words” are there. There are articles of fashion — pieces of clothing, styles of hair, lengths of skirt, etc. — that say “sexy,” that say “woman,” and that say “over fifty.”
The problem isn’t that the vocabulary isn’t there.
The problem is that our culture considers the phrase “sexy woman over fifty” to be nonsense. An absurdity at best; gobbledygook at worst.
That’s even true of the literal language. The concept of a sexy woman over fifty is most commonly used as a laugh line. “Sexy woman over fifty” generally gets translated/ interpreted as “woman over fifty who is laughably self-deluded into thinking she’s sexy.” And this is reflected in fashion and style. When you look at the articles of fashion that say “sexy,” the ones that say “woman,” and the ones that say “over fifty” — you’ll find that there’s damn little overlap. The space in that Venn diagram that’s covered by all three… well, it’s not non-existent, but it’s pretty damn small.
Now. Some people are almost certainly going to say, “Who cares what other people think? Wear whatever you want! Fuck ’em!” Yeah, I appreciate the sentiment. The problem with that is that I do see fashion and style as a sort of language, a form of communication — and in language and communication, caring what other people think is the name of the game. I want my language and communication to be understood by others. If I’m trying to say, “Sexy woman over fifty,” it doesn’t help if people hear what I’m saying as, “Fish squabble dinky parlor.” (Or, more likely, “Pathetic, self-deluded laughingstock who’s desperate for attention.”)
Part of what we express through fashion and style has to do with our age and how we feel about it. As I said in my previous piece, On Being Age-Appropriate: An outfit that expresses “10-year-old” is different from one that expresses “25-year-old”; different again from one that expresses “48-year-old”; different again from one that expresses “70-year-old.” And I want to dress in a way that communicates love and respect and value for who I am. Including love and respect for both my sexuality and my age. And finding that vocabulary is not easy.
All of this is compounded by the fact that the concept of “sexy” isn’t just about how we see ourselves. It’s a concept that has to do with how other people see us. We can see ourselves as sexual without regard to what anyone else thinks of us… but pretty much by definition, “sexy” means “being seen as sexually attractive by other people.” And while the way I feel about myself and my sexuality isn’t appreciably different since I turned fifty, I strongly suspect that the way the world sees me has changed — and I don’t know how to deal with that. It’s not that I want to dress in a way that gets the whole world falling all over itself to fuck me. It’s that I want to dress in a way that gets my sexuality acknowledged, and appreciated.
This is important to me for obvious self-interested reasons. But it’s also important because I want to be a role model. When I was coming into adulthood, I remember seeing role models of older women’s sexuality — and I found them very reassuring. In particular, I remember a photo in the lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs, a center spread of three old dykes performing a cabaret routine in fishnets and top hats and tails… and I remember being fixated on it, almost to the point of obsession. Mostly I just thought the women were hot hot hot… but I was also filing the images away for future reference. Middle-aged and old people sometimes joke about how we’re grossing the young people out with vivid stories about our freaky sex lives, and that may sometimes be true… but when those young people start to get older, I think having some of those vivid stories in their minds may be… well, “comforting” may not be the exact right word. Encouraging? That’s certainly been true for me. And I want to pass that along.
So. Here are some preliminary thoughts, and some experiments that have been working for me at least to some extent.
One direction I’ve been going in, and one that seems to be working for me, is the direction of elegance and sophistication. There aren’t many ways that older women are seen by our culture as sexual… but one of those ways has to do with experience. The worldly-wise woman who’s been around the block and knows her way around a body and a bedroom, who’s knowledgeable enough to be familiar with the basics of anatomy and most of the standard variations (and a fair number of the less-standard ones), who’s confident enough to be able to ask for what she wants, who’s savvy enough to not be shocked by the less-common requests of her partner(s), and who’s comfortable enough with sex and with herself to relax and play and enjoy? Even mainstream culture can sometimes recognize that as hot. So when I dress to be sexy and sexual, I find that it works better if I say, “I’ve been around the block, I know a thing or two that might surprise you”… rather than saying, “Look at my pretty flesh!”
Related to that: I’m finding that I feel more sexy when my clothing frames my body without showing a lot of skin. There’s a guideline I see a lot in fashion: You can show cleavage, legs, or arms — pick two. Showing all three tends to look trashy. And as you get older, dressing in a way that’s age-appropriate increasingly means, “pick one.” And as you get even older, it increasingly means, “pick none.” But there are ways to show off a beautiful body without showing skin. Patterned tights and stockings, instead of short skirts and bare legs. A dress that’s clingy and curve-hugging but high-necked, instead of a low-cut cleavage-bomb. Displaying curves through structure and tailoring, instead of… well, instead of through display. I have some issues with this idea — more on that in a tic — but I can work with it.
I also suspect that, as I get older, I may dress more dykey. In my experience, dykes tend, on average, to be more appreciative of older women’s sexuality than straight men. So I may start aiming my fashion statements — the sexual ones, anyway — more at women, and at women’s ideas of what makes other women hot. The fashion vocabulary is somewhat different for dykes than it is for the rest of the world, and the overlapping Venn diagram between “sexy,” “woman,” and “over fifty” covers rather a larger area. I suspect that as I get older, I’ll be spending more time in that area.
And related to that: I may wind up playing with gender more. As I said before when I wrote about fashion and gender: When I was fat, male drag was a way of feeling sexy and sexually transgressive, even though I wasn’t conventionally attractive. And I think that could work as I get older, too. A sixty-year old woman in a Marlene Dietrich tuxedo? That is smokin’ hot. It’s hot if she’s doing it straight-up butch; it’s hot if she’s doing it in black eyeliner and cherry-red lipstick. I would hit that in a second. Dressing more gender-fucked is a great way to say, “I don’t give a shit about traditional gender expectations, in bed or out, and in the sack I will let my imagination run wild”… without the display of flesh that’s (a) most commonly seen as “sexy” in the language of fashion, and (b) increasingly seen as unsexy as you get older.
There’s a theme that’s developing here as I think out loud, and I’m finding it an interesting one. As an older woman, the ways to use fashion and style to express sexuality have less to do with tempting displays of flesh, and more to do with tempting displays of attitude. They aren’t so much about saying, “Look at my pretty body.” They’re more about saying, “I have a really good attitude about sex, and am awesome in the sack.”
I do have some issues with this. I think it plays into the idea that young flesh is beautiful and old flesh is gross. But I can work with it. I think people of any age can play with the idea that a subtle allusion to sex can sometimes be sexier than letting it all hang out. And even when I was more comfortable displaying more of my skin, I was always trying to convey “awesome attitude” more than “tempting flesh.” So while I have mixed feelings about this idea, I can also have fun with it.
But I’m still struggling with all this. And I suspect I’ll be struggling with it more as I get even older. If “sexy woman over fifty” is seen as a nonsensical phrase in our culture, “sexy woman over sixty” is seen as patently ridiculous — and “sexy woman over seventy” is seen as flat-out gibberish. I want to find ways to deal with this, not just in the coming decade, but in the decades after.
So I’m tossing this one out for crowd-sourcing. I want to solicit ideas about this that I might not have thought of.
Important note on comments: Unless you’re already a pretty good friend of mine or are someone I’m already having sex with, please DO NOT chime in with reassurances about how sexy I am. No matter how sincere or well-meant they are, that really isn’t what I’m looking for here. Especially in the context of recent events. (And whatever you do, unless you’re already a pretty good friend of mine, DO NOT tell me that you think I’m sexy if you meet me in person at conferences or other events. Just don’t. When I’m at conferences, I’m at work.)
That’s not what I want here. I want to know: How have you made this work for yourself? How have you seen women you know make this work for themselves? What works in terms of practical strategies — and what works in terms of emotional and psychological strategies, and how you frame this stuff for yourself? What do you think doesn’t work? What general thoughts do you have on the subject?
Your time starts… now!