Fashion Friday: On Looking Like a Middle-Aged Lady

There’s a pattern I’ve been noticing when I shop for clothes or get dressed in the morning. If I try something on and think, “This makes me look like a middle-aged lady,” I immediately reject it and put on something else. If I look at an article of clothing on a store rack or in a catalog and think, “Nah, that might look good on someone else, but on me it’d make me look like a middle-aged lady,” I won’t even try it on.

And I’ve been wondering: What’s that about?

Greta in sweater dress
After all, I am a middle-aged lady. I’m 52 years old. And I’m generally comfortable and happy with my age. There are downsides to aging, of course, mostly in the area of physical health and ability — but there are serious upsides as well, mostly in the area of confidence and experience and perspective. And I’m happy to have my clothing reflect my age. In fact, I’ve written on the topic of age-appropriate style more than once, and although I have some issues with some of the details of how that concept plays out in our culture, the core of the concept is one I embrace. I am a different person now than I was when I was 20, and I want my style to reflect that. So what does it mean that I’m comfortable with my age, and am comfortable looking my age — but that I don’t want to look like a middle-aged lady?

I’ve been thinking about this. And I think I know what it is.

When I think, “I don’t want to look like a middle-aged lady,” what I mean is, “I don’t want to look like society’s perception of a middle-aged lady.”

When I think of the cultural tropes and stereotypes of middle-aged ladies, especially when it comes to fashion and style, the words that come to mind are: Conservative. Conventional. Modest. Sexless. Inobtrusive. Invisible. Stodgy. Frumpy. And none of that describes me.

Greta in batwing minidress and octopus necklace
I don’t want to look flashy, the way I did in my twenties (well, not usually) — but I do want to command attention. I don’t want to flash my flesh, the way I did in my twenties (well, not usually) — but I do want to express my sexuality, and in some situations I even want to flaunt it. I don’t want to flagrantly ignore cultural standards, the way I did in my twenties (well, not usually) — but I do want to express independence and even defiance, albeit in a more thoughtful and selective way than I did in my youth. I don’t want to look like a kaleidoscope took mescaline and threw up, the way I did in my twenties (well, not usually) — but I do want to express exuberance and joy.

It’s a tricky thing. As I’ve written before, it’s hard to use the metaphorical language of fashion and style to express “sexy middle-aged woman,” when the very concept of a sexy middle-aged woman is one that’s seen as incoherent. And it’s hard to accept and respect the basic idea of using fashion and style as a form of expression and communication, while rejecting many of the assumptions that the language is based on. The assumption that youth, by definition, equals beauty and desirability; the assumption that after a certain age, expressing your belief in your sexual desirability is just embarrassing; the assumption that unless you’re Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, once you’ve reached a certain age you might as well just give up — these assumptions are deeply woven into the language of fashion.

And of course, any number of impossible contradictions are woven into that language as well. There’s an assumption that looking younger means looking better — coupled with a perception that people should age gracefully. There’s an assumption that of course everyone over 30, indeed everyone over 25, wants to look younger and should try to look younger — coupled with the perception that women who try too hard to look younger are making fools of themselves. There’s an assumption that it’s embarrassing to try too hard — coupled with the perception that it’s also embarrassing to not try hard enough, to “let yourself go.” We’re supposed to try the exact right amount, I guess. (More accurately, I think, we’re supposed to look younger — but it’s supposed to look effortless. A theme that crops up a lot in cultural beauty messages. But that’s a post for another time.) We’re supposed to find that perfect sliver where we accept our age, but also accept that of course it would be better to look and be younger. And that perfect sliver gets narrower and narrower the older we get — until the walls pressing in on us collide, and cross, and we enter the zone where the expectations of us move from being narrow to being literally impossible.

So how do I find my own voice in this? How do I find a way to express middle age, while resisting the cultural assumption that being middle-aged — or at least, being middle-aged and female — means not commanding attention, not expressing sexuality, not showing exuberance and joy?

Maybe the issue is with the word “lady.” I don’t want to look like a middle-aged lady: I am not a lady, and I do not give a flying fuck about being a lady. (Obviously — if I did, I wouldn’t toss around the F-word so freely.) I am not conservative, conventional, modest, sexless, stodgy, frumpy, inobtrusive, or invisible — and I do not give a flying fuck about being any of these things. To the contrary. I am radical, shameless, sexual, defiant, obtrusive, and as visible as I possibly can make myself be. And I embrace all of these things.

Greta in striped jacket and boots
I don’t want to look like a middle-aged lady.

I want to look like a middle-aged woman.

Fashion Friday: On Looking Like a Middle-Aged Lady

15 thoughts on “Fashion Friday: On Looking Like a Middle-Aged Lady

  1. 1

    As an amateur mediævalist I’m a little bit disappointed: the title made me think you’d be looking like someone out of an illuminated Chrétien or the Très Riches Heures.

  2. 2

    Okay, everything you said is exactly why I can’t seem to find a style which suits me and end up usually wearing a uniform of jeans and a t-shirt. I feel like I am too old to pull off the carefree look of boots paired with brightly colored vintage slip as dress any more, but I’m not ready to accept the society imposed sexless dowdiness of the invisible matron.

  3. 3

    It is interesting to contrast your posts on fashion with my own experiences as a man. Our wardrobe options are significantly less varied, and expressions of individual style tend to be much more constrained than what a woman can do; at the same time, that limited range eliminates most situations of, “Is this appropriate?”

  4. 5

    Gregory @ 3,

    I don’t much like the term ‘male privilege’ (not sure why) but this is surely one of them. We men enjoy near total freedom from judgement of our choice of apparel. Just thinking about how women must be so careful to toe so many lines makes me queasy.

  5. 7

    ludicrous and Gregory: I actually think this is one of those situations where both women and men get the short end of the stick. (Albeit somewhat different sticks.) Women definitely have more pressure and expectations on us when it comes to how we look (men don’t have zero, try showing up at the board meeting in Bermuda shorts, but they don’t have as much). Women are seen as having a duty to be ornamental, and our appearance is considered to be society’s business, even society’s property. At the same time, women also have a lot more leeway in what’s considered basically acceptable, and a lot more room for freedom of expression in fashion and style. The range of culturally permissible clothing for men is one that I find depressingly narrow — and many men see it this way as well, and resent it. At the same time, other men experience this as liberation from having to think about it.

    In my perfect world, men would have more freedom in what’s considered acceptable to wear — and women would have a culture that’s less obsessed with what we wear.

  6. 8

    That is a good turn of phrase, Greta. Women are coerced by society into looking ornamental. Men, on the other hand, are coerced into conformity with everyone else.

    I’ve worn the same basic outfit for 30 years, jeans and an oxford shirt. Usually, my one fashion decision is whether to go with the brown shoes or the black, which is important because I select a belt to match. I’m fortunate in that I can wear that to work, but it is really just as much a uniform as a wool suit and tie. A few years ago, I was bitten by the steampunk bug and started adding elements of neo-Victorian fashion, with the occasional vest, pocket watch and bowler hat. Friends and co-workers said they liked the new look, but I started getting subtle — and occasionally not so subtle — pressure not to wear it, to stick with what my peer group had deemed acceptable. Even the occasional donning of unconventional hosiery has met with disapproval, although I will confess that black and florescent green argyle socks were a bit much.

  7. 9

    And then there is the EXPENSE, pardon the caps but it is huge. When I was working (a long long time ago, yes I suppose things have changed) I had maybe two jackets and three trousers decorated with chalk dust from September to May. And nobody cared (I think). I don’t even know what the rule is for how many days must intervene before a woman may repeat an outfit. Or maybe it is never allowed to repeat an identical outfit without a different scarf of something.

    Another gender difference I notice at my yoga class is that the women, we are all mostly over 60, have their hair done nicely and have make up on and nice exercise outfits. I don’t have to do anything but brush my teeth.

  8. 10

    Conservative. Conventional. Modest. Sexless. Inobtrusive. Invisible. Stodgy. Frumpy.

    That describes my wardrobe, especially the last two adjectives.

  9. 12

    I’m a woman who has lived half a century, and I struggle with depression and anxiety. I’ve decided that life is too damn short and painful to wear clothes and jewelry that I don’t enjoy. Yes, I have limits imposed by my job, but there is a lot I can do within those limits.

    It’s MY body, MY mental health, MY life.

    Wearing things I love is one way I can deal with my depression and anxiety. Doing small things to make myself happy is so important to my surviving through this crappy time in my life. It’s a case of mood following action. Making an effort to please myself helps me feel better.

    Additionally, feeling ok about myself is appealing to other people. Self-confidence is attractive. Self-loathing and -pity are not.

  10. 13

    As a commentary on some of the comments concerning the limited options of men, I’ve always thought it would be nice to wear something flashy like some of those crazy fashions dudes were wearing hundreds of years ago or in other countries or something. I’d sometimes go around in a yukata that I picked up in Japan when I was in college (only in the summertime, obviously), but I got a lot of negativity from people who thought it looked “weird.” Same deal when I started wearing fancy gloves everywhere. Oh, and when I grew my hair out and started styling it with Redken stuff and used a hair straightener on it, and people constantly mistook me for a woman even though I had a noticeable red goatee at the time. Makes me a bit envious, at times.

    Maybe I look good in short-shorts.

  11. 14

    Men’s style seems to be much more constrained in the US. The UK is somewhat better, and on the continent, you can get away with being positively flamboyant. Just do a Google image search for “Luca Rubinacci”… It does take money to do right though.

    One more datapoint for the hypothesis that US culture is remarkably conformist, despite its oft-stated belief in “freedom”?

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