In many ways, turning thirty-five is a blessing when it comes to fashion. Most women have had time to get to know themselves, and have seen a few fashion cycles come and go. With experience comes discernment–it’s easier to tell a passing fancy (designer denim overalls, anyone?) from a long-term trend like boot-cut jeans, a flattering look that returned to the stores in the 1990s and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
But the mid-thirties can also be a time fraught with danger. At one end of the spectrum, those of us who’ve left the big three-oh behind can get a little panicky about certain fashion doors closing behind us. Even if you’re incredibly fit (and more of us than ever are amazingly fit in our mid-thirties and beyond), too-young, too-flashy and too-exposed just looks wrong, somehow.
The flip side of that mindset is the temptation to become overly age-conscious, retreating into the world of “timeless classics” (translation: “safe and terminally boring clothes”) that cut you off from the fun of fashion far too early. (In fact, you never have to be cut off from the fun of fashion, even thirty years from now. Think of Helen Mirren, and smile.)
It’s true that grown-ups simply don’t have the same sort of time to devote to being “in style” that we did when we were seventeen. We have kids, careers, and sometimes aging parents to think about; and fashion isn’t the top priority that it might have been during our clubbing-and-studying days. But it does matter–professionally and socially, a woman who looks like she knows what year it is has more credibility at first sight than one who appears to be stuck in the past. Is it fair? No, of course not. But it’s a fact of life that can be turned to our advantage, if we play it smart.
Yes, those of us in our mid-thirties or so might still a bit too young to really need a whole book’s worth of hints on “how not to look old”, but a little more mindfulness when it comes to fashion can keep both dowdiness and desperation at bay. Your mid-thirties to mid-forties could be your most stylish decade ever!. Here are a few tips to try on for size:
Think “current”, not “trendy”, when it comes to seasonal shopping. There’s a temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater when we hit the stores, despite our best intentions. The big, thick March and September issues of Vogue and Elle hit the newsstands, and our first thought upon thumbing through the pages is “yikes!”, followed by a fast walk back to the magazine rack. Granted, the editorial extremes are often unwearable, but the general changes in the overall look are worth paying attention to–and worth keeping in mind when you hit your local stores, where the items won’t be quite as edgy, but the trends will be represented. A famous fashion writer once declared that a mature woman’s best attitude when shopping could be summed up in two little words: what’s new? What’s new might not be right for you after all–but you’ll never know until you try it on.
And here’s an important corollary–if you constantly find yourself saying “why can’t I ever find (fill-in-the-blank-with-trusty-old-favorite-item) in the stores any more?”, chances are you’re in a deep, deep rut. Yes, there’s that mail-order outfit that advertises in the Sunday paper coupon section, and they will cheerfully supply you with elastic-waisted crinkle-rayon capris in six different tropical colors, but do you really want to go there? You’re way too young for that. Resist!
Take what’s fun, and tone it down. Current is one thing, but what do grown-up women do when what’s current is a bit, well, loud? For example, those Ed Hardy tattoo motifs that hit the casual fashion scene a couple of years ago looked great on almost all the young celebrities who embraced the look, and even some not-quite-as-young stars (like Madonna) rocked it with convincing style. But on the average non-performing, civilian woman over 35, a huge skull/rose/banner graphic with a giant logo signature might have veered into the “trying too hard” category.
However, that didn’t mean you had to sit the whole look out entirely–if you liked it then (or like it now), a long-sleeved shirt with tribal/tattoo motifs running down the sleeve, or a small graphic over the heart, would be trend-right without turning you into a fashion victim. A little taste, a subtle hint, a knowing reference–when you’re a grown-up, you don’t have to scream about your hipness with big, legible logos or symbols. If you want to hop into a frankly trendy wave that’s happening now, incorporate it into your wardrobe with a light touch.
Forget “clubwear” exists. I know. This one’s hard. You see the cute little tight, bright, up-to-here-and-down-to-there sexy styles on the Girls Next Door and the Rock of Love ladies, and while one part of you thinks “why does everyone on these reality shows dress like strippers?”, another part thinks “wouldn’t it be fun if I could get away with that…”
It is fun–in the privacy of your own home, in the company of your significant other, after the kids, if any, are sound asleep. But that’s where clubwear begins and ends for anyone whose college ID is frayed at the edges. (Some would say that stripper-wear in public looks a little desperate on anyone, regardless of age or shape–and they might be right.)
So how does a grown woman add a little–or a lot–of sex appeal into her wardrobe? The principle remains the same: think subtle, and have fun. Body-conscious bodices and waist accents that hug, but don’t strangle, hemlines that flutter and flirt but stay right around the knee, sweet high heels and the enchantment of well-chosen makeup and perfume–glamour and seductiveness are part of the fun of being a woman, and there’s no age limit on gorgeousness.
A good rule of thumb is to take one of your terrific features–just one–and play it up while keeping everything else low-key. If your legs are fantastic, pair a shorter (but not mini) skirt with a great pair of shoes and a high-necked blouse; if your décolletage is stunning, try a deeply-V-necked dress that’s otherwise fairly modest. The one piece of clubwear most women over college age can actually get away with is easy to find. Those sexy little camisole tops (the ones that can be worn with a bra) are a wonderful way to add spice to an otherwise sedate suit, and they’re great for a casual night out with a well-cut jacket and jeans.
Pick prints with caution. Prints, as fun as they are, can be a minefield for those of us who’ve seen a few fashion cycles come and go. The current trend of retro-inspired patterns only makes it more difficult–there are some dizzying 70’s and 80’s abstract prints filling up the racks even as we speak. And avoiding abstracts while embracing the also-current floral-print revival won’t keep you out of trouble–florals can become dated, too, and an oldy-moldy flowery print can look even worse than a long-in-the-tooth abstract. (Unless we’re discussing the perennially-breezy “Stepford Wives” look, there’s very little humor or irony about florals–they’re either hip, romantic and current, or they’re Golden Girls-approved, with little in-between.)
Unfortunately, the only way to really be sure that a pattern will work for you is to try it on–even looking at a photo in a catalog can be iffy. If you have any doubt at all about a print, stick to a solid in your most flattering shade, and limit the print to an accessory. (Scarves, bags and even some shoes in up-to-the-moment patterns will almost always work well.) One print to deploy with extreme caution–unless you’re a very strong personality–is the head-to-toe leopard/tiger look. The recent “Cougar Den” skit on Saturday Night Live pretty much sounded the death knell for tight, loud all-over animal prints on women over 35, in much the same way that the hilarious “Mom Jeans” faux commercial killed the high-waisted, pleated, tapered denim market a few years ago. (Then again, if that’s exactly the sartorial signal you want to send, have fun…)
Reclassify those classics and revisit those vintage pieces. Don’t get me wrong–classics are wonderful. When will a beautifully-made trench coat, a quality cashmere sweater or a stunning little black dress ever be wrong? The trick to wearing classics and staying current is keeping an eye out for the very slight year to year changes, since even wardrobe staples can and do evolve. A “classic” trench coat from the late 1980s will look very different from one made this year.
The older coat will have a boxier shape, narrower, longer lapels and bigger armholes; it may even have shoulder padding, or a shape that tapers in from shoulder to hem. It was “classic” in its day, but it still was still very much a product of its time. It may have cost you a pretty penny back then, and it may still be in wearable shape–but if you’re over 35, the visual message you’re sending isn’t “old money” or “vintage-clad hipster”, but something more along the lines of “thrift store shopper” or “stuck in her Campus Queen days”–sad, but true.
Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses and some Lilly Pulitzer styles seem to be exceptions (don’t ask me why), but generally speaking, if your “classic” wardrobe item was pictured in the fashion section of The Preppy Handbook, it’s time to let it go. (Those readers who are asking “what’s The Preppy Handbook?” are probably too young for this article.)
Sell it on eBay, give it to your adorable teen or 20-something niece–who will love you forever–and replace those old standbys with newer spins on the timeless classic theme. Coach, Burberry, Pringle of Scotland–most of those “classic” manufacturers are still in business and making beautiful, modern pieces that will have you looking sensational.
At the other end of the scale, don’t be afraid to venture into the “cheap but chic” realm once in a while! You’re never too old to have fun with accessories, and an inexpensive but faddish bag or costume jewelry item can add humor and style in small, select doses. A perfect example would be the current trend toward very colorful clutch purses–a couple of years ago, the must-carry color was red; more recently, a shot of yellow or lime green seems to be the charm.
No sense in shelling out the big bucks for a bag from Chanel when something cute from the mall will do the trick for the nine-to-twelve months that citrus toned clutches will be in high style.
Finally, don’t forget to have fun with it all. Our thinking about fashion may change and evolve as the years go by, but the joy of shopping, getting dressed and looking great remains. If you love it and you look and feel fantastic in it, it’s a winner!