Be Who You Are: The End of Fashion Advice?

Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York. Click to enlarge

Have we entered a new era of authenticity? Where the old don’t try to look young? Where the wide don’t try to look thin? Where the bold don’t try to hide behind staid colors and tasteful accessories? If so, then do we really still need experts telling us what to wear?

Certainly for older women there are a lot of signs that point to yes.  Many, including those commenting on my earlier blog post, have stopped dying their hair.  They don’t diet in order to approximate their younger selves.  Older models (although thin and apparently wrinkle free) appear in advertisements and on runways.  On his blog Advanced Style, Ari Seth Cohen has made a career of capturing older women who dress every which way, standing out boldly in a sea of youngsters.

These ideas are not entirely new.  In my research I have come across a few voices calling for older women to shed convention and dress to please themselves. At the beginning of the twentieth century, then popular novelist Kathleen Norris wrote, “One of the benefits of age is to wear the clothes one likes.” And even Vogue, often a source for scolding, offered this freeing manifesto in 1935. ““When you get to the age where current fashions bore you and seem to have very little relation to you, do as you please. Be picturesque, dramatic, and eccentric—make the most of your opportunity of being a grande dame.”

The challenge of this fashion freedom is being brave enough to make use of it, which means figuring out for yourself just what you want to wear. Like the green lady above, I have gravitated to color. You can often (although not always) find me in shades of orange.

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5 Responses to Be Who You Are: The End of Fashion Advice?

  1. Jo says:

    I’m glad we’ve reached this point. I can’t recall who said it, but I once read of an older woman who said, “I’ll never be considered ‘pretty’ again, so I at least want to look ‘interesting.'” I guess, I’m sort of the same thought. I don’t dye my hair or do anything to look younger but I do like to wear bright colors and vintage clothes. Nearly every day someone (male, female, young, old) on the street says they like my style, which is very gratifying to hear. Makes me feel less invisible.

  2. Katrina B says:

    I like to think we are in the midst of a revolution, but like most revolutions, this one is happening much more slowly than we think it is. The Red Hat Society started in the 90s, and was meant to celebrate older women’s individuality, although it’s funny that they then all wore red hats.
    For generations, the women in my family have flouted style conventions at all ages, but that was mostly because they were caught up in academics or politics and didn’t care (or even know) what the fashion rules were. In my very small social circles IRL and online, we look to the fashion industrial complex for the occasional idea about colors or shapes, but otherwise it’s mostly a source of amusement. Rules like older women have to wear short hair and dark colors fell by the wayside along with rules like you must own a little black dress and no white after Labor Day decades ago.
    However, that won’t stop the advice columns, books, and blogs anytime soon! I think there will always be a segment of the market that is hungry for advice, and there will always be people willing to give it.

  3. JS says:

    I like the idea of women dressing in a manner that suits them, but to me, there still exist things called taste and style and “authenticity” (whatever that means) is not synonymous.

    The lady in green looks like she’s enjoying herself. I respect that. But I don’t think she’d ever be my sartorial model. Does being old and expressing yourself mean you have to look like a child or some kind of whacked-out bird of paradise?

  4. Liza D. says:

    I have to say, with no disrespect or unkindness toward the clearly happy lady in green, that I agree with JS.

    Yes, of course, dress to please and even amuse yourself. But does that mean wearing your pajamas to a wedding or insisting on being so relentlessly comfortable and gratified that you end up looking like a slob?

    There has to be some balance. Especially if you want to carry off “eccentric.” What makes the older women of Advanced Age so interesting is that despite their bucking convention, they are extremely well-groomed and pulled together. They put time, effort, and consideration into their sartorial statements.

    That’s very different from simply saying, “The heck with it, I’m going gray, getting fat, and wearing sweats… because it suits me.”

    In the end, being happy and comfortable with yourself is most important. But being comfortable with yourself and being just plain comfortable are not the same thing.

  5. JS says:

    The Red Hat Society has always infuriated me. If you’re celebrating your individuality, why are you all parading around in red hats like a superannuated Brownie troop? (From the comment above, that custom appears to have changed.) Several years ago, I read about an older ladies’ musical the RHS produced with a song that went something like:

    “Fifty is the youth of old age.”

    THAT’s supposed to be inspiring?

    Why aren’t groups like the RHS working toward fundamental societal changes like daycare, which will benefit women at all ages, so that women don’t have to regard being post-menopausal as a time of liberation after decades of repression and servitude? Why aren’t they pressing for equal pay for women, anti-harassment laws, or for the Equal Rights Amendment?

    I’m old enough to be really disgusted that so little is changing longterm. In 30 years, there will be a fresh group of newly mature women with the same complaints.

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