Fashion at Forty



So I’m 40. For almost a month now(!). I have just been perusing ASOS and realizing I’m starting to think more about dressing “age appropriate” despite myself (anyone my age who dares to wade through the 14 year old models in mini dresses of asos.com in search of that elusive perfect knee length tea dress is always going to struggle though!).

Even as a thirty something I was starting to struggle with the whole “dressing your age” quandary. I’ve fallen into a bit of a jeans and top/jumper rut that bores me, but I don’t really have occasion or motivation to dress like the fabulous fashion maven all of the blogs and magazines seem to expect us to naturally be evolved into by this age. I know that I love fashion and am an un-repentant shopaholic, but I feel my actual day to day choices have gotten beyond repetitive. I guess I don’t care enough to dress up for myself, which is the sign of a true devotee? I get very excited for events/special occasions and go into almost absurdly obsessive detail though, which is maybe a sign I should seek a little more everyday excitement in my wardrobe.

In my teens I was a tiny bit style obsessed (like all teens, but honestly I think I was worse than most), and veered between Laura Ashley to baggy band t-shirts and lots and lots of checked flannel. There were hats and stompy doc martens and crazy tights and much experimentation. I just loved thinking up new, often ghastly ways to express my inner diva.

By the time I got to college, the laid back, tomboy hippy vibe of my Western Mass. school felt like a bit of a relief. Just put on your jeans if you can be bothered and go to class. “Dressing up” for a night out evolved into a mildly clingy top of some kind and some no doubt hideous jeans (the 90’s were THE WORST for jeans, non? GAP relaxed fit, anyone?). Giant, baggy sweaters and sweatpants, or wearing actual pyjama bottoms, was honestly “the look” on my campus. It was schlubby and fabulous and something that only looks cute on 19 year olds. I feel like a proper old lady now when I see 15 yr olds on the street with their bum cheeks hanging out of daisy dukes – the 90’s were just so much more bashful and baggy, I’m grateful I was young when I was!

When I moved to the Lower East Side of NYC, at 20, all style cues were unashamedly taken from my roommate’s slightly older, super cool artistic sister. It was August, and the uniform was spaghetti strap tank tops or shrunken tees and thrift store corduroys in various colours, with a skater or punky shoe. “No one in NY wears shorts in the summer” she sagely intoned, and with her perfect pixie bangs and Chanel Vamp nail polish I was certainly never going to question her obvious fashion wisdom.

I happily sweated around the village that first summer in my cargos, confident that I looked like a true New Yorker. Jeans were out, Urban Outfitters /Eastern European tomboy was in (Run Lola Run was all the rage, Chloe Sevigny was often lounging on the corner somewhere in the LES). Of course the longer I lived in New York the more I took on other style cues and reverted back to a few of my own. But mostly I was starving and poor so the thrift shop urchin look served me well.

When I graduated from college and got my first “real” job, I had to buy blazers and other horrible looking clothes. Each morning I would feel the uniform strip away what felt like my entire identity, and each evening I would shed it as quickly as possible; I couldn’t wait to get rid of what felt like a stifling corporate cast.

When I moved back to New York after a year, I will still young and poor, but I appreciated New York offices’ more laid back attitude to work attire. As long as you were in black you were fine. Most of my work clothes were cheap and cheerful but I was able to incorporate a few more casual, fun things into most of my jobs (I was a temp). I didn’t have much money for clothes but would stumble upon an occasional find in Macy’s or Daffy’s or Strawberry (do they still have Strawberry in New York?!). I don’t think I was remotely fashionable, but I was happy enough and didn’t really stress much about fashion in my twenties for whatever reason.

What I did like about New York was its forthrightness in all things fashion. From people on the subway to co-workers, if you got something right people let you know, and more embarrassingly, also when you got something wrong. “Those tights are all wrong, take them off right NOW!” a rather bolshie friend and co-worker once instructed me, but I kind of loved it and appreciated people setting me straight – we all make fashion mistakes, and wouldn’t it be nice if we all had our own personal Gok Wan on standby? That’s kind of how New York can be. People observe and report, mostly to your face! It would probably horrify most Britons but I think it’s kind of amazing.

Then came Britain, and its immense high street, which is something I have come to truly love and appreciate. Honestly America just does not even compare, especially if you are on any kind of a budget. For sheer choice it’s daunting, which is how I often end up online, which 85% of the time results in me standing at the returns queue in the Post Office. It’s just easier than trying stuff on in shop after shop. Because of the sheer volume of choice, it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out what size you are in each shop, which varies drastically (this is true everywhere, as this excellent video shows).

So anyway, here I am, at 40, wondering which clothes and shops are still “me.” Most articles or suggestions for women my age are a bit bland and honestly out of my price range. I can’t afford Boden et al., and to be honest I think once you get to my age it’s easy to fall into those comforting uniforms of middle age, i.e. the casual but slightly dressy tunic with leggings and boots – don’t get me wrong, I wear it, I like it, but I don’t want to fall into it as my only option.

I want to wear shorts if I feel like it (not advisable in Scotland but still!) or leopard print (danger Kat Slater territory!) and not care what anyone thinks. I want to feel free to indulge my inner magpie and wear the things I like without fear of a “mutton” tag. If you have money it’s a bit easier I think to avoid wearing the vaguely quirky yet mass produced clothes of White Stuff, Mantaray, Fat Face et al. They’re fine, I covet a few White Stuff things (which is more to do with the clever staging of the clothes I think, that's another story!), but generally they feel a bit mumsy to me yet.

I’m not ready to let go of sequins or kooky trousers that make my husband wince or the occasional gaudy earring. I just want to dress like “me”, and while I have some idea of what I would like that to be, actualizing it feels evasive. It’s probably why my Pinterest boards veer from Stevie Nicks’ gypsy rock chick to Tilda Swinton’s androgynous elegance. Their individual styles equally inspire me in different ways.

Maybe I just have fashion overload and should start from scratch? Those minimalist wardrobes of fashion editors’ where they proudly claim to have 5 items of clothing - grey tee shirts, £200 jeans and a cashmere jumper, simultaneously terrify and enthrall me. I read them and think, "I like grey, I can be simple!".... (But I also like loud prints and boho accessories)…. So no, simple utility won’t do for me, either.

Maybe I do just need a clear out. (Anyone who has seen inside my closet would concur!). Despite numerous charity shop dumps in the past year, I still have, if I’m honest, dozens upon dozens of things that I never wear. Sale rack “finds” with the tags still on them, jeans that haven’t fit in a DECADE. It is all a bit much. But you will pry my (unworn) pink Laura Ashley tea dress from my cold dead hands – it is the perfect summer picnic dress, should I ever get invited to one! One step at a time…

Regardless, I do feel like I should have my outer shell a tiny but more pulled together lately, and I am going to try to step it up a notch, even if it just means wearing a belt or a necklace when normally I wouldn't bother. There are some lovely blogs out there for 40 somethings like Not Dressed As Lamb, or even Garance Dore, which is a bit luxe for my budget but fun to read anyway - nonetheless, it's time I embraced it, this ladylike thing, in my own fashion anyway! Does anyone else struggle with this, or is it just me?

9 comments

  1. I loved reading this, we have so many fashion memories in common! Flannel pyjama bottoms as outdoor wear were a big thing at my university in '96, and I lived in vintage corduroys from jumble sales and shrunken band t-shirts (oh, and superhero tees from the kids department at M&S). Good times! So far, my approach to fashion and aging has been to deny it's happening. I wear a lot of stuff now that I wore back in the 90s (tea dresses, baggy cardigans, band tees) but yeah, I have a sneaking suspicion that as 40 approaches I may need to rethink.

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    1. Oh, I remember wearing age 4-5 T shirts as standard! Don't know how we ever got our boobs inside them!

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    2. Thanks! I think I've basically been in denial too, wearing what I please generally, but something about the 4-0 has made me feel this invisible pressure to be just a bit more pulled together. Much as I miss wearing pyjama pants in public (though to be honest the trend for printed loose trousers has grabbed me and you do basically feel like you're wearing jammies in public!)...there comes a time I think when we can't be quite as devil may care, throw on anything and it's looks great,as when we were younger.

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  2. This blog (and this post in particular) is good at explaining why minimalist wardrobes don't have to mean a set number of clothes or only wearing grey - they're just about picking out the quality stuff you love and clearing out the tat: http://into-mind.com/2015/02/03/minimalist-wardrobe-faq-common-pitfalls-how-to-get-started/

    I think you can get away with a lot more than you think, though. It's all in the mind set. :)

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    1. Thanks, I definitely could do with streamlining I will have a look :-)

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  3. I went through this a few years ago and came out sort of retro/classic/librarian. I buy clothes everywhere from Hobbs to Oxfam. As a fellow fashion maniac I think my top advice is, find the colours you like and dress to flatter your body shape. If you love it, wear it. Also, at forty, not too tarty, a bit of class is the thing. You look so young and pretty though I wouldn't stress too much.

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    1. You are very kind, and haven't been exposed to my general schlubbery! I like the idea of having a set image to aspire to other than "jeans and a top yawn-dom!" I guess I just need to pick one! I feel like I think about and read about fashion enough to do a bit better. I don't do tarty anyway, low cut tops have been out since my chest surgery so I mostly do wear fairly Victorian looking blouses or tops. I would like to do one of those colour swatch things at some point because I know I'm drawn to the wrong colours sometimes despite myself.

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  4. Ha ha I feel you on the pressure/need to dress my age. I still dress in jeans and tees - pretty much all the time. I am not fancy or polished at all. I also live in a pretty small town, it's only a population of about 15,000 - so I think that might have something to do with this. Aside from the selection of shops, there's also not a lot of places to go that would require more than jeans and tees. We don't exactly have gallery openings or museum events here. :( I like to think it's okay to wear what you want and be who you are, as long as you are comfortable and happy. Although, there is always that weird group of women in their forties/fifties who tan excessively and bleach their hair excessively and wear hot pink tanks tops over jeans that are a size small and think this is a good look. I definitely couldn't do a capsule wardrobe though. No freaking way.

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    1. I do think we dress for our environment, there's nothing wrong with it. I live in a city, but it's very cold and inclined to rain much of the time, so in the summer everyone starts wearing dresses the minute it hits 60 degrees - which coming from America I still haven't gotten used to! The sort of mainstream "polished" look here is a bit hooker glam (at night, not that I go out at night!), I've never really felt like I can relate to it! Scotland is weird. They love a fake tan here too, and hair must be straightened at all times...yeah so I don't really fit in!

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