Iris Apfel shows us all how it's done. Photo: Getty images
Though friends say I look like a thirty-something mother-of-two in my headshot, people tend to guess the other way when they meet me in person. This may have to do, in part, with my penchant for plaid smocks, trapeze dresses and Saltwater Sandals. I often find myself piecing together ensembles that have me looking eerily similar to how I did as a 7-year-old, especially in pigeon-toed stances. That’s me, a grown-ass adult with a habit of dressing like an enormous child. Have I been bitten by a fashion-related form of arrested development? Or has that notion of “age-appropriate” dressing finally gone out of style?
As I get my Benjamin Button on, I find others my age dressing more like their grandmammies, taking sartorial cues from the outré granny-looking Tavi Gavinson or following in the low-block heeled footsteps of Kate Middleton. This is lamb dressed as mutton done seriously well. As is this. And this. And this, God love them. Age is no longer synonymous with elegance and class. Why, then, can’t older women enjoy the same age-bending, clothes-wearing acceptance, let alone reverence?
As it stands, rhetoric around age-appropriate dressing is anachronistic, male-oriented and downright depressing. Apparently, women can flaunt their legs like it’s nobody’s business at 34, but ought to cover up the moment they turn 35, lest directional dressing exposes spider veins. You just need to look at the number of instructive articles on the interwebs, which read like disparaging Trinny and Susannah-penned pamphlets on What You Can And Cannot Wear for women who’ve just hit middle age. Take Polly Vernon’s recent column in The Times on “The rise of cougar style”, which has nought to do with what to wear if you’re a predatory One Direction fan and all to do with dressing in a way that denotes “a specific sort of sexiness”. Then there’s India Knight’s recent article in the Sunday Times, ‘The Mutton Manifesto’, which is just as dismal as its title suggests. Knight opens up on how to conduct oneself in an “age-appropriate way” when “‘modern life’ (as the young people say) moves so bafflingly fast”. While growing up comes with the ability to think for oneself, these articles assume women in their 40s, 50s and 60s suddenly become incapable of pulling together items from their wardrobe.
Tavi in her granny chic phase. Adorable as ever.
Sure, being aware of one’s age is certainly a good thing, but applying “rules” based strictly on that number isn’t. Nowadays, turning 50 is no longer style Armageddon. We praise Michelle Obama and Helen Mirren for owning the right to bare arms, but tend to fall back on old mantras regarding ourselves. Rather than internalising outdated rules and feeling betrayed the moment your favourite designer creates a collection featuring leather shorts, make like FLOTUS and dress in a way that reflects you, without limiting yourself to sensible linens from Katies, Plumage, Suzanne Grae and wherever the hell else you’re expected to shop. At 64, my mother plans to hack the hemline off her nowhere-near-matronly, mother-of-the-bride frock for my sister’s wedding, and I salute her for it.
As we look to women like Iris Apfel and the eccentric geriatric set of Advanced Style, we’re beginning to see growing older as a blank check for dressing and accessorising experimentally. Once the stomping ground for pocket-moneyed teens, Topshop and H&M have come to be embraced by fashion-forward women of all ages. The resurgence of age-neutralising styles from the ‘90s and accessible trends such as colour blocking are further driving the trend. And gone are the days where you’d cut your hair to “age-appropriate” shortness once it turns gray.
It's about campaigning to make fashion a less rigid system, and realising that your ability to pull off clothing has less to do with the number of birthday candles and more to do with fit, tailoring, your confidence and creativity. It’s everyone’s right to define fashionable for themselves – even if “fashionable” means baby-doll dresses and jelly sandals.