“Each morning I play. I dress up in accord with the world. . .Like a god in a Vedic tale, spin a cloak, wear a costume of visibility woven from primordial matter.” – Mara Stahl, from In Over My Head
Recently the New York Times ran a story about the backlash faced by French writer-filmmaker Yann Moix, age 50, for describing women over 50 as “invisible.” French women responded by sending him photos of their beautiful bottoms and breasts. Moix has attempted to weasel out of the controversy, claiming “he’s a prisoner of his preferences and of his own fear of aging.”
As a woman past 60, my question is: why did the women bother to send him those photos? The mid-life tipping point for many people is 50. Women transition out of their childbearing years right when men feel the need to prove their virility (I suspect the midlife crisis applies, in an existential as well as sexual way, to people of any gender and orientation). In the logic of the still-dominant heteronormative patriarchy, if a woman can’t or won’t provide inspiration for and confirmation of a man’s manhood, she might as well be invisible. The day I was almost run over in a crosswalk in downtown Portland convinced me I too had become invisible. That was the day I bought a bright red raincoat.
In this era when the new Speaker of the House is a soon-to-be 78-year-old woman, it’s still true that women past childbearing years—“fuckability” in the poetry of Hollywood—who are also past their professional peak or retired may find themselves standing outside of society, victims of ageism and sexism. If film and television deal with older women characters, they usually depict this stage in women’s lives as tragic or inconsequential, though exceptions are growing from the work of female producers and directors. But contrary to media treatments or the denseness of Monsieur Moix, the women I interviewed—friends living in the Pacific Northwest, ranging in age from mid-60s to early 70s—seem unconcerned about their appearance as sex objects. Indeed, they have established new relationships with clothing that fits their bodies, their finances and their lives.
Fashion influences: Star Images, Brand Names
I organized an informal roundtable of women whose friendship I’ve enjoyed for many years (all names changed for this article). We all identify as white heterosexuals, coming from a range of backgrounds, from working to upper middle class. When asked about their fashion role models, in most cases the women referred to stars and media images of the 1960s and ’70s rather than more recent ones. Among the list of influential celebrities or their most famous roles, Diane Keaton’s “Annie Hall” had been a favorite style to emulate. My friend Diana said, “I was going for ‘sexy librarian’ [as her personal style] when [the film] came out.”
But Shannon recalled, “Jackie Kennedy was somebody I looked up to because she was really classy. Period. Before it gets even to the clothes. And I understood that understatement was the way to go.” She also mentioned designer Edith Head, not for what she wore, but who she was: “I could tell she had Power. It wasn’t her she wanted you to look at. She wanted you to look at what she was creating.”
Several members of the group, younger than the others by a few years, mentioned Mattel’s Barbie who, Diana noted, wore designer dresses. “I learned the word ‘accessories’ from her.” Diana also remembered the impact of Twiggy, whose eye make-up prompted a volley from the group, naming cosmetic and hair product brand names: Yardley, Estee Lauder, Vidal Sassoon. Sondra, who had been in London during the era of mod fashions, once had her curly hair styled at Vidal Sassoon: “It was perfectly straight! Best haircut I ever got!” Rachel recalled Seventeen as one of her favorite magazines, and that her cousin “covered her entire bedroom floor with the Breck girls on the back of Seventeen magazine[s].”
Oscar-winner (1972 and 1979) Jane Fonda, whose work-out classes and videos pioneered the fitness trend in the late ’70s and early ’80s, did not come up as a favorite here, but Shannon later tagged her as the tall, slender type that she—and most of us—never have been.
The Museum in Our Closets
Most of us in this age group have owned a few items for decades that are always “right.” I showed the group a scarf I bought as a senior in high school (circa 1970), which I wore around the crown of a broad-brimmed felt hat and now wear around my neck with sweaters (more about necks and scarves later). My friend Andrea offered this:
“Back in college I wore a vintage crepe [jacket] and skirt with my grandmother’s black platform beaded Charles Jordan shoes. The black sequin embellished jacket was supposed to be worn over a blouse, but this was 1972, so I wore it braless, with one discrete hook and eye to hold it together. It was completely glamourous, and totally scandalous, and I loved it. Alas, the days are long gone that I could fit into that size; and no one is attracted to 66-year-old cleavage. It was a grand celebration of youth.”
Andrea still has the jacket and the shoes, and has offered these vintage pieces to her daughter who, she sighed, was not interested.
Diana recalled making a dress just to her liking in high school, as part of a substantial wardrobe. When she went to college “I realized right away that that huge wardrobe I had built in high school was a no. I was at U of O—all hippies—and I [had to join] a sorority or I wasn’t going to be allowed to go to college.” She went “totally undercover,” and assumed the hippie look. From those years she saved a denim patchwork skirt and Mexican peasant blouses, which became prized items in her daughter’s wardrobe for a while.
Sondra, the dedicated shopper of the group, still mourns the loss of an outfit she assembled from a resale shop:
“I found a brand new, never worn Armani—top quality, wool-silk, gorgeous, dark navy blue jacket. That was my absolute…I wore [it] with a pencil skirt, and I wore spectator shoes, vintage alligator bag. I had some work in Washington, D.C., we had a little locker to put our stuff in. Somebody stole it. It was my uniform. I got it for a hundred dollars. It was brand new.”
Rachel recalled, “I have something from when I was nineteen or twenty years old—a real South American jacket I just kept the whole time, and I didn’t wear it for years and years. Sometimes I wear it now. Those are the kinds of things I like, that are just real fabric, really fine-crafted things.”
Such items are souvenirs of the past and touchstones for what we have considered beautiful and fashionable on us. I wear my 1970s scarf because it reminds me of the hat and the rest of the outfit I wore at a time of freedom and expectation (and the colors still look great on me). Sondra’s designer outfit represented her savvy bargain hunting, her fine taste in fashion, and her status as a corporate executive. And though the actual clothing might have changed, Andrea’s scandalous black outfit combining vintage items and personal chutzpah may have influenced her more recent choices in designer wear, not to mention a general attitude undiminished by age.
Our Bodies Ourselves—Then and Now
Menopause is puberty backwards: waists thicken, skin wrinkles, certain body parts tend to sag. Styles we’ve always loved fit differently. A current TV infomercial starring Melissa Gilbert (age 54) and Jane Seymour (age 67)—both wearing sleeveless tops—encourages self-consciousness about women’s aging bodies, and touts a product claiming to improve the appearance of older women’s “crepey” upper arms. Gilbert describes being told by people in the industry that she would be able to go sleeveless only until she was in her forties, and yet here she was some ten years past that, with youthful, un-crepey arms, thanks to this product. Direct mail catalogues for mature women also play to self-consciousness, featuring tops with long or elbow-length sleeves, demure dress lengths, and pants with “straight” (read “wide”) legs with elastic waists.
The neck is also a site of self-consciousness. The back cover of Nora Ephron’s book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006), includes a funny photo of Ephron with a turtleneck pulled almost up to her eyes. In her book she states unequivocally, “You can put makeup on your face and concealer under your eyes and dye on your hair, you can shoot collagen and Botox and Restylane into your wrinkles and creases, but short of surgery, there’s not a damn thing you can do about your neck. The neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth” (5).
And so the scarf came up repeatedly—although no one referred to its camouflaging properties, but rather as something providing comfort and pleasure. It adds a light layer of warmth, it dresses up plain, comfortable clothes, it can be an inexpensive indulgence, but it also covers that neck. Shannon described meeting a French family in Costa Rica, “and the mother had a scarf. It was really hot obviously, but she still wore the scarf, so I thought, ‘I guess that’s the way I am, too.'”
Diana: “The French have ways to tie them that we will never learn.”
Rachel laughed, ‘I need to hire someone to ‘scarf’ me because I don’t know how…”
Sondra: “I brought a scarf to show everyone. Now this scarf has been with me through thick and thin…This is a Diane von Furstenberg scarf; retails for $200. EBay—$15.” Sondra’s scarf seems to give her pleasure in part because it demonstrates her skill as a shopper. It’s a trophy of sorts.
What about the rest of our bodies? Diana speaks openly about her weight gain. “I was one of those girls that everyone stares at when they enter a room: skinny, with big boobs.” For years she stayed fit by dancing, but a few decades and some injuries later, and she’s no longer able to dance for fitness: “I need a new size and then I need another new size.” But here’s the important part—she doesn’t care. She said she felt free not to be the object of male scrutiny, and other women in the group quickly agreed. (Take that, Monsieur Moix!)
Several members of the group mentioned their mothers encouraged a self-critical body awareness. Shannon said, “My mother made me keenly aware that I was not up to snuff because I was short.” Her mother and both sisters were much taller, but “I compensated by being in really good shape. I’m in much better shape than any of my sisters now. Revenge!” she laughed.
Rachel recalled as a grade schooler wearing sizes for chubby girls and being embarrassed by her mother calling out to her in a nice little girls’ shop, “The Chubettes are over here!” Though she now has no weight problem, Rachel continues, “I always felt…inappropriate in clothes.” I asked, “So that was your self image at that point?” She replied, “Yeah, and it really lasts.”
Comfort and Fashion
These days, what and/or who do we dress for? None of the women—all of whom are married to men—said anything about pleasing their husbands, or any other male, or anyone else, for that matter. When I asked the group, “What is your look?” the answer was unanimous.
Sondra: “I just want to be comfortable…I wear these [t-shirts, a hoodie, and leggings]…Came from the gym—and that’s the truth—slept in it.” She added, “My son got married four years ago. I bought a Kate Spade dress. And when my daughter gets married this year I will wear the same dress.”
Shannon: “What I’m wearing: a skirt, boots, and color. If it’s teal, if it’s purple. Jewel tones. Periwinkle, violet blue, I’m in. I just crave color…[and] I like wearing skirts. I’m too short—from my view—I’m not built like Jane Fonda, so I don’t look that great in pants [note: she looks fine in pants! ]…and I like skirts that are loose—I don’t like A-line, I like swishy skirts. Very simple.”
Rachel said, “I don’t really have a style. It’s casual, it’s what I can figure out to put together at the moment. It’s clean.” She described some of her favorite clothes in her current wardrobe:
“I have a heavy black shirt that’s long sleeves and I can roll [them] up, but it has a really nice—it’s not a turtleneck, it’s looser…it’s a cowl. It’s really comfortable, and I just like the weight. I also have now a skirt…it’s a wraparound, but it’s loose. I mean, it’s flouncy, it’s not tight. And it is…maybe even a military green but lighter, just sort of like going out in nature—that color—but I love it. It’s below my knee, it’s so comfortable. “
In other words, “Comfort” for my friends is a combination of physical comfort, minimal labor in dressing and laundering, and a complicated sort of pleasure involving how they look and how they feel in their social context (See Sara Tatyana Bernstein’s “Comfort Makes Me Uncomfortable: Why We Love to Hate the Maxi Dress”). One of the challenges we face with closets full of perfectly good clothing we no longer wear is that we aren’t “comfortable” in those unfashionable relics of our past jobs and social roles.
Diana asked, “Can we talk about ‘athleisure’?…It’s when we realized we’d rather wear tee shirts and sweatpants…”
Rachel: “…and be comfortable.”
Diana: “And it’s fashionalized.”
Sondra: “Jeans are just plummeting.”
Diana: “And it’s because…”
Sondra: “It’s comfort!”
Diana: “I was thinking it’s because of us!…And I think that the young people…”
Rachel: “Oh, my gosh, I think that they have been wearing it for a long time, and we’ve all joined.”
Sondra: “You go to the gym, and then you don’t want to keep changing. You get used to this incredible level of comfort, and it’s hard to go back.”
Before retirement, Shannon had dressed for a daily bicycle commute, pulling a little trailer that held her work clothes and shoes. When she arrived after her hour-long ride, she showered and changed into her work clothes, then changed back for the ride home. Now retired, she often wears some variation of the cycling clothes (in jewel tones!), with a short skirt added. She recalled, “I had a pair of blue leggings and a top that went with it. And I got them right after I had my daughter, and she’s 26, so I was thinking—wow, they’ve been in fashion a long time!”
Sondra: “Now, I won’t go to Lululemon…They’re way overpriced.”
The Retired Woman’s Guide to Fashion Consumption, or Getting a Bargain on What You Don’t Need
Early in the round table, Sondra had confessed: “I have…at times…been clothes-obsessed, partly because of my nature and partly because of my work.” She described a life punctuated by a variety of careers, beginning with a master’s degree in costume design and set design, involving messy projects requiring lab coats and overalls. Cut to a different time in her life when she was senior vice president of a corporation, when she prowled Lohman’s and Saks for high fashion bargains (“I want to be buried in Saks.”). “I had very few clothes [during her corporate period], but I got killer things at 50% off that I still have. And now? J. Crew,…Title IX…”
Rachel: “I just kept giving things, a lot of things, away, so I don’t keep—I wish I’d kept things, that would be nice, but I’m more of a minimalist.”
Asked whether there were stores, websites, or labels the group turned to these days, several mentioned J.Jill. Diana also mentioned Talbot’s—”These places I’d never walk into 15 years ago!”
Rachel mentioned her favorite place to shop these days is the “upscale Goodwill” in downtown Portland, “because it has all those labels, and others, too.” Nearly everyone agreed they shopped sales when they needed something. Sondra noted our local grocery/hardware/jewelry/clothing big box chain has recently started its own clothing label, offering long-sleeved t-shirts for $8. Memories of shopping at Nordstrom’s loomed large in this West-coast crowd, but Shannon seemed to speak for the group: “I haven’t been in Nordstrom’s forever, but I don’t need clothes anymore. I’m retired.”
Rachel: “That’s a whole other thing. Do you need any clothes?”
But it was hard not to talk about clothes. The group decried the loss of quality in clothing: the lack of fine details now only to be found in designer fashion, if at all. Shannon pointed to Eileen Fisher as an example. Diana scoffed, “I just want to slap her. How can she charge those prices, like $175 for a tank top?” Rachel laughed, “Go to Goodwill! They have lots of Eileen Fisher!” This led to a brief discussion of the politics of fashion. Members of the group condemned the cheap labor underlying cheap clothing in the US (Sondra: “It’s exploitative!”), but they didn’t linger there. For those of us now on a fixed income, fast fashion is hard to resist.
Final Thoughts on Fashion
Shannon wanted it on record she loves Ralph Lauren tops. The others brought up additional trends and personal favorites.
Diana pointed out, “It wasn’t until recent years that glasses became fun and fashionable, and…we waited a long time for that…When I see the young women wearing the nerdy glasses, I just get PTSD. How can you do that intentionally?” Other topics: bras, gloves (which some of us wore in our youth for dressy occasions), and the big one—when to go gray.
Diana: “This is something I can’t do. I can’t do it.”
Sondra: “I will never go gray. My mother didn’t. Sorry.”
Shannon, referring to her natural hair: “It’s turning grayish-white now. Finally.”
But Rachel shared a secret from a hairstylist: “He said, ’You see women with beautiful gray hair. That’s not their hair. It’s the salon’s gray…’ I think well, maybe that’s what I should do. But I don’t have the umph to go in [to the salon] on a regular basis…”
Rachel also came up with what looked like our final topic: “We didn’t talk about what we want to wear when we die!” Uneasy laughter erupted. Rachel continued: “I do know some people have said, oh, they got a really nice dress for their mother. I’ve heard other people say ‘I want to be buried in a mushroom suit…” The group confirmed the late Aretha Franklin wore three different dresses for the public viewings of her body. We all agreed these fashion statements were perhaps more meaningful for the elderly.
Talking us off this ledge, Diana reminded us of the advances we’ve made in comfortable clothing. Others chimed in when she mentioned the past moral judgments that came with the ways we were, ironically, encouraged to dress— the meanings attributed to high heels, blue jeans, padded bras. Has the culture changed enough that society no longer makes those judgments? To those who used to judge us and now fail to see us. M. Moix and his ilk, tant pis. We assemble our costumes, comfortable in our bodies, visible to ourselves and those we love.
[Thanks to dear friends who gave their time, thoughts and memories to this project. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.]
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