I have always dressed fashionably. I still want to, but, as I get older, I don’t want to look silly in an outfit for a 20-year-old. For example: Right now I’m wondering about pants. Everything seems to be really, really wide and ballooning. I like them, but they aren’t the most flattering. What about hemlines? Should they be long or short? Are there rules to dressing as you age? — Liz, Akron, Ohio
This is a question I ask myself a lot. After all, just because you can wear something doesn’t mean you should.
A few years ago, when I was watching a fashion show and saw a model in a tuxedo-shorts jumpsuit, I thought: “Aha! A tuxedo-shorts jumpsuit. That will solve a lot of black-tie problems.” Then, almost immediately, I thought: “Who are you kidding? You can’t wear that.”
Physically, the look would have fit me just fine (especially with tights), but psychologically I would have felt as if I were in a very fancy playsuit. And that’s the thing about that issue of “dressing your age.” It isn’t about a list of garments you can or can’t wear. It’s about all the associations and assumptions embedded in those garments.
Strict social or cultural rules about what to wear as you age don’t really exist anymore. The few that do tend to be contextual and institutional and have to do with workplace dress codes. And you don’t have to check a desire to be chic at the door of, say, 50. Just because fashion still insists on showing clothes on bodies under the age of 25 doesn’t mean those clothes aren’t actually meant for women twice that age.
But how you dress is a statement about who you are and how you want to be perceived. And that changes as we grow up — even more, sometimes, than our bodies or dress sizes (though those, of course, change, too).
Personally, I feel like my years have been hard won, and experience is worth wearing. Which means I have said goodbye to clothes I generally associate with my youth: hemlines above my knees (especially attached to skater and rah-rah skirts), tops that show off my belly button, ruffles, slip dresses. Anything, really, that takes me sliding down a wormhole into an era when I was a much less formed person, or one that I lived through once already. That has as much to do with personal associations as it does with actual years.
It’s kind of like the family reunion problem wherein, around siblings and elder relatives, you find yourself falling back into the role you played at age 12. Wearing clothes from an earlier period, even if fashion has decided it’s time for a new generation to discover them, tends to have the same effect. (That actually may be a rule worth considering: If you wore it the first time it was a trend, you may want to avoid it the second time.)
That is why, I think, I find myself gravitating toward long skirts — ones that fall somewhere between midcalf and ankle — and wider trousers, both of which give me a sort of swishy feeling as I walk. Also, three-quarter or long sleeves. And tucking things in. Being more covered feels more practical and more elegant to me, and both of those words (along with the corollary “pulled together”) suggest values I have come to appreciate. Just as kitten heels and mules, largely by dint of their names, do not.
But that’s me. Which is the point!
When I think about women of a certain age whose style I admire, I think of women who look as if they know who they are and are comfortable telegraphing that to the world: Sigourney Weaver, Isabelle Huppert, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, Lauren Hutton, Michèle Lamy (Rick Owens’s very goth partner-wife-muse). That means making your own decisions about what makes you feel good, wide pants and all. Which is, really, the ultimate grown-up way to dress.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or social media. Questions are edited and condensed.