Thursday, April 03, 2014

What's my age again?

I was mildly annoyed to see the April 2014 issue of Australian Women's Weekly has a story about "the women who refuse to dress 'appropriately'". Just by glancing at it as I went through the supermarket checkout, I knew it would be a story about older women who wear sculptural, brightly coloured and patterned clothes with bold accessories.

And today I saw that vintage dealer Trish Hunter has blogged about the article.

Image: Trish Hunter

Trish was struck by the way 'appropriate' is put in scare quotes:
So who is the mysterious great and powerful OZ who dictates what is considered appropriate and inappropriate dressing? Who or what made the word ‘appropriately’ have to be placed in talking marks here?

I personally dress for no one but myself and I’m so happy that other people enjoy how I dress and tune into my blog to see my outfit posts. Sometimes Often I dress quite over the top, I style my hair, wear bold makeup and dress in a style that doesn’t follow main stream fashion, but does that also put me in the inappropriate dressing category to the ruler of appropriate dressing?
No. And here's why: Trish is young. Because our culture values women primarily for their youthful sex appeal, men learn to treat older women as if they are invisible, and women learn that as they age, the most tasteful and, yes, appropriate thing they can do is to fade gracefully into the background. We learn this in dribs and drabs, through culture, and through the media genre of orthovestia which teaches us which clothes are 'appropriate' to occasions and ages.

Here are a couple of examples of the little ways that culture teaches us what old women are 'meant' to be like. I have a lip tar in a peachy-coral colour that I thought looked quite fetching on me… until I noticed the shade was named 'Grandma'. Similarly, I love classic 20th-century perfumes, but I constantly notice people saying disparagingly that they 'smell like old ladies'.

However, the Australian Women's Weekly article is part of a broader cultural trend celebrating older women's style, led by Ari Seth Cohen's blog Advanced Style. Last year, Sue Bourne's Channel Four documentary Fabulous Fashionistas profiled six British women, average age 80, whose sartorial approach "is about more than following the latest trends; it's about an attitude to life itself."

It's easy to champion cool old ladies as feminists rebelling against sexist double standards by insisting on their individuality and visibility. However, writing in The Guardian about that documentary, Michele Hanson points out how patronisingly ageist our admiration is: "Telly has just picked out something they've done all their lives, and called it remarkable because they're old. Really it's just because they're them."

As I observe in Out of Shape, we allow certain older women to be celebrated for their zany, eccentric 'signature looks' – but only if their professional identities grant them the cultural power that older women are otherwise denied. From the photos Trish has posted on her blog, the "women who refuse to dress 'appropriately'" share a key trait: they are professional aesthetes and fashion insiders. They include former Vogue staffer Marion von Adlerstein, Marie Claire executive fashion editor Jane Roarty, fashion designer Jenny Kee and textile and homewares retailer Joan Bowers.

Internationally, 'advanced style' icons include English stylist Isabella Blow, American 'plus-age' models China Machado and Carmen dell'Orefice, American interior designer Iris Apfel and legendary Vogue Italia editor Anna Piaggi.

Linda Grant's book The Thoughtful Dresser (which is excellent, by the way) devotes a chapter to the invisibility of older women in public. She writes acidly that past the age of 50, careful dressing is vital for women, "if we want to have a presence in the world. If we don't want to be famished ghosts at the feast of life."

In Out of Shape I explain that fashion was once very dictatorial, but has splintered into a smorgasbord of market segments catering to different age groups, budgets and lifestyles. I argue that this is in response to "the baby boomers’ refusal to go gentle into that good nylon":
The boomers grew up during the 1960s ‘youthquake’, but they’ve followed fashion, and it has followed them, through their changing lifestyles – from 1970s hippie and folk apparel to 1980s power dressing. And they continue to adopt new ways of shopping; women aged over 35 account for 65 per cent of online apparel sales.
The word 'appropriate' is a hangover from the days of rigid dress codes, when there really were right and wrong things to wear in various social scenarios, and social penalties of ridicule and embarrassment for disobeying. But as Grant recognises, it's the very fact that fashion's rules are now more flexible that puts today's older women in fear of being socially penalised for the clothes they choose. They can no longer take refuge, as their mothers could, in etiquette, occasion and the artifice of glamour.

In her essay '"No-One Expects Me Anywhere": Invisible Women, Ageing and the Fashion Industry' (in Fashion Cultures, eds Stella Bruzzi and Pamela Church Gibson, Routledge, 2000), Pamela Church Gibson points out the cruel irony of the current popularity of retro: that "these garments cannot be worn by those who wore them first time around." This is especially cruel, she writes, given that the boomers were "the first generation to grow up with and within fashion".

Indeed, younger women are fascinated by old-fashioned glamour precisely because we've grown up in a fashion world that valorises carefree, intuitive dressing, and looking 'fresh' and 'natural'. Trish mentions Snog, Marry, Avoid? – which is a 'makeunder' show obsessed with replacing its participants' chosen style with a codified notion of 'natural beauty'.

It makes me wonder about my current 1990s renaissance. How long will it be 'appropriate' for me to dress in the styles of my youth? When will I begin to notice disapproving glances and overhear stifled sniggers in public? Knowing that your clothes make you publicly visible in a vulnerable rather than powerful way, yet refusing to feel disempowered, is the act celebrated by the Australian Women's Weekly article.

Orthovestia does offer advice to older women: cultivating a wardrobe of safe, unobtrusive ‘classics’. The crisp white shirt; the little black dress; the string of pearls; the tailored blazer; the striped Breton T-shirt; the cashmere cardigan; the beige trench coat; the black leather loafers or ballet flats.

"Depicted on Bianca Jagger or Catherine Deneuve, these classics look sensational," Grant observes, "but they look good not because these women are in their fifties or sixties, but because they happen to be the kind of style that suits them. And because, being ravishingly beautiful to begin with, they can wear a sack (clinched at the waist with a chocolate suede belt, with heels and a gold necklace) and look as if they were doing the runway for Yves Saint Laurent."

Again, what makes an older woman's style admirable is a certain self-asssurance – the paradox of classics is that if you wear them with timidity, they don’t confer sophistication; they confer invisibility. Life's too short to be 'appropriate', says Grant. "There will be more than enough time for neutrals in the darkness of the grave."