Clothes are a big part of personal identity. They make a statement about who you are. In the book, The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie, writes: “For thousands of years human beings have communicated with one another first in the language of dress. Long before I am near enough to talk to you on the street, in a meeting or at a party, you announce your sex, age and class to me through what you are wearing – and very possibly give me important information (or misinformation) as to your occupation, origin, personality, opinions, tastes, sexual desires and current mood.”
I have rediscovered fashion in midlife. As a fan of bright colours, my first request is Don’t Make Me Sad!
What is with the latest fashion ‘colour’ being grey? It’s enough to bring on a bad case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder); the kind of depression caused by constant overcast weather and lack of sunshine.
I want to have a whinge about current fashions, which are so drab! Haven’t these people heard about colour? You know, remember the primary colours; red, blue, yellow, and the secondary colours; purple, green and orange. Leave the ‘shades’ of black, white and grey for bags and boots, trousers and funerals…please! Okay, I concede you CAN wear black in the evening, ladies!
A quick lesson on colour: tertiary colours are created when the shades of black, white or grey are added creating a vast spectrum of tones. Add white to primary and secondary colours and you get pastels: pink, aqua, lemon, mint, peach and mauve. Add black to the colours and you get your winter tones, including brown (the rich colour of the Earth and chocolate!) When you add grey (a mixture of black and white) to all six colours, you get neutrals. Neutrals are almost non-colours, as they neutralise impact.
It seems current fashion is stuck in neutral, with a dash of grey in everything! Maybe this obsession with grey is expressing the downcast mood of the recession. And maybe if fashion took the lead and we all went back to wearing pure happy colours, it would lift our collective spirits!
Now I have to confess, after an ‘intervention’ from my beautiful, elegant 23-year-old daughter and her friend, that I am forced to give up my addiction to gaudy colours and tone it down. Justine advises me to restrict bright colours to just one item per outfit! She has wisely convinced me to give up zany and aim for stylish. According to Justine too many colours on an old bird look eccentric! So much for colour, what about styles?
In Pursuit of Real Clothes
All these skimpy bits of fabric pretending to be whole garments; Where are the real clothes for the grown-ups, I ask? Is it just me, or do other middle-aged women find it difficult to track down clothes suitable for our age group?
You know want I mean; remember dresses, actual complete dresses, not just tops and bottoms. For midlife mammas, these rare garments must be substantial; longer than the thigh, past the knobbly knees, with sleeves that cover the arms, at least past those weird-looking things called elbows and not too low-cut because exposing the ample boobs at this age can make grown men regress to hungry infants.
In Defence of the 80s
As Fashion Editor for an Australian daily newspaper in that much-maligned fashion era of the 80s, I feel it is my duty to defend this dubious decade from the ridicule of contemporary fashionistas.
For the information of everyone under 40, the Eighties were all about vivid colour and excess. It was impossible to be OVER dressed, impossible to be too extreme or too extravagant!
There was no subtlety in this flamboyant, extroverted era. No time for shrinking violets, thank you. Shy introverts could just hide in the corner until the decade passed.
The word was BIG: big hair, big earrings, bright eye shadow to accentuate big eyes, big baggy tops draped over big, loose hanging belts. Or you could use big belts to hitch up your big, high-waisted, baggy clown pants. And the obligatory shoulder pads added get-out-of-my-way bulk to gaudy designer dresses and fancy jackets. This was Power Dressing. I swear some 80s sharp-edged shoulders could have sliced through timber.
It was a fun, celebratory, hedonistic, greedy, grabby Have-It-All era where the bill for the long lunch was courtesy of the Boss and all freebies were gratefully accepted, without a shred of compunction! We might question the ethics of the free-for-all now but the spirit was exuberant and optimistic.
At least independent designers were given ‘a go’, as us Aussies like to say. I remember vigorously promoting many creative young designers with their own thriving businesses selling original garments in our little town.
An Alternative to Slave Labour
Such enterprise is not fostered in the new global marketplace of the 21st century. In poor countries, workers, mostly women and children, are dehumanised as cheap ‘units of labour’ in factories manufacturing clothing for insatiable, mindless ‘consumers’ in rich countries. We in the developed world just can’t get enough of the cheap merchandise churned out by China.
I wish we could outlaw slave labour. We all like affordable clothes and don’t want to pay a fortune for designer labels. Perhaps there is some middle ground where independent designers, ethical manufacturers and cottage industries can once again thrive.
One thing for sure, we need to become more aware and discerning as consumers and start to ask the popularised question “What do women want?” when it comes to clothing. If you ask me, I just want real, substantial clothes with a hint of 80s flamboyance!
What Do Middle-aged Women Want in Clothing?
As a woman in my early 50s, I consider four factors when deciding what to wear.
My first priority is comfort. I must be dressed in clothes of the exact right weight and fabric so I achieve the perfect temperature, not too hot (to bring on a flush) and not too cold (to bring on whinging). Pants and skirts must fit perfectly so they don’t cut into my waist when sitting or feel too tight after a meal! Jackets must also be serviceable with loads of pockets.
Secondly, I dress for the occasion. There are six spheres of my life to cover: working and relaxing at home, being sporty, being outdoors in the country or city parks; professional day wear for the office, dressy day wear for social functions and evening wear for nights out. I need different outfits for each of these parts of my life. Like most mature women when I am dressed right for the occasion I feel fantastic!
For home, I have a range of smart casuals for working in my home office (I never work in my PJs!) and comfy lounging clothes that switch the brain into relaxation mode and an array of nightwear. I have my collection of sporty clothes for power walking, the gym, swimming and horse riding (Okay, I don’t ride much, but I have the jodhpurs and riding boots under the bed!)
I have country casuals for weekend trips away exploring the genteel English countryside; a range of smart work wear including an inordinate number of natty jackets, a range of floral dresses for Ascot (I haven’t been yet!) and high tea at the Ritz (I’m all prepared for when the invite comes!) My favourite evening colours are red, purple and essential sexy black for nights out at restaurants, clubs and West End shows.
Thirdly, having moved from the tropics, where the climate varies between hot or hotter, to live in genteel England, I relish the four distinct seasons that transform life every three months. I love to dress for the seasons. Like most organised women, I store my stash of off-season clothes in cases under the bed and bring them out with ritual delight, placing them lovingly in the drawers and wardrobe as the new season approaches.
For spring and summer I go all pastel in light fabrics and pretty wraps and cardi’s with white or cream or navy as a base colour. In autumn and winter, I love to wrap up in cuddly knitwear in deep winter colours with stylish coats, flamboyant scarves and of course a range of sturdy boots and chunky handbags. I like black as a base in the city in winter and earthy brown tones as the base for casual clothes when frolicking in the Great Outdoors in autumn and winter.
Lastly there is the question of style. Clothes must flatter and hide all the floppy bits, like bingo wings and the rounded belly, ample bottom and thunder thighs. Give me three-quarter length sleeves and scooped necklines in tops and dresses made from loose, soft, forgiving jersey that falls kindly over the tummy and swishes to the knees.
Style is all about how you combine an outfit. It is the puzzle that has a woman staring blankly at a wardrobe bulging with clothes, declaring she has ‘nothing to wear’. Style is knowing the right combination of pieces that either match or complement in colour, fabric texture and design. This is where the flair of the artist is required!
Outfits are either one piece, the classic dress (when you ride the Tube, you wonder if it still exists!) or two pieces; a top and a bottom, either pants or a skirt. Middle-aged women eventually realise, through the demoralising experience of squeezing into hipsters, to stick to pants that come up to the belly button! How I used to love my short, tight-fitting pencil skirts in my 30s but these days, I opt for full skirts to the knee!
Underneath, I need a wide colour range of cami’s to wear with low-cut dresses or jackets. Of course I also need a range of colourful knickers and bras for all seasons. In summer, thick, padded bras make me break out in a sweat! So I have to wear thin, light bras!
But all year round, I don’t feel fully dressed until I step out with a coat, jacket, wrap or cardi, sleeveless jacket (my trusty travel friend, the gilet) open vest or waistcoat for added panache! ‘Outer’ wear gives you a cosy sense of security in the city!
Shoes have been the trickiest item for me to master in London. I have finally settled on flat shoes for the Tube and pounding the city streets, after countless disastrous outings ending in throbbing, sore feet. For a special treat, I opt for small, sensible heels on stylish boots or evening shoes (when I can sit, looking elegant!)
How can you feel dressed without the right accessories? Winter demands finishing off your outfit with a scarf and gloves and possibly woolly hat when the freezing air nips your ears.
There’s the essential handbag (a woman’s portable home) containing the essential iphone and glasses, wallet, Oyster card and the rest of the gear (possibly camera and laptop.)
Jewellery is so personal. Six pieces are enough for me: earrings, necklace, rings on my wedding finger and watch on my left wrist, another ring on my right hand and bangle on right wrist. Optional extras include a fancy hair clip and interesting belt.
And that, my friends, is the simple business of putting an outfit together in midlife. A collection of pieces and bits and bobs allows you to invent different combinations each day. Be stylish and stay comfortable at every occasion and through all seasons and always remember to throw in a dash of 80s colour and flair!