Defying the 'dress your age' police

16:00, Nov 29 2013
FABULOUS FASHIONISTAS: Sue and Bridget, two of the stylish ladies in the doco.

The store should have been enough to put me off. A bass-thumping sensory overload of sparkly hot pants and six-inch heels, it felt like a nightclub with shop assistants.

But after three hours of fruitless searching for a dress for a special occasion, I was running out of options.
To my surprise, as I stood in the change room trying on a very short and very sexy black playsuit I thought, ''This is the one.'' Then, a thought I hadn't expected: ''Am I too old for this?''

It was the first time I'd ever asked myself the question. I'd rarely thought twice about whether the clothes I bought were ''age-appropriate.'' If I liked it and it looked good, I'd wear it.

Now, in the second half of my 30s I'm beginning to doubt myself. Could I, god forbid, be entering the phase where I have to seek style advice on how to ''dress your age''?

It's not as if I'm rocking up to work in midriff tops and tying my hair in pigtails but things that hadn't occurred to me in my 20s are starting to occupy my mind when I get dressed in the morning: Is this skirt too short? Do these baseball boots and skinny jeans make me look like an ageing teenager? Have I outgrown my favourite School Geek T-shirt?

We live in a culture where dressing against the social norm after a certain age leaves you open to whispers of, ''that outfit's too young for her.''


For men, things aren't much better. Dressing younger than their years evokes connotations of Peter Pan complexes and midlife crises, as if wearing a baseball cap past the age of 40 is evidence of a man's refusal to fully entertain adulthood, when really, whether he wears a cap and boardshorts well into his pensionable years should be nobody's business but his own.

In Britain, a recently aired Channel 4 documentary, Fabulous Fashionistas, challenges tired ideas of age-appropriate style by celebrating those who choose to defy convention and be visible.

Six Botox-free women, with an average age of 80, who refuse to wear beige - the ''colour of death'' - talk about their unique style and how they want an identity beyond ''old lady.'' They are vibrant, funky, full-of-life women who won't be pigeonholed.

With her angular silver bob, Doc Marten boots and chunky jewellery, grandmother Jean Woods looks every bit the inner city hipster. The 75-year-old, who works at The Gap and shops at Topshop, says, ''When I put something on, I don't think, 'will anybody think I look good?' I just decide in my own mind whether I look good - I don't really care about other people.''

Perhaps it's not about what you wear but the attitude with which you wear it. Clothes are such a big part of our sense of self - a celebratory expression of our own personal style - that just wearing an outfit you feel great in can boost confidence and lift your mood for the whole day.

It's sad to think that there may be an age limit on this self-expression. Or that the weight of expectation may force some people into prematurely hitting the mute button on their appearance.

Yet, in a world captivated by youth, it can be hard to break free from the social constructs of young and old style. Celebrity magazines are obsessed with who's got it right and who's royally screwed up when it comes to ageing gracefully. But what does that actually mean? If a woman in her 70s wants to have hair down her back, wear combat pants or rock a leopard print basque why shouldn't she?

We heap praise on women such as Oscar winner Helen Mirren and Governor-General Quentin Bryce not just for their elegant fashion sense but for the fact they've managed to pull it off in a way that doesn't offend society's sense of what constitutes correct attire for older people.

A dress sense outside the accepted paradigm is viewed as eccentric at best, and a sad attempt to recapture lost youth at worst.

Many women talk about feeling invisible in later life. But could it be that in a bid to ''dress their age'', their safe fashion choices contribute to this slow vanishing act?

The British documentary didn't please everyone. Guardian blogger Michele Hanson complained that singling out these stylish women because of their fashion sense is only seen as remarkable because they're old and that in itself perpetuates the ageist stereotypes the documentary purports to debunk.

I disagree. If people are to feel more comfortable in their fashion choices as they age, I say we need more media portrayals of older people dressing however they damn well please.

I want to be confident that I've got many more years before I'm expected to lower my hemline, crop my hair and dress in pastels, lest I scandalise the neighbourhood.

And I hope that when I'm 80 I'll be a fabulous fashionista who never wears beige, and if I want to wear my playsuit (which, incidentally, I bought because it made me feel awesome,) I will put it on with pride.

Sydney Morning Herald