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What exactly does age-appropriate style mean for older people?

Q. I am a newly retired 68-year-old woman. As a former attorney, I never had difficulty buying clothes. Not the case now. Recently I went to two large department stores and found nothing that seemed to be right for me. I even tried to buy jeans, which was worse than buying a bathing suit. Is there still a notion of looking “age-appropriate” or is that archaic thinking? I am curious about your thoughts on this. Many thanks. B.Y.

There have been some odd rules about what has been age-appropriate for older women, such as no long hair, no sleeveless tops and no mini-skirts or loud clothes. As Jennifer Alfano of Harper’s Bazaar writes, “What does age-appropriate mean when everyone from nine to 90 is wearing jeans?”

Yet what should we think when we see an ad on the Internet from Walmart that advertises “Elderly Dresses?” Some were shapeless and others were figure-clinging and described as sexy. Not sure “elderly” is the best term.

We have examples of women breaking the age-appropriate notion. Maye Musk, age 74 and the mother of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, is the oldest cover model for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition. As a former model, she says despite her age she’s “only getting started.” She wants women to walk on the beach and not be embarrassed about their bodies as told in an interview on CBS Mornings.

Then there is Iris Apfel, age 100, who is famous for her eclectic style. She is known for her oversized glasses wearing layers of bright-colored clothing and large jewelry that can come from a flea market or haute couture designers. She is such an icon that Mattel used Apfel as a role model for a Barbie doll that has white hair, huge black glasses and chunky jewelry.

We have books that feature older women who define style and appropriateness for themselves. “Advanced Style” (Powerhouse Books, 2012) by author and photographer Ari Seth Cohen is a compilation of street fashion featuring women aged 60 and older. As Cohen writes in the introduction to the book, “The ladies I photograph challenge stereotypical views on age and aging. They are youthful in mind and spirit and express themselves through personal style and creativity.”

There are ways to begin a small personal revolt against age-appropriate clothing as suggested by AARP in their online article “10 Ways to Kick Age-Appropriate Standards to the Curb.”

Here are just a few of their suggestions: Keep wearing your black leather jacket; if you have long hair, flaunt it; choose leopard every chance you get; wear a pop of unexpected color and don’t be afraid to show your shape. Finally, be ready to take a few risks.

Speaking of bright colors, note that Queen Elizabeth at age 96 intentionally wears neon colors of fuchsia, red, lemon, royal blue, purple and more to make sure that those who come to see her can recognize her in crowded public areas. We may enjoy wearing those colors for other reasons.

I had conversations on this topic with a few women in their 70s and 80s. A recently retired corporate executive mentioned to me that at work she was cloaked in a costume every day by wearing her work uniform. She changed as soon as she got home. Now in retirement, she is happy to be free of costume restrictions. Another woman said she worked in her parent’s women’s ready-to wear-store and was always surrounded by fashion. She said, “How we dress ourselves helps us express how we feel – even if it’s in sweats.” Another woman commented she has fun putting on a cool Indian jacket over a silk top and pants because she doesn’t look like everyone else and added, “It’s not vanity; it’s self-expression.”

The intention of this column is not to be a fashion bible. It is more about the messages we receive from our environment, our society – about what aging should look like. Age stereotyping can easily block our creativity. And that expression helps make a statement about who we are and how we feel about ourselves, at least for that moment. At the same time, it is important to consider the occasion, body type and messages we want to convey. Yet, perhaps in later life, we need to worry less about what other people are thinking and more about what we like, being true to ourselves and having the freedom to take some risks, tossing the notion of age appropriateness.

Thank you B.Y. for your good question that likely resonates with many of our readers. On your next shopping trip, consider taking a friend and substitute the age lens for one that says, “that’s me!” Stay well and be kind to yourself and others.

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