“I see tea dresses are fashionable,” said my mother, over the phone. Pause. “I’d love a tea dress.” Longer pause. “But I’d never find one that would suit me.” Sigh. “The shops are hopeless for women of my age. Hopeless.”
My mother is in her eighties. She said the same thing in her seventies, her sixties and her fifties. I was too young at the time to remember whether she also said it in her forties, but I wouldn’t bet against it. Meanwhile, my 12-year-old daughter is going through similarly dark days of the wardrobe. “I need some new clothes, but I don’t know what I want,” she wails. Not for the first time, I couldn’t help but wonder: is there ever an age where women are not unhappy with their looks?
A recent survey claims that women find the trickiest age to dress for is 40, with respondents identifying this age as the stage in their lives when they felt they had to “dress their age” and stop wearing garments they would previously have shucked on without thinking. This is really sad, though not surprising. As anyone who has passed this milestone will attest, there’s something about hitting 40 that makes you take stock. But then, 48 hours after the Big Seismically Life-Changing Birthday, you wake up amazed that you still haven’t turned into a raddled crone. The denim shorts still fit, you still suit your favourite pink lipstick and nobody appears to be repulsed by your wrinkled, decrepit visage. What’s going on?
What’s going on is that you’ve realised that 40 is a breeze. Fifty’s the one. Fifty is when you’ll definitely turn into a raddled crone and eschew strapless dresses for life, because #bingowings. But then 50 passes and, encouraged by Davina McCall and Elle Macpherson even though you look nothing like them, you’re still wearing bikinis on the beach. OK. Great. Clearly 60 is the time to put it all away. By 60, you will definitely be wearing loose kaftans in summer and elasticated-waist trousers of a particularly cheap, polyester bent throughout the cooler months. But then, you decide to have a mahoosive party for your 60th involving all-night dancing to Chaka Khan and, whaddayaknow, suddenly you’re channeling Helen Mirren in the high-street version of one of her slinky Dolce & Gabbana gowns. And so it goes on. You will probably be on your deathbed wondering why the sleeves on your hospital gown couldn’t be cut more appropriately for an aged arm.
It worries me that so many women profess they can’t find a thing to wear. Are the shops really that bad? Is there a paucity of clothes, or a paucity of confidence? Is the dress right, but we feel our bodies are wrong?
Ageing is hard. So is getting dressed every day. We owe it to ourselves to make both processes as painless as possible. Surely one of the best – or, at least, simplest – ways to do this is to acknowledge that prescriptive, age-related fashion rules are not rules to live by. Surely, they’re rules to be broken: joyfully, confidently and with zero fucks given about what others think. Bare your upper arms for as long as you feel happy to; ditto your thighs, stomach or knees. After all, they’re yours to do what you like with.
Which is all lovely, though of little use if you still can’t find anything in the shops that suits you or that you really want to buy. Given that we now have more choice than at any point in history, it worries me that so many women profess they can’t find a thing to wear. Are the shops really that bad? Is there a paucity of clothes, or a paucity of confidence? Is the dress right, but we feel our bodies are wrong?
And if the latter, is it any wonder? A woman’s body changes all the time, morphing through puberty, pregnancy, postpartum, menopause and beyond. Understandably, the clothes that worked in one life phase won’t always work in another. But, while these physical changes can be difficult to navigate, it’s the mental changes and, in particular, the fluctuating confidence they engender, which cause the real problems. For those, I have no solution. I lack confidence myself. Who doesn’t? Only Helen Mirren. The rest of us can only try to surround ourselves with radiators, not drains; with people who make us feel good about ourselves, rather than opining that a 42-year-old woman really has no business wearing a bardot top. Age is nothing but a number. Wear whatever you fancy.