MASTER MUSINGS: Signature style
Fashion tips aimed at those of us in our 50s and 60s usually provide pertinent advice on the value of tailoring and the necessity of owning a properly fitting bra (which I’ve singularly failed to ever possess). But I don’t often hear this kind of encouragement; that while you may have been a dedicated follower of fashion in your youth, being older is a brilliant time to use it to express the person you’ve become. Such a sense of liberation is often lacking.
There seems to be a cultural expectation that by 60, you’re mainly looking for ways to either conceal your age or look elegantly presentable despite it. I get that to some extent. With my increasingly scraggy neck, a number of necklines are no-nos, and when I catch sight of my arms, weirdly I appear to be wearing my Mum’s. But I would love it if credos for camouflage were balanced by the notion that older women might also like to dress creatively, charismatically, individually, dramatically and joyfully, with size, shape and age, no barrier to fashion and flair.
Look at Iris Apfel…and when you see her, you can’t help but look. The American interior designer known for her eclectic, theatrical love of clothes is 100 and has recently collaborated on a line with H&M. Whatever you think of her flamboyance, in the face of this info, who’d dare decree the time to start toning down your style is half a century earlier?
I don’t pretend to be an expert but as lots of readers have been enquiring about items I wear, many of which are years old (the fair isle and cable knits) or inexpensive (the retro print skirt and vintage satin ankle boots, £1.50 and £15 respectively from eBay), here’s my two pennies’ worth. Firstly, scare and dare yourself a little – like when I plonked a yellow fedora with turquoise trim on my head. Turned out to be my favourite hat, flagging my sartorial quest is not yet invisibility.
There are plenty of celebs who offer inspiration, from Helen Mirren’s elegance to Carolina Herrera’s unfailing ability to work a white shirt. I love building signature looks every so often, focusing on interesting yet reliable pieces that neither render you silly nor sombre. One that’s worked for me over the last decade has been the tulle skirt of a graceful length. However, I only stocked up once I’d found a version that laid flat over my hips, rejecting plenty that puffed out from my waist and made me look like an angry, aged fairy in a life-size jewellery box. The lesson? No matter how much you’re drawn to a look, persevere to find the example that fits and flatters you (and never be afraid to size up for a looser, lower-slung fit). If you’re having to convince yourself something will do when actually, it’s not right, don’t buy it. You’ll never wear it.
I’m also a fan of contrasts. Think partnering gossamer net skirts with hunky, chunky sweaters and rugged boots or old-fashioned plimsoles – if you put on a pretty-pretty top and court shoes you’re into mother-of-the-bride territory. So, in the privacy of your own home, I say try on clashes. Mix textures. Mingle styles. Let high-end pieces rub shoulder with budget buys. Throw traditional rules to the winds, just to see if an unlikely pairing delivers an off-kilter charm.
I also like extremes. I don’t mean go crazy for crazy’s sake. Just jump one way or the other, for example, super-plain or intricately embellished. Eschew ho-hum prints, as well as hemlines and jumper lengths that hover in the hinterland of half-heartedness. Same with colour. For years, I’ve been colour blocking. Nothing new there. But try taking it to the limit. For a while, one of my signatures was a figure-hugging red lace dress that I wore with a red ribbon sash, red heels and here’s the important part, red opaque tights. Had I bottled it with black or neutral tights, the whole thing would have lacked any elegance. As it was, this statement often stood me in good stead. When my waist thickened, I swapped short for long and clingy for sweeping. Enter a silk maxi skirt, cardi, scarf and boots, again all in scarlet.
A last thought. To feel fashionable, sometimes it’s worth bucking trends. I learnt this in the 80s, which was all about colour, frills, bagginess and big-time denim. In a sea of jeans, I picked up a few pairs of 1960s’ ex-hire, black ski pants from a bargain bin in a sports shop. I wore them casually but also to uni balls with an officer’s mess jacket. The look couldn’t have been more at odds with the voluminous, metallic ‘oven-ready’ ball dresses of the day. Apfel describes looking like the herd as ‘unfashion’. She proves that can still hold true later in life.