The Rage of the Age (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”)

The final of three Presidential debates may have aired this past Wednesday but it seems another debate is still raging: What constitutes “appropriate dress” for women of a certain age?

Julia Baird, the New York Times contributing opinion writer and author of an upcoming biography on Queen Victoria penned an article, “Don’t Dress Your Age” which ran in the New York Times Sunday Review section, October 23rd. Among the debatable topics she broached: As women get older, should they be restrained and classic or should they be out there and fabulous? Is it worse to dress “younger” than your age, or like an “old lady” (and how is that defined?).

Should they show some skin or be prim? Should they smile or sulk? Should they desire to be ravaged or adored?

OMG, you’ve got to be kidding! It’s 2016 and I had thought- or hoped – that we had gotten way beyond this. Let’s not forget that a woman in her late 60’s will soon be President of the United States (though her opponent’s ongoing rhetoric seems fixated on the physical appearance of women of all ages). And given the current state of the world and the number of issues concerning women that are far more pressing and serious than something comparatively superficial, I can’t believe this is still a topic of discussion.

And neither can Julia Baird who has apparently heard enough. She likened the way women dress to the life stages of a “sheep” and observed that “Women over 40 get too much unwanted advice on what to wear. Her rebuke? “Stuff it!”

While I generally found the article to be entertaining, I was nonetheless struck by how passé and old fashioned (pardon the pun) the whole discourse seemed and I had to laugh at her assignment of that “magic number”: the age when women are “suddenly inundated with advice about “age-appropriate” wear: 40! Yikes, I have shoes, bags, coats and dresses more than 40 years old and anyway, 40 is the new 20.

Pat Cleveland
Photo via Pop Sugar

Not that it would have been more interesting for me had she directed her comments to women over 65, 70, 80, or 90 for that matter, because none of this seems to be in the least bit relevant nowadays. It’s all highly subjective and arbitrary and one size hardly fits all. Plus, style is style. Either you have it or you don’t and it doesn’t or shouldn’t disappear with age.

Polly Mellen in an ad for the Gap

To give credit where credit is due, one of the first people to really champion ageless style, is Ari Seth Cohen, the photographer and author who created several years ago, in an effort to capture “the sartorial savvy of the senior set”. He said he was frustrated by the lack of mature faces in the lifestyle and fashion media and wanted to prove that “you can be stylish, creative, and vital at any age.”

Lyn Slater clinical associate professor at GSS
and fashion blogger

While not all his subjects are necessarily my cup of tea (they are a bit too theatrical and costumey), some are extraordinary. Among those he has featured who are also my personal favorites: Lyn Slater, 63, who has 22 years of academia under her belt says that as she becomes older, she’s had more time and resources to devote to developing the more creative aspects of herself (she has a fabulous blog,; Joy Venturini Bianchi, (the noted 78 year old San Franciscan philanthropist who founded Helper’s House of Couture); Linda Rodin, 67, Founder and Creator of Rodin olio russo; and last but not least, Iris Apfel (95).

Joy Venturini Bianchi photography by Ari Seth Cohen

What more can be said about Iris who will receive Fashion Group International’s “Auteur of Style Award” during the course of their annual Night of Stars which will take place this Thursday evening at Cipriani Wall Street. The fabulous and equally ageless Pat Cleveland (who is 66 years old), will be honored with the “Fashion Provocateur Award” and Polly Mellen, the legendary Vogue editor and stylist extraordinaire, will be on hand to present Joe Zee with the “Media Award” (I don’t know her exact age but she began her career in fashion in the late 50’s). Not a conformist in the bunch and fittingly, the overall theme of the evening is “The Non-Conformists”.

Linda Rodin photographed by Ari Seth Cohen

It IS all about non conformity, individuality, eccentricity, and breaking the rules these days. One of the great things about getting older, is that one should not care one iota about what others think nor should one try to conform to any particular set of standards but rather, derive satisfaction from staying true to oneself.

Rei Kawakubo in Paris photograph by Fabien Baron

Of course, one of the most celebrated fashion non conformists is Rei Kawakubo who is 74. She’s not only one of a kind and ageless; so are her avant- garde designs. Coincidentally, she was the subject of an article which also appeared in last Sunday’s the New York Times, “What the Comme des Garcons Show Means for the Met – and Fashion” written by Vanessa Friedman. As you know, it’s has now officially been confirmed that the progressive designer of the radical Japanese label Comme des Garcons will become the second living designer to have a solo show at the Met’s Costume Institute this spring (Yves Saint Laurent was so honored in 1984).

Anna Wintour & Andrew Bolton sitting from row at Comme  Des Garcons
Spring 2017 Ready-To-Wear show

Andrew Bolton, the Head Curator at the Costume Institute said that “there are very few designers working today who can really hold their own in an art context, but Rei is one of them. She has changed the course of fashion by offering new possibilities for its very meaning. ” In keeping with the exhibition’s honoree, he would love to see attendees of the attending Met Gala “dressing themselves” in “avant-garde fashion”, and he would also love to see some “mistakes”.

Make no mistake about it, Rei is the ultimate non-conformist in every facet of her life and her work. She is not interested in parties and has never attended a Met gala (though she will be there this time, along with Anna Wintour, Pharrell Williams, and Katy Perry, the two celebrity guest hosts). She has her own idea of what is “pretty” (it’s safe to say her notion would be at complete odds with that of Donald Trump lol) and naturally, she has her own ideas about aging, which are reflected in her own personal style. She has a known preference for head to toe black, silver zippered black leather biker jackets, and heavy and flat menswear style oxfords and I’m pretty sure you will see her in some form of this ‘uniform’ come the first Monday in May. It’s not exactly what you would expect a ‘typical’ 74 year old to wear for a grand evening but that’s precisely the point. She’s not typical nor is anyone else.

When she presented her spring 2017 collection in Paris last month, she said she wanted to make “invisible clothes” but I can assure you that her definition of what is invisible is hardly in keeping with the idea that as one gets older, “it’s better to occupy less space– be more demure and dull” and basically become invisible, which, as Ms. Baird noted, is what society “expects” older women to do. It’s not possible to fade into the woodwork wearing anything Rei designs regardless of how old you are.

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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