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What Happened to Dressing Like a Grown-Up?

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We’ve Forgotten How to Dress Like Adults
by Rebecca Huval
A woman in a nice dress.

On the cover of British Vogue in 1948, an unthinkable figure appeared. An elegant woman turned toward the camera with a set of pearls, a trim suit, and hair that was (gasp!) visibly gray. The fictional character of Mrs. Exeter appeared twice on the cover. Since then, rarely — if ever — would a woman approaching 60 appear on that coveted platform by herself.

Introduced in the late 1940s, Mrs. Exeter taught older women how to dress. “Mrs. Exeter knows what she likes — result of a thorough knowledge of herself,” wrote Vogue in the October/November 1958 issue. Her advanced age gave her an edge over flighty younger women who hadn’t zeroed in on their sense of self. She appears secure in dresses made from sturdy fabrics not seen as much today, like wool crepe or tweed.

“One of the things that is striking about Mrs. Exeter from the perspective of today is how old she is, and how unrepentantly so,” writes Julia Twigg, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, in the academic journal Fashion Theory. “Vogue writes in 1949, ‘Approaching 60, Mrs. Exeter does not look a day younger, a fact she accepts with perfect good humour and reasonableness.’ This is in marked contrast to the dominant discourse today, where the aim is to look ten years younger.”

After a nearly 20-year run, she vanished in the mid-1960s, along with the sophisticated styles reserved for older women. Before, girls aspired to wear the sexy draped dresses only deemed appropriate for over-30 women who could handle the consequences of showing off their cleavage. Today, if you were to read some women’s magazines at face value, we’re left with nothing to look forward to past the minimum age of renting a car.

The culprit? The baby boomers and the 1960s Youthquake.

“I’m afraid it is unfortunately part of a general contempt for older women that society picked up — along with a contempt for older people in general — in the 1960s,” says historian Linda Przybyszewski. “You have this enormous group of young people setting trends by themselves when they reached adulthood. They consciously rejected what older people were doing for good reasons and some not good reasons. [One] not good reason: The basic vision of old people as stupid.”

The Silent Generation made horrendous choices, like the Vietnam War and oppressing anyone who wasn’t white and male. As a result, being old looked awful. Baby Boomers decided they would be and look young forever. The problem with that became obvious when, despite their best intentions, baby boomers not only grew old, but also started their own wars, continued to oppress anyone who wasn’t white and male, and even elected Donald Trump.

“Being young became this yardstick in clothing and political discourse and music,” Przybyszewski says. “It started out rejecting becoming older, which is hopeless because you either die or you’re hoisted by your own petard. Over time, people have paid this price, eventually it came back to them, and guess what? Baby boomers are old, and people think they’re boring and they don’t fit into leggings very well.

“It’s like the Homer Simpson way of thinking, the idea that old people are never right,” she says. “We lost the idea that you could grow up and be dignified. Growing up: Boring!

And to think that girls used to look forward to the fashion privileges that came with age. During the mid-century, girls leaving for college were encouraged to pack, if nothing else, a three-piece skirt, dress, and jacket, writes Przybyszewski in The Lost Art of Dress. “The shift in women’s fashion in the 1960s would make everyone, even grown women, appear childishly young, but in 1946 the pages of Vogue Patterns offered a variety of skirt suits and dress suits sized for juniors who wanted to look grown-up enough to join the more formal and privileged world of adulthood.”

"We lost the idea that you could grow up and be dignified."

Each decade of age seemed to offer its own licenses. “By the age of thirty, most women were married, held jobs, or both,” writes Przybyszewski. “And they were presumed able to handle the eroticism embodied in the draped designs that made for the most sophisticated styles.” Draping gathers excess fabric into unique waves that draw attention to the wearer’s womanly curves and the tug of gravity. “It offers a more subtle eroticism than our usual bare fashion,” she writes.

For older women in the mid-century, the styles of the time also happened to mesh well with the values of dignity and sophistication. “The 1950s... it’s dominated by the elegant, conservative style that’s really essentially set by Dior and the New Look,” Twigg says. “It’s a very womanly elegant style; it actually worked quite well for older women.” The Christian Dior New Look emphasized hourglass shapes with the wide skirt that flared at the hips. Granted, it was oppressive in its corseted waist and expensive with all the fabric it required, but it highlighted the fact that women have hips.

Then, the Youthquake disrupted any appreciation for ghastly old things. “What came in with Youthquake in the ‘60s is very, very different. It’s inexpensive, young, long hair, a body style that’s almost prepubescent... with long legs and a thin body,” Twigg says. “So that creates a very different design aesthetic. And I think that’s part of what kicked Mrs. Exeter off Vogue.” In the swinging ‘60s, designer Mary Quant introduced the mini skirt that demanded a woman's legs look like straws. Stick-thin model Twiggy popularized the babydoll dress along with its infantilizing silhouette and name. Boxy styles eliminated curves from a woman’s body. Suddenly, magazines set an impossible standard for youthfulness and boyish bodies that most women, but especially older women, couldn’t achieve.

In 1965, fashion professor Helen Brockman wrote “youth is ascendant,” according to The Lost Art of Dress. She explained to young designers that they could choose between “young styling” or “youthful styling.” “Sophisticated styling” was no longer offered by manufacturers, so they didn’t have to bother with learning about it. And just like that, up-and-coming designers lost the legacy of dressing for older women.

“So the idea that older women wear complicated cuts, subtler colors, delicate details — those things simply got taken out of the knowledge of upcoming designers, so they would never even know this stuff because nobody talks about it,” Przybyszewski says.

That lack of education appears today on the show Project Runway. The fashion designers shiver in their sleek boots whenever Tim Gunn describes their work-in-progress with the “M word” for “matronly.” This means “suitable for an older married woman” in the dictionary, but on the show, it means frumpy and uncool. A matronly, dignified dress with an empowering design might be exactly what’s missing from stores. With an expanded cultural understanding of what old age can be, including self-possessed and badass, we might begin to find racks of matronly dresses that shoppers have been sorely missing.

Predominantly young designers also struggle to connect with older buyers. “There are structural problems to do with designing,” Twigg says. “There’s a kind of mismatch between the kind of person who’s thinking about what an older woman wants — and who’s actually a designer in her 20s or 30s — and the actual social reality of what older women are like now. I think they imagine older women as more old than they now are... Older people are as differentiated from each as younger people are... Among those, you’ve got some women who are still interested, stylish, slim, and can carry off younger styles, but you’ve also women who’ve decided, you know, they’re quite happy in a jumper and some slacks with an elastic waist, don’t bother me.”

"I’m struck by how the word ‘matron’ became a curse. In the Sears Roebuck catalog in the ‘50s, they’d say ‘hats for matrons,’ so you would be willing to buy them. And now it’s clear, to be older is bad."

In lieu of Mrs. Exeter, Vogue now has an annual age issue portfolio, but it only features older women alongside younger women, and only in small images. Przybyszewski used to tear out pages from fall fashion magazines to inspire her. “I don’t tear out many looks anymore,” she says. “There are three looks: the seductress, what I can only call the clown with a juxtaposition of color, and the slob. And none of these women seem to have jobs. It seemed there was no place for somebody who wanted to look savvy, wise, and dignified. I’m struck by how the word ‘matron’ became a curse. In the Sears Roebuck catalog in the ‘50s, they’d say ‘hats for matrons,’ so you would be willing to buy them. And now it’s clear, to be older is bad.”

Nowadays, older women in Vogue are airbrushed past the point of identifying their age, and that includes their clothing. “They now present a different version of the older woman that’s the ageless style, that style transcends it,” Twigg says. The only acceptable way to present old age in public is to completely efface it.

We used to identify desirable qualities with old age, like poise to deal with the complications of the world, discretion, and wisdom. “Now, we have to be fun and creative!” Przybyszewski says. “Come on, I know I was an idiot when I was 18. And there’s a thing where too much enthusiasm is bad for you, it makes you go out with the really wrong guy, so when you look back, you say, ‘What was I doing?’

“I unfortunately think all these ways of acknowledging that age does have benefits got thrown away. As a result, the ways women conveyed ‘I am a sophisticated, worldly woman, I’ve been around the block’... They just got thrown away.”

Przybyszewski feels lucky to work in one of the very few industries where old age is valued, and you don’t have to pretend to be 30 forever: academia. “If you can look older, it’s a plus! In so many other fields, people have to pretend. And it’s weird because we keep on figuring out that people who are old have knowledge. You know, it helps to have a man with gray hair because he can count the numbers and tell you when the bubble is about to burst, and you can’t just stay up all night and drink Red Bull. We’ve learned something from history, let’s try to use this!”

We despise old age so much that even men aren’t protected by the double standards of sexism. In Silicon Valley, men past their 40s dress in hoodies and zany socks and get botox just to blend in with their twentysomething cohort. To be young is to be innovative, so says the tech industry... and most everyone else.

But what if we accented our age on purpose to show off our hard-earned sagacity? The cultural tides might begin to change. We already have role models to follow.

French women let their hair go gray and still rouge their lips. They even have a sexy name for this: “éminence grise,” meaning literally “gray eminence,” but idiomatically “a respected authority.” Przybyszewski has noticed this in their cinema, too. “And we’re always like ‘Oh the French actresses, they’re still working! They’re over 30 and nobody has taken them out behind a barn and shot them!’”

Don’t forget esteemed Americans like director Nancy Meyers, the fictional characters from The Golden Girls, and fashion icon Iris Apfel. A bold pair of glasses and peacock colors of joie de vivre reveal what’s great about aging: We will give an ever-dwindling amount of fucks. As our social barriers dissolve, many of us will be left with a rock-solid sense of self. You could either get botox or celebrate the raw power of gathering decades of knowledge of yourself and the world. I say, let’s assemble a squad of matronly motherfuckers.

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There have been, in total, six winters between now and when I blew through that first jar. But recently, I began to think that I’m now old and wise enough to do the right thing: Just buy it for myself and be done with it. But as it turns out, if you complain long and hard enough and wake up screaming in the night to scratch your itchy skin, you just may inadvertently convince your significant other to plop down a little cash for luxury. This Christmas, I received a present of not just one jar, but two. —Kelly Green, contributing writer

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