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Why We Dress Older

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‘Menocore’ Is as Much About Wealth as It Is About Age
by Sara Tatyana Bernstein

It’s Martha’s Vineyard everywhere now. I keep seeing young women in layers of linen, knee-length cardigans, low-impact dyes in varied shades of taupe and indigo, maybe a chunky statement necklace. Harling Ross at Man Repeller called it “menocore” — like normcore if its inspiration were “women of a certain age.” The brand Eileen Fisher is another common shorthand for the look, one that’s been a loving joke among my friends for years.

Now in our 40s, we love the aesthetic for the same reasons many others say they do: the way it embodies a particular fantasy about middle age and femininity, and the excitement because of the fact that these two concepts are almost never correlated. But, if I’m honest, I think the fantasy is something more specific. It’s not just of any older woman, but of a wealthy one. And because race and class are so deeply intertwined, usually a white one.

This style has been around for a long time, which is part of its charm. As a loosely defined aesthetic, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it comes from. Some of the shapes — boxy caftans, long cardigans, wide linen pants — recall resort, home entertaining, and bohemian styles of the 1920s and early ’30s, and there are certainly nods to late ’60s hippie interests in natural fibers and “multiculturalism.” This 1978 image of Jacqueline Onassis seems to fit the bill as well.

As for when it became the go-to aesthetic among a certain class of older women, most signs point to the mid 1980s. When Eileen Fisher started her brand in 1984, the look was already percolating in multiple corners. Jessica Glasscock, lecturer in fashion studies at Parsons, suggests, “A lot of it goes back to Donna Karan's seven easy pieces,” which were introduced in 1985. She adds that Norma Kamali, who brought drawstrings and sweatshirt fabric to high fashion in the early 1980s, “is probably a key figure as well.” Midrange brands like J.Jill and Chico’s also appeared in the mid-1980s, carrying the style to malls and catalog piles across the US.

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Photo: Alistair Berg/Getty Images

I didn’t understand the aesthetic until the early 2000s. I was about 28, flipping through an issue of Vogue. It was probably just dawning on me that I would actually be middle-aged someday. I’d just quit a comfortable position as a grant writer — the first job that might have allowed me to dip my toe into the middle class — to pursue graduate school and all the debt that goes with it. So I was more than a little anxious about what middle age would look like for me.

And then I saw The Picture. I don’t remember who the woman was — a wealthy philanthropist, maybe. She was in her 60s, sitting in a sun-drenched garden, wearing tan linen pants, a loose white tunic, and floppy straw hat. She was slim with a silver bob and a relaxed, elegant posture. That, I thought, is how I will dress when I am old. Problem of aging solved.

For me, the look was aspirational. Now, though, 20-somethings aren’t waiting. When I spoke to two colleagues who have embraced “menocore,” they referenced ideas similar to those mentioned above. But they added a new recurring theme: flexibility.

Kalaija Mallery, a 25-year-old graduate student and photographer, appreciates that the look accommodates her queerness, a variety of body types, and a degree of gender fluidity. Jea Alford, 28, an artist (and seamstress/adjunct professor/food server/union worker), likes that the clothes allow her to appear “put together” in a variety of contexts, and that they looked good even when she gained and lost a few pounds. Yet all three of us — two millennials and a late-model Gen Xer — are hesitant even as we covet the racks in pricey “women’s studies professor stores.” Now, having encountered #menocore, I understand this ambivalence.

A lot of the discussion surrounding this trend centers on the idea of comfort: not only wearing comfortable clothes, but wearing clothes that signify comfort with yourself. The Eileen Fisher woman has aged out of the male gaze without a backward glance, and she is totally at ease in her body. She exudes self-acceptance and self-actualization and all the other self-based issues we struggle with in our youth.

The Eileen Fisher woman has aged out of the male gaze without a backward glance, and she is totally at ease in her body. She exudes self-acceptance and self-actualization and all the other self-based issues we struggle with in our youth.

But when we look at the examples that keep being cited, a pattern emerges. Man Repeller describes “[A]n eccentric ceramicist exiting her beach house studio or Blythe Danner on a solo bird-watching expedition in 1997.” The French blog Les Boomeuses celebrates “Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give.” An article in The Cut discusses Grace and Frankie’s popularity among younger audiences, especially “Jane Fonda’s Nancy Meyers-worthy wardrobe of neutrals or Lily Tomlin’s hippie-dippie, New Mexico-artist wares.”

These women are all white, thin, and, above all, rich. The message seems to be that growing old can be glorious, as long as you fit this metric. Only then are you allowed to relax. Because that’s what we really want, isn’t it? Leisure time? The Eileen Fisher woman has had a successful career doing something creative and soul-satisfying, and now she’s ensconced in a well-appointed window seat overlooking a rocky seashore, drowsily reading Joan Didion. She isn’t frantically answering emails during her commute from job two to job three. She isn’t wondering if she’ll ever have dental insurance again, let alone retirement savings, or if the nation will survive long enough for her to reach retirement, or if the nap she took on Wednesday counts as a weekend.

Menocore has emerged just in time to fill the gap between the traditional American Dream of upward mobility through hard work and the realities of surviving in a gig economy during volatile political times. In January, it was widely reported that millennials “earn 20 percent less than Boomers at the same stage of life.” The Daily Beast cited a combination of soaring housing costs, massive student debt, and a job market whose growth is coming primarily from low-paying, part-time jobs as just some of the barriers facing that age group. My generation isn’t doing much better. In a recent article for Oprah.com, Ada Calhoun wrote: “We're some of the best-educated women in history, and yet we're downwardly mobile; about two-thirds of us have less wealth than our parents did at the same age.”

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I was raised to believe that even if I started life in financially precarious circumstances, if I got a good education and worked hard, I would earn the golden ticket to middle-class stability. When 28-year-old me imagined reaching Eileen Fisher status, I was actually imagining that I would have achieved the milestones that are supposed to come with late middle age: a house, retirement savings, vacation time. I would exude comfort because I would finally feel materially secure. Generation X was defined in many ways by our skepticism of this fantasy. I was no exception. When I made payments on student loans I’d never pay off, when my mother’s pension got cut just before she was supposed to retire, and in myriad other ways, I saw evidence that the American dream was built on shaky and unequal foundations. And yet I could not completely disinvest in the fantasy.

The generations coming up behind me seem to have an even stronger awareness of this precarity and inequality. Alford and Mallery both agree that the allure of Eileen Fisher style is very much about playing with class codes, while knowing it won’t necessarily lead to more stability. When I spoke to Alford, she was wearing a loose cream cardigan and a sage tunic with patch pockets (that she made herself). The look, she says, “is a little different for me. I make my own ‘menocore’ because I can’t afford to pay $200 for a tunic.” Alford began dressing this way soon after graduating college. She’d moved to Santa Barbara and was inspired by the older women there. “There was definitely a class association with the style,” she recalls. Mostly she just likes how it looks and feels, but “growing up poor, the way I dressed was always something I was conscious of.” So the style also represents a flexible kind of class-passing.

Mallery is bluntly self-aware: “The American dream is dead for me.” And yet she’s drawn to the style because, “I feel like it’s a way of fitting into a certain artistic class without falsely representing myself. Except it is false because I can’t afford it.” Still, she enjoys the identity play that these clothes make room for. While her sister described the dress she wore to her senior thesis defense as a potato sack, Mallery saw the asymmetrical black linen square as beautiful, and as part of an experience. She wears almost entirely secondhand clothes, but says, “When I bought that dress, I was a rich woman for a couple hours. It was the first thing I bought with a credit card.” In an era when downward mobility is real even among the relatively privileged and marginalized groups are fighting for their right to exist at all, the appeal of bourgeois comfort clothes kind of makes sense. As Glasscock points out, “youth is not always in fashion. It wasn’t fashionable in the 1930s, ’50s, or ’80s to be young. Fashion reflected status and money hard-earned.” In our current economy, then, embracing the signifiers of age carries an extra layer of irony. Wearing the Eileen Fisher look before we’ve actually achieved Eileen Fisher status is a way of accepting that maybe we’ll never be able to afford a summer in Tuscany or a tiered flower garden.

At least our clothes can be comfortable.

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Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give. | Photo: Sony Pictures

There is nothing new about fashion embodying ideals of upward mobility. Influential philosophers ranging from Christian Garve in 1792 to Georg Simmel in 1911 theorized that fashion as we know it (the system of continually changing styles governing dress and taste) can only exist in societies where one’s class status isn’t completely fixed by birth. There are problems with this definition of fashion, to be sure — for one thing, it historically confines “fashion” to “civilized,” “progressive” cultures in “the West.” However, it’s useful to recognize that for more than 200 years, upward mobility has been part of the fashion narrative.

Since the 1920s, critics of mass culture like Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor Adorno often lumped fashion in with commodities that induced “false consciousness.” Stylish clothes placated the working masses with an illusion of upward mobility when capitalism had rendered truly changing your social class almost impossible. The Marxist curmudgeons make some very good points, but they also leave a lot out. The fact is, actual working women have challenged these theories repeatedly throughout history.

In the US we’ve had the Lowell Mill girls who, in the early 19th century, staged some of the first factory walk-outs. Far from being alienated laborers, they felt a deep connection to the textiles they produced, and their stylish outfits demonstrated their autonomy. At the end of the 19th century we had garment workers who would strike in their best clothes, much to the ire of middle-class moralists. Then we had armies of shopgirls wearing chic little black dresses, demanding that retail work be taken seriously. All of these women used fashionable clothing to become legible, to demand rights, including the right to take pleasure in clothes, and to challenge how society valued their labor.

Placed in the context of this history, menocore has potential to be more than just a quirky trend pointing toward a vague idea of “comfort.” Acknowledging that the appeal of these clothes has as much to do with class as it does with age allows us to challenge the narrative they represent. Right now, these clothes might signify a mostly white leisure class (including the leisure to comfortably work in underfunded creative fields), but we can change that.

Turns out linen and drawstrings are functional for a large segment of what “work” looks like now: a loose, shape-shifting patchwork of part-time jobs. Alford’s sage tunic is perfect for going from adjunct teaching at a university to waiting tables to her job with a union. The cardigan-tunic combo might look like part of “mom’s vacation wardrobe,” but it is workwear.

Yes, the unfitted, crinkly garments that comprise the Eileen Fisher look say “white-wine spritzers in a Nancy Meyers kitchen.” But they also say “an economy that demands flexibility and agility doesn’t also get to insist on restrictive dress and gender, race, or class codes.” So, instead of fantasizing about comfort and leisure (or an equally bourgeois ideal of “simplicity”), what if we highlight the associations with inclusivity, sustainability, and ethical production practices? Our clothes can represent our values and, if we’re open, help us learn about the world and take action to change it. I say, let’s embrace menocore with all its messiness and contradictions. We will be an earth-tone-clad army fighting not for a piece of the bourgeois American dream, but for a new definition of whose work is valued, and who gets access to material stability, comfort, and self-acceptance.

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Deal of the Day

Right now, the Topshop sale section is up to 50% off and full of bikini separates and floral rompers and other things for that dead-of-winter tropical getaway you probably aren’t booking right now (or ever). But it also has a lot of fall stuff to wear ASAP, including Those Shirts — there’s this one and this one and this one and this one, and it’s a good time to try out this trend because those are all $40 or less. And if you’re willing to spend a little more, this leather midi skirt is truly a steal at $140.

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