What does it mean to be age-appropriate?
And should we care?
Since I’ve been losing weight, I’m having to do a bunch of clothes shopping. Which means I’m having to completely re-think what kinds of clothes I want to wear. The kinds of clothes that looked good on me when I was fat just don’t anymore, and a bunch of things that looked suck on me when I was fat are now looking pretty great. (I am so happy to be wearing jeans again, I can’t even tell you.) And I’m having to re-think, not just what looks good on me now, but what I personally would like to wear.
But since I’m doing all this sartorial exploration at age 48, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for clothing to be age-appropriate. And, indeed, what it means to be age-appropriate in areas other than fashion.
Yes, this is one of my “thinking out loud” pieces. Deal with it.
In writing and thought about fashion and style, the idea of being age-appropriate is very common. And my reflexive reaction to this idea has always been, “Fuck that noise. Why should I obey society’s strictures about what I should wear at what age? Any more than I obey its strictures about what I should write or who I should screw or what god I should believe in?”
But I’m also feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the kinds of clothes I wore in my 20s and 30s. A part of me does think that, if I want to wear ripped fishnets and Doc Martens, or mini skirts and brightly colored patterned tights, or black leather motorcycle jackets with chains, I should bloody well be able to do that. But another part of me — a larger part — has been feeling genuinely uncomfortable in outfits like that. They don’t make me feel sexy or creative or tough. They make me feel like an idiot. Like a batty middle-aged lady who’s trying too hard to not look her age.
So I’ve been looking at this question. Trying to decide what I really think about it, and trying to put what I think into words. And while I think there is some validity in that “Fuck what society says is age-appropriate” resistance, I think it’s also ignoring some important realities about fashion.
The main one:
I think fashion is a language.
Fashion is a language we use to express different concepts about ourselves, and of our relationships to other people. Fashion is part of how we say “Person who accepts social norms” versus “Person who defies social norms.” Fashion is part of how we say “Sexually liberated” versus “Sexually conventional.” Fashion is part of how we say “I want attention” versus “I want to blend in.” Fashion is part of how we say “Masculine” versus “Feminine.” (Whether we’re male or female or neither/both.) Fashion is part of how we say “trendy urban hipster,” “suburban soccer mom,” “ex-hippie,” “Fortune 500 CEO,” “heavy metal biker chick,” ” organic farmer,” “gangster rapper,” “college student.” Etc. Etc. Etc. Not to mention all the nuances and balances and combinations of all these extremes: “I want to express my sexuality in a way that challenges gender norms,” “I want to stand out in a way that commands respect,” etc. Fashion is even part of how we comment on the language of fashion itself: part of how we say “I care about the language of fashion and want to stay current with it” versus “I wear clothes so I won’t be naked.”
And of course, we use different fashion language in different contexts. (Again, just like regular language.) We dress differently at Thanksgiving dinner than we do at a nightclub; we dress differently at a baseball game than we do at a funeral. (Most of us do, anyway. If we don’t, that’s a form of language as well.) Fashion isn’t just about expressing who we are individually: it’s about expressing who we are in different social situations, how we do or don’t fit into different niches, how we feel about those niches.
It’s a language with different meanings in different cultures and subcultures, obviously. (Just like the regular kind of language.) The meaning of a short skirt and stiletto heels in Manhattan is different from their meaning in, say, Dubai. And obviously, it’s a language that changes. (Again, just like regular language.) The way we use clothing to say “respectable matriarch” or “cheerful if somewhat flighty young man” is different now than it was 20 or 50 or 200 years ago. And as part of society, we can and do have an impact on how that language does or does not change. (More on that in a bit.)
But the fact that the language of fashion changes, and that it varies from culture to culture, doesn’t alter the idea that it is a language. A language uses commonly- understood, generally agreed-upon vocabulary terms to express particular meanings, and combines those vocabulary terms in different ways to clarify those meanings and express their complexities and subtle shadings. Which is exactly what fashion does. “Fish” means something different from “laundry,” not because the meanings were handed down from on high, but because we all more or less agree on what those words mean. In the same way, jeans mean something different from a business suit… because we all more or less agree on what that fashion vocabulary means. And jeans with muddy boots and a baseball cap from the feed store mean something different from jeans with Doc Martens and multiple facial piercings, and something different again from jeans with stiletto heels and a $500 Dior T-shirt… because those combinations clarify the meaning. (Jeans being the fashion equivalent of the word “run,” with approximately eleventy thousand possible meanings that have to be clarified in context.)
And part of what this language expresses is age. An outfit that expresses “10-year-old” is different from one that expresses “25-year-old”; different again from one that expresses “48-year-old”; different again from one that expresses “70-year-old.”
And that’s where dressing in a way that’s age-appropriate starts to make sense.
When I dress in a way that says “25-year old,” I feel like an idiot — because I’m saying something that isn’t true.
I want to dress in a way that expresses love and respect and value for who I am, and for the age that I am. Dressing in the language of a 25-year-old doesn’t do that. It makes me look like I’m trying too hard. It makes me look like I’m trying to look younger than I am.
Our culture places a high premium on youth, especially for women. It assumes that sexuality and creativity and exuberance belong to the young — especially for women — and that becoming older means becoming asexual, conventional, and boring. It’s an idea I have tremendous problems with, and always have, even when I was younger. It’s an idea I want to loudly and passionately defy. And I think part of my “Fuck that noise, I’m going to wear ripped fishnets and Doc Martens if I bloody well want to” attitude was coming from that defiance.
But the more I think about it, the more I have to re-think that stance. Because I don’t think dressing like a 25-year-old makes me look like I’m defying our ageist society. It makes me look like I’m agreeing with it. I don’t think it says, “I think middle-aged women are gorgeous and hot, and fuck the society that tells us any different.” I think it says, “You’re right, society. Looking gorgeous and hot means looking like a 25-year-old. If I want to express my gorgeousness and my heat, I need to look as young as I can.”
So if I want to express my position that middle-aged women are gorgeous and hot and sexual, I need to find a way to do it in the fashion language of middle-aged women. I need to find ways to say, “Middle-aged women don’t have to look like 25-year-olds to be hot.” My sexuality and my feelings about my body are very different than they were 23 years ago. They’re calmer, more sophisticated, better-informed, more secure, less boisterous, less about seeking attention, less about wanting to explore a hundred different things all at once. I still want to dress in a way that expresses my sexuality, and my feminism, and my defiance of gender norms. I just want to do it in a way that expresses how I feel about those things now — not 23 years ago. And I want to dress in a way that honors my middle-aged feelings about these things — not in a way that obscures them.
(Some of my specific strategies about that, btw: Revealing cleavage or legs, but not both. Or wearing clothes that are slinky and clingy, but that don’t show a lot of skin. Or wearing black patterned stockings instead of ripped fishnets or brightly-colored tights. Or wearing clothes that are high-necked but sleeveless, showing off and eroticizing a different part of my body than the standard ones. Or wearing clothes that are sexy, but well-made and classy. If y’all have other thoughts on this, I’d love to hear about them.)
Now. All that being said.
I do think it’s completely valid to resist and refuse some particular aspect (or aspects) of the language of fashion. I am, for instance, passionately resistant to the idea that high heels are an obligatory part of being a respectable woman. I think high heels are our era’s version of corsets and foot-binding — a way that our culture cripples and immobilizes women in the name of beauty and desirability — and while I don’t criticize women who choose to wear them, and even occasionally have fun with them myself (hey, I wear corsets sometimes, too), I have grave objections to the idea that all women must wear them all or most of the time if we want to be taken seriously. Fuck that noise.
But there’s a difference between resisting some particular form of the language… and resisting the very idea of language itself. Feminists, for instance, resist the idea of sexist language like “policeman” and “fireman,” and press for these words to be changed to “police officer” and “firefighter.” We don’t, however, resist the very idea of there being words to express “someone who enforces the law” and “someone who fights fires.” Similarly, I object to the idea that “woman who respects social norms and expects to be taken seriously” should be expressed with “shoes that impair your mobility and will ultimately cripple you if you wear them for too many years.” But I don’t object to the very idea of expressing the trope, “woman who respects social norms and expects to be taken seriously.” That’s a valid concept that many women want to express. (Some more than others, obviously…)
And if what you want your clothing to express is “rebellion against social norms, including the social norms of fashion” — then mazeltov. That’s a valid concept to express, too. But I think that if we want to express that, we have to take responsibility for the fact that that’s what we’re expressing. It makes no sense for me to say, “When I wear fishnets and ratty mini-skirts and sky-blue Converse high-tops with Tweety Bird on them [I actually used to dress like that, btw], I’m just expressing myself, and I don’t care what anyone thinks”… and then get upset when people treat me like an unpredictable space cadet who doesn’t care if people take me seriously. Any more than it makes sense to say, in words, “Did you know that Picasso was a Scorpio, just like me, that’s why we’re both creative and love the color blue, and yesterday I was having the most amazing psychic conversation with a bluebird outside my window”… and then get upset when people treat you like an unpredictable space cadet who doesn’t care if people take you seriously. If we’re going to say “Fuck the social norms” in the language of fashion, we have to expect that people who do respect the social norms are going to react accordingly.
Of course our clothing expresses who we are. It does that because it’s a language, with commonly- understood vocabulary terms that express particular meanings. Without that language, there’d be no expression, and sky-blue Converse high-tops with Tweety Bird on them wouldn’t express anything different than cowboy boots or Doc Martens or Gucci loafers. It doesn’t make any more sense to say, “How dare you make assumptions about who I am just because I’m wearing sky-blue Converse high-tops with Tweety Bird on them” — any more than it would to say, “How dare you make assumptions about what I mean when I use the word ‘fish.’”
And — to bring things back on topic — in the language of fashion, sky-blue Converse high-tops with Tweety Bird on them don’t just mean something different than Gucci loafers. They mean something different on a 25-year-old than they do on a 48-year-old.
There’s a bit from the TV show “Six Feet Under” that always stuck with me. Sarah — Ruth’s sister, the fifty-something free spirit who runs the artists’ colony in Topanga Canyon — says, “Somewhere along the line, I started to realize I was no longer the youngest or prettiest girl in the room. For a while I satisfied myself with being the most intriguingâŠ but eventually I just became the one in paisley.”
I don’t want to be the one in paisley.
I don’t want to be a batty middle-aged lady who’s trying to hang onto her youth. I want to be a comfortable, confident middle-aged woman who loves herself the way she is; who sees herself as part of society even as she’s critiquing it and trying to change it (indeed, whose critique of society is a central way she engages with it); who’s unconventional and adventurous but in a more thoughtful way than when she was younger; who loves her body and her sexuality and lives that out in a way that’s calm and secure; and who values her age and the knowledge and experience she’s gained from it.
That’s who I want to be. And in the language of fashion, that’s what I want to say.
Still trying to figure out how to do that, though.
The Aging Slut)