Defying Ageist Fashion Rules

Styleactivism.

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Whoosh. I fling open my closet and stand in awe at the kaleidoscope of colour, texture, and pattern, and the worlds of possibilities before me. What, or who, shall I wear today? Marlene Dietrich, Tom Waits? Audrey Hepburn, David Bowie? They are all in there clamouring for attention among my thrifted treasures.

My style moods change daily, like cloud forms. And while I may dress with a certain person, era, or scene in mind, and the result may finely attune my walk, talk, and relationships of the day, I am the margarita—the clothes are my salt.

It wasn’t until I hit my late forties that I became highly style experiential, partly in response to my evolution in art-making, but mostly because my youthfulness on the inside was being egregiously hijacked by my grey hair and wrinkles on the outside. To the young man at the deli counter, for example, I looked “old,” and he was keen to let me know it by ignoring me. It was as though everyone had suddenly lost their vision. It was a shock. I still felt the same; I hadn’t changed, but clearly they had. The most effective way to correct their sight, I reasoned, was through my style, especially when Ari Seth Cohen was making a splash on social media with his blog, Advanced Style, which showcased exquisitely and often exuberantly-dressed women over 60.

What I discovered (and found horribly ironic) as I embarked on my own project was how in our forties, even thirties, rules about age-appropriate style kick into high gear. Appallingly, they are not designed to correct vision but to dim it even further by helping women of a certain age go with the flow—or rather, choke on it. Graphic t-shirts, blue eye shadow, short dresses and skirts, leopard prints, big sunglasses, hoop earrings, festive tights, long hair, fringes, and frivolity are all banned by the style gurus for women over 30. The colours pink, black, and white must be approached with extreme caution. Knees, upper arms, and backs should be covered. And vigilance must prevail in hiding unsightly elbows, and even teeth; easy, who could possibly crack a smile with so many restrictions?

So what do the rules allow? Mostly covering up in solid neutrals, which to me suggests body shame and complacence bordering on asexuality: No more studded red leather bustiers for you, old missy! So shut your flowers and fade to grey, or taupe? It brings to mind the saying that “children should be seen and not heard,” only now it’s women of a certain age who should not be seen, and should only be heard in whispers.

The clothes on our backs may be flash calling cards, but they simply cannot convey the complexities of the people in them. I have met blunt louts in designer duds and regal sophisticates in upcycled curtains. In the first few years of my style kickback, I exploded with joyful r/age. I deliberately broke all the rules.

A few years ago, a woman of similar age passed by me on the sidewalk, scowled, then rasped, “Ree-ah-ly.” I clearly had broken the as-yet unwritten rule about wearing vintage corsets as daywear. Now, I just wear what I like, even neutrals from time to time. And I wear tights with my miniskirts. The beige and grey are not the problem; it’s the dictatorship over choice that I oppose, when style comes from within. That’s why it pains me to think of armchair fashionistas who lock their festive tights and paisley behind bars, fearing ridicule from the style police. When the triumph of rules comes at the expense of others’ creativity, it is not a win for anybody.

A big question I have is, what if tomorrow we all had to wear khaki uniforms? What would you put on today? I’d wear what I always wear: something fabulous. The more expressive I feel, the more engagement I have with interesting people. Whether this is due to my clothing or the blissful self-satisfaction on my face, it’s hard to say. One thing is clear: these small encounters create unstoppable ricochets of positive energy that last long after we go our separate ways. For me, now 55, dressing has become a form of community care, or what I call stylactivism. I’m seen and heard now, even at the deli.

One of the best unexpected rewards of my stylactivism is when I hear a woman change her tune from, “I could never wear that” to, “I am wearing that!” with a big grin on her face. Happily, there is a groundswell of women bucking trends, baring arms and teeth, and elbowing their way into their own spotlights. Why not be the star you are? In a car, neutral lets you rev your engine. Me? I prefer to lay rubber, dressed as, say, Charlie Chaplin.


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February 26, 2018