My mum studied Art History at SFU in the 1970s. She recently quoted an old reading from John Berger’s Way of Seeing. The line has always stuck with her, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since: “A woman must continually watch herself. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
On the eve of my 43rd birthday, I think about this passage in the context of fashion and style; how its meaning has evolved and changed for me from my 20s to now—my awareness of who is looking, and what that means.
Over two decades have passed since I was a woman in my early 20s, fresh out of theatre school and looking to start a career in a difficult industry. I had big energy, big hopes, and a lot of anxiety that I would displease someone, anyone. I was concerned about rules, and what people would think if I broke them. I was overly self-aware and on the lookout for flaws. Flaws were the enemy of what I thought desirability looked like—homogenous, delicate, Western beauty.
I tried to create a template of myself, so directors could easily imprint their ideas onto my appearance with minimal effort. My choice was the absence of choice; it enabled me to step into whatever was required to get the part. This kind of self-deletion persisted for longer than I care to admit, long after I gave up acting.
Looking for approval didn’t stop with casting directors. I didn’t think I dressed for men—except when I did. Reflecting now, I did it all the time, as naturally as breathing. It makes me want to go back and hug that girl. She was just so worried about how she looked all the time.
Cultivating my own taste came later in life. In my 30s, I copied my friends, and people who had the kind of life I wanted. I figured that looking the part was the way to get there. This was limiting. I wasn’t going to have someone else’s life, I was going to have mine. Wearing someone else’s life, literally and figuratively, is exhausting and unsatisfying. Something always sticks out, like lipstick on a tooth.
I found my own sense of style, ironically, when I felt most unseen. I have been many ages and sizes and I have never felt as invisible as I did when I hit 40. Mostly to men, but to women too. People run into me face-first when I am the only person on the street. Workers continue power washing the sidewalk in front of me when I walk by.
Once I pushed past the discomfort of invisibility, I found it freeing. When I noticed people weren’t noticing me, I started to become aware of my own internal viewer. If no one is looking except for me, then what do I really want to wear?
Quietly, I decentred everyone’s gaze but my own. Why do I like what I like? What am I attracted to and why? Do I actually trust my own taste? Do I trust myself?
There is no sudden narratively convenient awakening of interest in yourself; it develops, grows, and shifts. Habits are hard to break. I looked at my body and how to dress from the perspective of how I look and not how I wish I looked. Clothes are meant to fit our bodies, not the other way around.
I’ve decided I no longer care to be pleasing. I increasingly believe that the best things in life are an acquired taste. So too with fashion. I want to see the weird and unexpected.
I’m not sure if this is timely on my part. There seems to be more older women celebrated as fashion influencers than ever before. In my 20s, the TV show What Not To Wear reigned supreme. The show centred on dressing to fit The Rules, a concept that has not aged well because it’s limiting, exclusive, and boring.
In 2022, we’re developing different priorities. TikTok star Carla Rockmore has made a career of ironing out the details of expressive fashion for older women. Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen is a book, a movie, and social media phenomena. Mature models are in advertising campaigns for major brands such as Sephora and H&M.
The media perspective seems to have shifted towards, as another TikTok star Sammi Jefcoate says, “wearing what you love” regardless of age. Style is ageless, and perhaps improves as we get older. Looking at influencers Iris Apfel and Grece Ghanem, it certainly appears that way.
After all, fashion and style are two different things. Newer isn’t necessarily better; it’s just new. Trends are a revolving door and everything comes back around, typically with a newfound sense of irony. Style is a way of being, from personality to perfume.
A small wardrobe is completely fine. As with self-love, pleasing your own gaze results in higher standards. I want quality that lasts. How clothing feels is as important as how it looks—with silk, cashmere, and linen comprising the Holy Trinity of fabrics.
Getting dressed in my 40s is much more fun than it used to be. I wear glitter on my wrinkles, sequins whenever I can. I’ve never looked better, because my definition of better, this time, is truly mine. I feel peaceful and still, and if I want anything for myself as I age, it’s peace.