When you’re 20, you can wear whatever you want. Whatever. You. Want. You can wear 23 trends all at the same time, although I don’t necessarily recommend it.
At 30, you can wear 12 trends at the same time, and pretty much whatever you want, with a couple of exceptions. Belly tops spring to mind. (Not to be confused with the chic ever-so-slightly cropped tops, which you can still wear, abs permitting).
But from 35 on, you enter treacherous waters. You are no longer 20, and you are far from 60. You are in that dreaded in-between stage where half the clothes make you look like you’re trying too hard, and the other half make you look like you’ve given up.
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And if things weren’t already challenging enough, fashion is fond of rediscovering styles that used to be reserved for your mother’s mother, and turning them into trends. Tiny prints. Mint green. Round collars. Wear one of these, and you can pull it off. But a mint green blouse with a tiny print and a round collar buttoned up to there? Treacherous. At 20, you’re so young that you can wear what appear to be your mother’s clothes in an offhanded, ironic way. At 40, you are the mother, or at least could pass for one, and it’s no longer ironic.
As my mother likes to say: “There’s 35, and there’s 35.” That number can mean so many different things depending on the woman. To further complicate things, there is the age you are and the age you look. And by this, I mean how you look objectively, to other people, not how you think you look. If you look 35, dress for 35. If you can pull a look off (and for this sometimes you need to enlist the advice of a trusted friend, or a stylist), then, by all means, pull it off. And do it now, because someday, you may wake up and find that it’s no longer working for you.
And while it’s great to dress for your actual age or for your apparent age, whatever you do, don’t dress for a past or future age. Don’t dress for 20 or 60. Unless, of course, you’re 20 or 60.
But what exactly does dressing at 20 or 40 or 60 look like? What is, and I shudder at the term, age appropriate? There is no short answer, but there are some guidelines. Here, style for the ages, demystified. In other words, how not to dress old.
1. Look to the Label
The brand, the retailer, and the way an item is styled all offer clues. A flouncy dress with undone hair and motorcycle boots is being marketed at a 20-year-old, while a tailored dress with classic pumps is clearly aiming for an older customer.
2. Look at the Color
Classic neutrals like black, navy, white and camel are ageless, but other colors are trickier. If you love the new pale, pastel colors, choose pieces in sharp, sophisticated styles and make sure the color doesn’t wash you out. And beyond your 40s— use color to add freshness to your complexion, but avoid extremes, like neons, or pale colors in very classic shapes, which can look matronly. Colors like mint and butter yellow look best in sleek, modern shapes or they’re instantly aging.
3. Look at the Details
Often, the differences between a dress designed for a 20-year-old and one designed for a 40-year-old is subtle, so the best way to show these finer points is by illustrating them. Here, I take a single trend, the lace dress, and show you which styles work for which age group, and why.
Lace Dresses for Your 20s
These lace dresses are all super short and super trendy, with everything from high low hemlines (at left and middle) to babydoll styling to bell sleeves. They’re fun and flirty—but not sophisticated.
Lace Dresses for your 30s and 40s
The trick at this age is to pick dresses that are fresh, contemporary and trend-conscious without looking like a teenager. The lace dresses shown here all fit the bill. They offer a little more coverage and are sleek and sophisticated without being even remotely “old”. The sheer parts are nicely balanced by covered parts, and the lace itself looks modern and cool.
Lace Dresses for Your 50s
JS Collection Soutache lace midi dress, $348, Bardot Gemma halter lace sheath dress, $119, and Tadashi Shoji lace & brocade sheath, $408, all available at Nordstrom
The 50s can vary dramatically, so the key is to dress for your body, your comfort level and your style. You want to look contemporary and fresh but not like you’re trying too hard. If you are fit and fabulous in your 50s, there’s no reason to stop wearing the dresses in the 30s/40s roundup, but once they start feeling “off” to you, move on to even more sophisticated styles.
Lace Dresses for Your 60s And Beyond
These dresses are cute at 20 and classic at 60, but at 40, they are lethal. An elegant sheath in a classic lace with sheer sleeves that extend to the elbow or beyond is a stylish choice for a 60-year-old, and a conservative choice for a 20-year-old, but avoid them at 40. They will age you. They are all one major detail away from being a good fit for a woman in her 30s-40s. A bold color, a more contemporary lace, or a trendy sleeve detail could redeem them, but as they stand, they’re not for your 30s or 40s.
Lace Dresses to Avoid
I’m kind of at a loss for words here, which as you know, is pretty rare. The first two dresses in this set are beautifully made and gorgeous, with amazing quality and attention to detail. But in order to pull off dresses this severe, with their long hemlines and high necklines and very classic, almost prim, details, you have to be tall, slim, and a big fan of very high heels. In other words, you need to look like a model. The third is just bad, bad, bad. Why do so many brands that cater to mature women insist on making them look babyish, with washed out pastels and oversized bows? This color, hem length, neckline, type of lace and bow detail all add up to awful. The fourth dress gets all the details wrong, from the length to the lace. The only person this dress would suit is a toddler, or possibly a cute 20-year-old, but they both have far better options.
The Label, the Color and the Details all offer clues, but I want to hear your thoughts. What do you think of these guidelines for lace dresses in your 20s, 30s-40s, and beyond? Do they resonate with you, or are you secretly eying a dress from another age-group category. Let me know what you think!
Need more ideas on how not to dress old? That’s awesome, because I’m full of them! Check out the following posts for more on how to dress “age appropriate” (shudder). As for acting your age, you’re on your own…
FREE “HOW NOT TO DRESS OLD” STYLE GUIDE AND LOOKBOOK!