How Not to Dress Old

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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.

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. I remember being a carefree 25-year-old and running into a college friend with a toddler and a newborn who looked, easily, 10 years older. And it wasn’t the fact that she was a mom to tinies. She was 25, and she had given up, and it showed.

To further complicate things, there is the age you are, the age you look, and the age you feel on the inside. You can be 30, look 22, and feel 40.  Or you can be 45 and look and feel 35. Dress for how you look. And by this I mean how you look objectively, to other people, not how you think you look. If you look 35, and feel 35, dress for 35. And do it now, if you want to, because someday, you won’t be able to. You can dress for your actual age or dress for your apparent age, but 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 on 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, 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.

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.

And here they are…

Lace Dresses for Your 20s

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From left: Free People “Petit Trianon” lace dress, $180, Macys.com; Lovers Friends “Holly” lace dress, $50, DailyLook.com, For Love & Lemons “Lolo” lace dress, $251, Zappos.com

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

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Free People “Luna” lace dress, $168, FreePeople.com; Oscar de la Renta long sleeve lace dress with slip, $2690, Neiman Marcus; J.O.A. “Lady Lace” dress, $118, ShopBop.com; Elizabeth and James “Levine” fitted shear lace dress, $465, Neiman Marcus; Rebecca Taylor v-neck “tile lace dress, $495, ShopBop.com

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 60s

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Antonio Melani “Edith” floral lace dress, $159, Dillard’s; Diane von Furstenberg “Zarita” lace dress, $363.60, Farfetch.com; Lauren Ralph Lauren 3.4 sleeve boatneck lace dress, $132, Macys.com

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 great 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 funky sleeve detail could redeem them, but as they stand, they’re not for you.

Lace Dresses to Avoid

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Michael Kors Chantilly lace belted dress, $1997, Neiman Marcus; Rickie Freeman for Teri Jon 3/4 sleeve lace shirtdress, $600, Neiman Marcus; Alex Marie “Bijoux” lace dress, $139, Dillard’s; Chetta B. belted embroidered lace fit and flare dress, $128, Nordstrom

This last set leaves me speechless. The first two 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 20 year old, but she has 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 old clothes vs. young clothes? Read Part 2 of How Not to Dress Old!

Comments

  1. says

    Nada, This article is fantastic! This is an area I have needed help in for a while and no one explains it better than you. P.s. I was just eyeing a semi-formal lace sheath dress this week that you highlighted in your 60’s section. Thank you for the save!!!!

  2. Dana says

    Nada, the publication of your article is so timely. I have been unsuccessfully dress shopping for a formal event next week, and have had a hard time finding a dress that is in fact age appropriate. Add the fact that I would prefer sleeves, AND that it cannot be a long dress due to not enough time to visit a tailor, and I feel my options are slim. Thank you for confirming my hunch that so many of the lace styles were too old for me. Now, I wouldn’t mind more direction on what is right for me. What about how high a collar may be? Also, what about empire waist? Are my empire waist days over since I am over 35 and not a hippie? 😉 thank you so much for your spectacular advisement!

  3. says

    Hi Dana! So nice to hear from you and I’m so glad you found this helpful! Finding a dress with short sleeves these days is next to impossible. I have no idea why, since so many women prefer to have their upper arms covered. It seems the only options are sleeveless or no sleeves. I really like a site called EShakti, which allows you to buy a dress as is, or have it customized to your desired length, sleeve length, etc, for a nominal fee. I also adore Rent the Runway, especially for special occasion items you only plan to wear once.
    Okay, about the details… a high collar and empire waist is more about flattery than age. If you’re not a hippie (LOL), but find that most of your shape is in your hips, bum or thighs, an empire waist will be flattering, and it doesn’t need to be a full babydoll style. Just look for a band under the bust that defines the small part of your waist. As for a high neck, it can work if the rest of the dress is sleek, contemporary and maybe even a little sassy. 😉 But a high neck on a conservative dress can feel frumpy. Here are some ideas for dresses for you. I hope I haven’t missed the deadline for your event. 🙂 Hint: The best way to wear a shorter dress for a formal affair is to go for a very dressy fabric, like sequins, a dressy lace (maybe with shine or a guipere), or a brocade.
    Pheobe dress: http://www.neimanmarcus.com/Phoebe-Short-Sleeve-Illusion-Jacquard-Dress/prod177470276/p.prod?ecid=NMALRFeedJ84DHJLQkR4&ci_src=14110925&ci_sku=sku156681212
    Calvin Klein Dress (barely a sleeve, but so pretty): http://www1.macys.com/shop/product/calvin-klein-sequin-cap-sleeve-fit-and-flare-dress?ID=2525297&PartnerID=LINKSHARE&cm_mmc=LINKSHARE-_-2-_-11-_-MP211&LinkshareID=J84DHJLQkR4-eJGDoSPc2vb510YZp0Uftw
    Last Call: http://www.shopstyle.com/action/loadRetailerProductPage?device=desktop&exit=ProductPage-Image&id=495385495&project=JetWhite&searchId=3e6d8832-a4ce-4263-9f8f-75b2c1ca73ba&version=1.27.95
    Design History: http://www.shopstyle.com/action/loadRetailerProductPage?device=desktop&exit=ProductPage-Image&id=495385495&project=JetWhite&searchId=3e6d8832-a4ce-4263-9f8f-75b2c1ca73ba&version=1.27.95
    Vince Camuto: http://www.shopstyle.com/action/loadRetailerProductPage?device=desktop&exit=ProductPage-Image&id=465264109&project=JetWhite&searchId=48daaa8c-c558-4f67-9dc3-731e18e68de3&version=1.27.95
    Shoptiques: http://www.shopstyle.com/action/loadRetailerProductPage?device=desktop&exit=ProductPage-Image&id=503298413&project=JetWhite&searchId=ea528e68-388f-4fd6-952a-ed87fc6f96b9&version=1.27.95
    Rent the Runway: Slate & Willow “Mae” sequin shift, Badgley Mischka “Swank”, Slate & Willow “Copper Fleur”, David Meister “Pinot”, Alexis “Red Leona” dress, Marchesa Notte lace dresses (there are a few and they’re all gorgeous!)
    Hope this helps! Can’t wait to see what you choose!

  4. says

    I’m 41 and all of your tips resonated with me. It’s funny I couldn’t have put into words why I would choose one of the dresses in my appropriate age range over one in the 20’s or 60’s age range but still would’ve! Good read! Thanks!

  5. says

    Thank you so much Jenny! I’m so glad you got something from this article and that reinforced what you thought. It can be so tricky to find that balance!

  6. janet says

    So…..what happens to women in their 50’s? We aren’t going to fit in a category with 30 year Olds and why would we want to be in a category that is older only?

  7. says

    Good question Janet. These are guidelines only. 🙂 Based on my experience, dressing much younger has the opposite effect and makes us look older and diminishes our beauty. But age is an attitude and not just the result of the number of birthdays you’ve had, so if you feel more comfortable in clothes for younger women, go for it. And maybe ask for the advice of a trusted friend, which is the role I try to fill in this blog. 🙂

  8. Maria says

    I am 50, look like I am 30. Very stylish, in shape and wear what ever the hell I want~ 🙂

  9. Anji Jones says

    Maria, no disrespect but how can you be 50 and look 30? I can understand your desire to look younger and I’m sure you do…but 20 years?

  10. says

    I am 50- with a 7 year old! and yes that was planned.
    I dress for my shape, but for a dressy occasion, I LOVE my platform shoes!,
    If I could attach a photo I so would.

  11. Marj says

    I’m in my 70’s but enjoy looking good. Thanks for the thoughts. Now I know why full dress skirts aren’t attractive. My need is the shoe with the dress. I’m no longer the high 4″heel gal but between platforms,wedges , small heels and flats with a short heel lift or 3″ heel, what goes best with dresses at my age? I love heels but age can be an orthopedic doctors dream. :). Suggestions for jeggings, skinny pants, skirts, dresses…casual.? I do know heels with nices dresses. Thx

  12. kazz says

    It seems, sadly, that 50 year olds have been skipped over here! 30s, 40s, 60s – what happened? We have feelings too 😕

  13. Nora says

    I am 60, petite and slim. I need a MOG appropriate dress for a “white” engagement party that is pool side. What would you suggest?

  14. says

    Hi Marj! So sorry that I missed this earlier! I think the kitten heel, which is so trendy right now, is a great dressier option, but for more casual wear (pants, skirts, jeggings, etc.) the most stylish and also practical – did I just use that word, lol – bet would be a block heeled pump or sandal. They are the new wedge and every bit as comfortable. You can go as high or low as you wish, and they are current and chic and you can walk in them. 🙂 You can find them in neutrals with earthy casual elements or all dressed up in metallics. This neutral pair from Steve Madden is so versatile. http://shop.nordstrom.com/s/steve-madden-serrina-block-heel-lace-up-sandal-women/4402335?origin=category-personalizedsort&fashioncolor=CAMEL%20NUBUCK

  15. says

    Sorry Karen! You are right! I was grouping the 40s and 50s together, but didn’t specify that. Next time, I’ll make sure to have lots of tips for ladies in their 50s! 🙂

  16. says

    Congrats Nora! What a happy occasion. Sorry about the delay in responding. Even though the event is poolside, as the MOG, I think a slightly dressier dress is in order. I don’t know your Style Dial number, but based on what you told me, this Maggy London dress would be gorgeous! http://shop.nordstrom.com/s/maggy-london-illusion-yoke-crepe-sheath-dress-regular-petite/4378486?origin=keywordsearch-personalizedsort&fashioncolor=OYSTER
    A lace dress like this would also be gorgeous. http://shop.nordstrom.com/s/eliza-j-lace-fit-flare-dress/4293778?origin=keywordsearch-personalizedsort&fashioncolor=WHITE
    And this one is also really pretty. http://shop.nordstrom.com/s/eyelet-w-handkerchief-hem/4295089?origin=keywordsearch-personalizedsort&fashioncolor=WHITE
    Let me know if you need any more ideas! Have fun!

  17. judy oler says

    This article is wonderful.

    I was trying to log in for the ‘free’ offer but a power spike knocked me off line and when I tried to reconnect to the site but it insists I need to enter a password. I have tried requesting a password so I can finish the preview but have had no luck. I am unable to un-register and try to re-register but that is not working either. Please advise me what to do.

  18. Pam says

    I will be 62 on my birthday, but I feel more like 40 or some days 20, ok maybe 30. I have always dressed younger and I have always been complimented on my look and style. I can’t stand when women my age wear stretch pants and button up printed tops usually with flowers. 🙄 They may be 60, but look 80. I enjoyed your article, it was interesting and very informative.

  19. says

    I so agree Pam and love hearing that! So much of what we “can” wear is based more on our personal style, confidence and the energy we exude. I’d love to see pictures of your outfits! I bet many women would find them helpful! I am so glad you enjoyed the post!

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