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
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 60s
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
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!