How to Look Fab After 50

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How do we carry off youth-centered styles without looking dumpy? How short is too short, anyway? Author Barbara Grufferman investigates

A few years ago, around the time we both entered our fifties, Ellen Barkin was profiled in the New York Times magazine. I was eager to read what she had to say, because she’s always seemed so wise and worldly to me with her sexy, crooked smile. Scanning the article, I nodded frequently in agreement, until I came to her “Rules for Life After 50” list. Not a fan of rules in general (I much prefer guidelines), I remained open-minded  — until coming to this: “No blue jeans to dinner.”

Huh? No jeans? Just because we’re over fifty? Barkin conceded that black jeans were “okay” — but definitely not blue. I had just dished out $168 plus tax on a new pair of 7 For All Mankind (this was before I discovered the fantastic $39.99 version from Uniqlo). The 7s were dark blue, beautiful, and had been out to dinner many times. This demanded further research.

Barkin’s declaration made me realize that by the time we hit 50, a lot of us would benefit from a wardrobe re-evaluation. Our bodies, faces, and lifestyles have changed over the decades, but our fashion choices haven’t always kept up. And while I think I always look presentable (and sometimes even downright hip — though my two teenaged daughters might roll their eyes), I still have a lot of questions about what’s considered “acceptable” for women in midlife. I don’t want to live by strict fashion commandments, but I do want some guidelines for achieving a good look. That said, I don’t have the time (or interest) to devote to shopping often, so I want to streamline my style without fussing — or going broke.

Most of all, I want answers to these questions:

  • How do we rise above the youth-centered styles meant for rail-thin twentysomethings without looking dumpy?
  • Where can we find clothes that will help us look good and still look our age?
  • How can we look sexy without looking like cougars?
  • How short is too short anyway?
  • Should our arms — although improved by the push-ups we should all be doing every day — banished forever from view?
  • What are the basics that every woman over fifty should have in her wardrobe (jeans, for sure, right?)
  • And . . . do we need to spend a fortune to get them?

When researching and writing The Best of Everything After 50, I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of fashion-savvy women — Diane von Furstenberg, Ginny Hilfiger, and the fabulous team at Saks Fifth Avenue’s personal shopping department. Their combined expertise pointed me in the right direction, and I ended up spending a lot less money on a lot more clothes, all of which can be worn together. Some takeaway pearls of style wisdom direct from my fashion team:

  • From Diane von Furstenberg I learned that you have to be comfortable. If you’re constantly tugging and pulling at your clothes, you won’t be comfortable enough to focus on what you should be engaged in.
  • From Ginny Hilfiger I learned that you can shop for basics at Target and H&M (and other low price-point stores) and look like a million.
  • From the style consultants at the Saks’ Fifth Avenue Club personal shopping department I learned that fit is everything, and a tailor is your best friend.

Knowing that I’m not interested in spending a fortune to look fabulous, they suggested I look for items that are:

  • Classic enough to be worn for more than one year
  • Easy to mix with my existing clothes and with each other
  • The right material to wear for two or even three seasons
  • Not too young looking, but not dowdy either

And finally, here are a few tips born of personal experience:

  • Try stuff on.
  • Go through your closet and see how each piece makes you feel. Give away anything that doesn’t make you feel good.
  • Spend time with fashion-savvy people who can show you different styles for your body. Go to department stores and work with a personal shopper, or a fantastic salesperson. See what works and what doesn’t. Once you understand this, the rest will be easy.

Oh, and by the way: Diane has seen Ellen Barkin in jeans many times.

Editor’s Note: Barbara Hannah Grufferman is the author of The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts’ Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money, and More

8 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    The author has made good suggestions that we might be wise to heed.   .   . and if she wouldn’t mind, I would like to add:  accessorize, accessorize, accessorize.  Scarves can change the look from casual to glamourous and make fewer garments go a long long way.  Our eyes are attracted to good-looking jewelry — a bit of gold around the wrist, really great looking earrings with variety, chains that draw the eye toward the top of the body always draw compliments.  .  . and these additions change your “look”. 

    I happen to love Nordstroms as they are so happy to acquaint you with your own personal shopper to bring things to the dressing room to you and actually call you when something that seems “you” comes in.  What a service!

    But whatever your size – as we often find it expands when we are over 50 just a smidgeon – be sure to stand, to walk like you believe in yourself.  Your gait, the way you hold your head, your eyes — all tell the world that you feel good about yourself.  You smile more, you feel better — and to all around, you actually look like someone they should know.

  2. avatar Barbara says:

    I’m really not into lists of dos and don’ts because the answer is so personal.  I’m over 60 but wear a size 2 so the “rules” for me are very different than for someone with a different size and shape.  I can still wear clothes from high school and college.  Now, that was the time of mini skirts and flower power so not much still works but amazingly a few pieces have come in style.  It’s a good learning point that if you buy things of good quality and classic styling they come back in style and you have the perfect thing already in your closet.
    I live in jeans.  Ellen Barkin may live a dressier life than I do in the midwest but my jeans go just about everywhere, with different shoes and accessories.  How short?  Above the knee for me.  My legs are fabulous.  Show my arms?  You betcha – they look great.
    I buy a lot of my “background” or trendy pieces from H&M, the Gap and other low cost places and then spend more for nicer pieces.  I absolutely agree that a good tailor is a must.
    What to wear over 50?  Whatever I feel comfortable in, no matter what’s on someone else’s list.

  3. avatar D C says:

    Regarding how short is too short… I have one short skirt that I ONLY wear to clubs.  It’s quite short, but when I sit down in it, I’m not showing anything.  I would absolutely NEVER wear it to work, even though I do have very nice legs.  I think it’s all about what you’re trying to say with your non-verbal / body language.  If my appearance says, “I’m a fun party girl”, that’s something I might say at a club, but I sure as heck am not saying that at work where I am trying to be respected for my brain. 

  4. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Clothes that look nice on one person may not work for others because of body shape more than age. It is a fact of life that a tall slim woman can wear styles that shorter women with curves (That’s me!) could never wear. I try to wear classic clothes and styles that fit my body shape. At times I get frustrated shopping because everything in my size seems to be geared for much younger women. Petite slacks are cut low, that is not flattering look for any woman unless she has no belly baggage. I prefer slightly longer shirts to those cut at waist length. Some of the imported fabrics shrink. When I find something that looks nice with the right fit I often buy multiples to stock up.

  5. avatar Carolyn K says:

    Dark wash jeans and a white shirt are a classic that are always in style no matter your age.

  6. avatar Maggie W says:

    When my  husband first laid eyes on me, I was wearing white short shorts and a hot pink halter top. He said he was stopped dead in his tracks. Those university days of short shorts and mini skirts are a sweet memory. Now my attire is somewhat preppy. I love nice jeans with a shirt tucked in or a pullover. I stay far away from stripes and flowery patterns as well as long blousy jackets and the matronly colors of navy blue and beige. Skirt length is at the knee or just above. After five wear is a bit seductive but that look is a no-go for daily wear.
    I go by Dear Abby’s advice from years back. If you haven’t worn it or used it within two years , donate to someone who will. Some things ( fine china, heirloom jewelry ) don’t apply.

  7. avatar Messy ONE says:

    I’m 48 and I’m doing a major style change this year. No more slopping around in shorts and t-shirts all summer. I’ll be saving athletic gear for athletic purposes – something I’ve always tried to do anyway. Face it, sweats are not “clothes”, and running shoes really only look right on runners.
    My figure has changed over time. I’ve gone from being a skinny stick person to being, as my husband calls it, vavoom. My measurements are now 38, 28, 39, giving me a chest that I’m still having to get used to, but I’m there. It’s actually nice to be in balance for a change – now the fact that I’m hippy is an advantage. I’ll be taking advantage of every curve.
    So the trends I’m picking up are going to be tailored. I love the full skirts that are all over the runways and I’ll be wearing them with tailored dress shirts. I picked up something called the “1947 Dress” from the Peterman catalogue, and it’s a knockout. The fitted bodice/full skirt thing is just gorgeous. I’m done with pencil skirts. Tunics always looked ridiculous on me (see hippy, above) and dresses and skirts are cooler in the summer than just about anything else.
    I won’t be giving up the jeans. They still look good on me and make me feel tall, so they stay. Ellen Barkin is not the boss of me!

  8. avatar spinneo says:

    The emphasis on moderation is your most important observation, methinks.