What Aging Has to Tell Us About Fashion

While we traditionally make relatively short-term New Year’s resolutions, it’s also when many of our thoughts turn to aging, that unavoidable measure of the passage of time. Along with the inevitable decline of some of our faculties, there’s often – at least for septuagenarians and even older seniors – an increased clarity about whom we are and what is important to us. Aging can even tell us a lot about fashion.

Two well-made, well-researched documentaries about fashion that made very different fashion statements were broadcast this past fall: Revealing: Extravagance on the Sundance Channel that was narrated by Joe Zee, the creative director of Elle magazine, and Fabulous Fashionistas on BBC 4.

“Luxury fashion is selling better than at any time in history,” goes the opening gambit of Revealing: Extravagance. Advertising and reality television continually sell us a bill of goods that happiness is only as far away as our next purchase– especially if it’s a luxury purchase, signaling to those in the know that you’re a person of the same quality as what you’re putting on your back.

In Union Square, the heart of San Francisco’s glamorous shopping district, celebs and regular people proudly show off their bags and shoes and, sometimes not so proudly, the price tags. There’s so much pressure to participate in this “luxury goods world,” that “a $2000 bag is now a necessity for some girl from high school, living in the middle of Pennsylvania,” Joe Zee tells us.

And in a clever experiment to find out how much peer pressure it takes for someone to plunk down a lot of money for luxury, Joe Yee put together an exclusive sample sale and invited known fashion lovers and watched to see if Joe’s team of confederate sales associates could convince them certain items the team threw in as “red herrings” were the latest “must haves.”

First up, alongside designer clothing, was a rubber chicken bag, hawked as the bag that Rianna wore the previous week. “I picked it up because the cool kids who were in the room with me were all obsessed with it. Maybe they’re seeing something that I don’t. I thought until today that I had a good sense of my personal style, but maybe I’m easily swayed by other peoples’ opinions,” one of the women tells Joe.

Next we see another young woman, who has already fallen for the chicken bag and a pair of flip flops made of artificial grass, trying on a pair of hairy pants that made her a dead ringer for one of our primate ancestors. “They just got shot for the September cover,” one of Joe’s team whispers, as though she’s passing on a state secret. “Alright, I think I’ll get them.” “They look fabulous,” admires one of the confederates. Before she starts to take off the hairy pants, Joe comes out from his hidden perch, decides he’s got to stop her because she looks ridiculous and tells her what the goal of the experiment had been. “Having all these people kind of push the product definitely made me think about buying gorilla pants, which is probably something I wouldn’t do,” she confesses sheepishly.

Joe’s report of the results? “The experiment worked. Given enough peer pressure, normally discerning fashion lovers were convinced to buy not-so-luxurious items.”

As the Sundance documentary closes, the women who have been showing off their luxury purchases are asked to tell us, at the end of the day, what their true “luxury” would be if all their designer goods were taken away. The same women who have been showing off their $900 Fendi heels and $3000 designer handbags are now professing that their friends and family are their real luxuries. In a video that glamorizes luxury even as it tries to expose it as a power game, phrases like “we have to get to a place where we’re not relying on what we buy to give us our sense of self and our sense of power,” seem insincere.

In sharp contrast, the BBC4 documentary Fabulous Fashionistas profiles six women in England between the ages of 75 and 91; not a facelift or a cc of botox among them.  For these mature women, fashion, style, and luxury are not about brand recognition; they’re about how their clothes make them feel. The creativity and originality of these women’s wardrobes far surpasses the younger women who are tied to highly identifiable items as status symbols.

There’s Sue Kreitzman who was the “queen of low-fat cookery” until her husband passed away and she discovered art was her true calling. Her art and her fashion sense are totally intertwined, resulting in a very personal and unique wardrobe. As she put it, having such a strong sense of her own style liberated her “from the tyranny of fashion.”

Jean is 75 years old; running three times a week keeps her extremely fit. When she lost her husband, she lit a candle at the abbey and decided she needed to start something new. “If you don’t move on with your life, you only remember the sad parts,” she tells us. Despite worries that no one would take her on as an employee because of her age, she is now the oldest person on the floor of the Gap, where she enjoys chatting up customers and offering style advice. She’s also an outspoken advocate for ageism.

At 91, Baroness Trumpington is the oldest woman in the House of Lords.  “The moment you start letting everything go is the moment you start getting old,” she says. She’s a self-professed “catalogue-addict,” who enjoys the convenience of mail-ordering clothes over rummaging around in stores. She buys smart, practical items that she will use every day.

Watching these fabulous fashionistas will start a conversation that expands our notion of mature style. Instead of following externally imposed fashion dictates like the women in Revealing: Extravagance, these women in their seventh, eighth, and ninth decades follow their personal internal muses and live out Jenny Joseph’s famous first line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” But of course, with pluck like that, they turn heads wherever they go.

Not a slave to fashion among them, these beautiful role models who are advancing style and reinventing themselves are quintessential exemplars of Coco Chanel’s oft quoted wisdom, ”Elegance does not consist in putting on a new dress.”

By Carrie Rattle

Carrie Rattle is a Principal at BehavioralCents.com, a website for women focused on mind and money behaviors. She has worked in the financial services industry for 20+ years and hopes to inspire women to better prepare themselves for financial independence. Read More