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You know how folks say they got it from their mama? Well, for me, my passion for personal style is what I got from mine. My mom grew up without much, learned how to sew to be able to find clothes that fit her body and budget as a 20-something, and as a middle-class mom in the '80s and '90s always looked put together, even if she was dealing with sticky fingers, chaotic craft projects, and hosting a family dinner for 12 all at the same time. As a caregiver for my father, a widowed retiree, and an older person with a calendar full of classes, meetings, and social occasions, she still always looked put together and maintained her style as she aged.
My mom passed away unexpectedly very recently. As my sister and I sift through family photos, I am so aware of the uniform my mom created for herself to look polished, put together, and match her appearance to her personality (AKA the bookjacket to her novel). Her personal style uniform worked for different ages, when her body was different sizes and abilities, as well as the fluctuations of her bank account.
How to Maintain Style as We Age
I know many come to Wardrobe Oxygen desiring advice on how to look polished, to achieve personal style, and to simplify the complexity of fashion trends. And, I was thinking how my mom epitomized simplifying style and maybe her methods for maintaining personal style through changes and her time on this planet may benefit others.
Stick to Solids
Going through my mom's closet, you will find very few prints and patterns. She wasn't even one who liked heathered or tweed fabrics. While you may find the occasional Breton stripe or polka dot, solid, clear colors were paramount. My mom preferred bold, clear shades of cobalt, cerulean, royal purple, turquoise, and teal. Whether it was a t-shirt from Lands' End or a silky blouse for an evening out, it would be a solid color, and it would be a color that made her happy.
My mom was a “Winter” and so these clear, true colors in shades of blue and purple made her skin glow, but mainly she wore them because she loved them. If she was buying a travel mug or a suitcase, it would be in these colors. If she was painting her home or buying new towels, it would be in these colors. She wore what made her happy, and even if it wasn't “her colors” per some color expert, it was.
As we get older, we lose color. Our hair fades and goes gray, our skin thins and loses its rosy flush, our brows and lashes become sparse. Some style advisers recommend soft colors to complement our muted selves, but I personally am on Team Color and so was my mom. In fact, the older she got, the less she wore black and gray near her face.
As we age, we can literally and figuratively fade away. We can feel invisible in a crowd, our intelligence and power dismissed, our value ignored. A way to be seen and also show we're purposefully showing up is by choosing to wear color.
Now this doesn't mean you need to join the Red Hat Society (though it does sound fun), but go ahead and wear royal purple instead of mauve, cobalt instead of cadet, pink instead of blush, and emerald green instead of gray. A lot of fashion brands for women “of a certain age” focus on softer colors, but some retailers like Lands' End, Boden, J. Crew, cabi, and Kettlewell always have bright, clear colors available in wardrobe basics.
And if you prefer a muted wardrobe, by all means, rock it! But even within a muted palette, try playing with colors, maybe choosing a soft color instead of black for your blouse, or complementing the shades with scarves and other accessories. The most subtle of changes can offer the biggest impact.
Have a Simple Base
My mom wasn't much of a dress person. She wore them when she felt they were appropriate, but she liked the freedom of jeans, pants, and shorts. And when it came to these jeans, pants, and shorts, she kept it simple. No embellishment, no super trendy styles, and just the colors of blue denim, black, and white (with the occasional stone/tan that was hardly worn).
Whether it was 1983 or 2023, my mom could be found in a jewel-toned top and a pair of black pants in the winter, white pants or shorts in the summer, and denim on the weekend. Silhouettes and denim washes changed with the trends and her personal needs, but she didn't vary from this simple base.
The thing is, no one knows if those black ponte pants are ten years old or bought yesterday. They can't tell if they're from Nordstrom or Walmart. And a pair of white jeans or white chino shorts can elevate the simplest t-shirt. And some of those white chino shorts she wore were decades old, still looking smart and polished with fresh tops and well-maintained shoes.
Keeping your base simple also makes sense as most folks are looking at you from the waist up. Your bottom half is not the focus during conversations, when sitting at a table or desk, standing up at a cocktail party or social event. Especially when on a budget, you can rewear the same simple base pieces over and over, have them for years, and prioritize that which is closer to your face.
Have Your Shoes Match Your Pants (or Legs)
Smart boots and pumps in her work days, flats and even patent leather BIrkenstocks as a school teacher, supportive styles as she got older and prioritized comfort and health… my mom's shoes always matched her pants. And when she wore shorts or cropped pants, those shoes matched (or were low contrast to) her legs.
When your shoes match your pants, you create a continuous line. This is popular if you're looking to lengthen the body or follow figure flattery rules, but it's also smart because then you're keeping the focus on the top half. Statement shoes are fun, but they're called statements for a reason. Folks will notice them, and then the eye will trail up, noticing the entire look.
If you wish to keep the focus on the top half, keep your shoes low contrast to the bottom half of your outfit. Black shoes with black pants, shoes in a color low contrast to your skin when wearing shorts or white pants. This makes it easier to blend in comfort shoes and draws less attention to shoes that may not be of the latest fashion, having your look be more polished and put together without a focus on trends.
Show Personality with Accessories
If one knew my mom for her love of blue, they also knew her for her love of bold jewelry. Usually a pendant on a long chain or cord, and usually styled with hoop earrings in the same metal, sometimes also with a wrist full of slim bangles or a single cuff, she had a collection of primarily silver pieces of jewelry. Some were from yard sales or craft shows, some were from retailers like Chico's, many were of Sterling silver designed by her great aunt or purchased on one of her travels.
In her teaching days, she often styled her looks with scarves. Again, some were Liberty silk scarves she bought when she lived in London, some were found in the clearance section of T.J.Maxx, and many were gifts or bought on travel. Jewelry and scarves set the tone for her simple looks, changing a blouse and black pants from an errand running outfit to a work outfit to a funeral outfit to a date night outfit.
For those who don't wear accessories, this can sound daunting. But it's far simpler than creating multiple different outfits. Start with a single piece that catches your eye. A necklace, a brooch, a pair of earrings, a scarf. Try wearing it for different situations, with different outfits. See how it feels. Are you wearing it, or is it wearing you? How does it feel with the necklines you gravitate towards, how does it hang with your haircut?
A hack I often employ is elongating a necklace to get a different effect. When we are taller, have larger bodies, or have fuller breasts, necklaces can often hit at the wrong point on our bodies. We may not even realize it until we try a different length and find the result feels more… right (or maybe more comfortable). If the necklace has a clasp in back, you can often hook a chain bracelet to it to act as a necklace extender. I have also looped a hair elastic through the final jump ring of a clasp necklace to work as an extender.
Play with lengths and outfits before you go and buy more pieces, and know you don't need an arsenal of accessories to create a stylish wardrobe. Especially with accessories, fewer are better as they become your signature.
Get a Wash and Wear Cut
Over the years, my mom has had a perm, a pixie, a shag, a bob. But she has always had the most success and looked the most polished when she worked with her stylist to find a wash-and-wear cut that works with her natural hair texture. As her hair texture changed with more gray and silver strands, her style changed to embrace it.
For the past decade or two, it has been a version of a bob, sometimes a side part, sometimes a middle part, sometimes very short in the back and angled towards her chin, and most recently more like a “lob” all one length closer to her shoulders, with a few subtle layers for movement. She could get it sleek with her dryer and a round brush, but usually let it do its thing, which with regularly scheduled stylist appointments, looked great even if it was hit with humidity, sweat, or atypical water whenever she traveled.
As we get older, our hair can get thinner, our scalps more sensitive, our tresses more unruly. It's more important now than ever to find methods to work with our hair, simplify our routine, but have the results match the effect we're trying to express with our style. It's tempting to keep it super simple with a very short cut managed with spray and perms, but hair products, haircuts, and stylists have come a long way and it's possible to have easy care hair that isn't a chemically induced helmet.
Before you sit in the salon chair, have a conversation with your stylist. With dry hair, discuss your desire for an update that keeps things simple. Talk realistically about how often you wash your hair, how much time you have (or are willing to commit) each day for styling, how your day is. Do you end up putting it up because it's in the way? Do you like having length? Do you find bangs frustrating, or maybe it's a feature you've always wanted but didn't know how to make work with your hair. Talk about this with your stylist, and if you know appointment times are strict, make a consultation appointment before your next cut.
If you're desiring something new but your longtime stylist only sees you as this certain cut, don't be afraid to audition other stylists. Don't think because you're a certain age you can't go to the trendy salon down the block. In fact, my mom's stylist was found at the Instagrammable salon I went to, and he is now my stylist (and the stylist for my sister, our best friend, her husband, and many more folks we know). Younger stylists know how to play with a range of hair textures, and current trends are far simpler, embracing fewer products and steps for great style. A new cut may be the exact jumpstart your personal style needs.
Keep Changing Up Your Glasses
If you're a grown-ass woman, there is a good chance you wear glasses. They may just be readers, or just for driving, or they may be something that is always on your face unless you're showering or sleeping. And it's likely that prescription is often changing. This means you have a regular opportunity to change up your look with new frames.
This can be daunting. You're at LensCrafters or Costco or Warby Parker or the optician's showroom, often alone, overwhelmed by the options. You're trying them on and you can't even see what you look like because the samples don't have your prescription. A few suggestions to help with this:
- Shop with a Friend. This may not be your bestie, this is the person who has some style and isn't afraid to be honest. This is the person who will let you know that one style ages you, one style makes you look like your mother, and one style makes you look like you own the coolest art gallery in NYC.
- Take Selfies. Use your selfie/front-facing camera, and click that little 0.5 at the bottom which will make the camera pan out, so you're not filling the whole frame. Don't take the selfie from below or above, and have your arm out as far as possible. This is not a mug shot and it's not a one-and-done. Smile, and click. Smirk, and click. Look to the left, and click. Look to the right, and click. Fake a laugh, and click. Make a silly face, and click.
- Get a few angles wearing a few potential frames, and then put on your glasses and have a seat. This may be in the showroom, it may be at a nearby cafe, or you have the time to be able to go home and think it over. Look at the photos, text the possible styles to your friend, your kid, your cousin, or upload them into a Facebook group of folks who are kind and supportive but honest (the Wardrobe Oxygen Community is a great option).
- Create a Frame Wardrobe. This isn't possible for everyone, especially if you have a complex prescription. But these days, frames with prescription lenses can be bought online for less than $50 and they are pretty cute. This way you can switch up your look without having to buy a whole wardrobe. It's also a way to try out a new look without committing the hundreds that often come with a pair from your optician or ophthalmologist.
- Before I got LASIK, I was a fan of Zenni for wallet-friendly stylish prescription glasses. The prescription was done well and the glasses were of quality; they carry transitions and bifocals and more. While not as cheap, I own readers from CADDIS and they are super chic and high quality and see they also do prescriptions.
Changing your glasses changes your entire look. Think about glasses trends over the years; how those thick “B.C.” glasses went from being dorky to cool, how metal “Ben Franklin” frames also went from dorky to cool to dated to chic. Same with aviators, large plastic frames, tinted lenses, and so on. Trends change with glasses, and staying on top of the trends, finding the new trends that fit your face, lifestyle, and personal style will have the biggest impact on your appearance. And these days, it doesn't have to cost a fortune for this instant style upgrade.
Embrace Chic Comfort
As we get older, we have fewer f*cks to give, but if we still give a shit, we may be looking for ways to be more comfortable but still look chic or pulled together. Especially these days, it's possible to achieve chic comfort at any age and any pricepoint. For my mom, it was knit tops and sweaters in natural fibers with ponte knit or stretch denim bottoms. But by focusing on fit, color, and condition these simple and comfortable ensembles looked chic.
My mom was always petite, but like most of us, became even smaller over time. She understood that her clothing size changed and while she could get away with “regular” cut clothing before, she now had to focus solely on petite offerings. As her body shape changed, so did her wardrobe, getting rid of pieces that made her feel sloppy, segmented, or restricted. Her pant length changed to accommodate her current footwear, and even after having a partial mastectomy, she changed her choices in styles of tops, necklines, and her underpinnings to work with, not against her body.
As I mentioned in this piece about embracing style trends, grown-ass women accept that tailoring is a given. None of us can wear off the rack and achieve a great fit, and it's even more difficult as we age. Our bodies become even more unique with time and life experiences. Comfortable clothing can look sloppy and as though we've given up, but by buying the best size and getting a little help from a tailor, seamstress, or even a local dry cleaner, they can look like a million bucks.
Care for Your Wardrobe, Care for Yourself
When we look like we care about our appearance, folks are more likely to care about us. This doesn't mean buying the latest trends, shoving our bodies into Spanx and heels, or putting on a full face of makeup. It means treating our wardrobe with the respect it deserves. Especially as we get older, it's nice to have a reliable wardrobe that continues over the years versus reinventing each season.
Use a sweater shaver to get rid of fuzzballs (my sewist/knitter friend swears by this sweater comb; I've had this battery-operated shaver for years). Pull out that drying rack instead of tumbling dry those favorite knits. Fold sweaters instead of hanging them and having them stretch out. And know when it's time to retire the pieces that look tired. Treat your sweatshirts and knit pants with as much respect as that dress or blazer in your closet. When pieces are well cared for, they look more stylish, and we look far more chic.
At the end of each season, take your shoes to the cobbler. Have them reheeled and resoled and given a polish so they're ready for you next year. If you wear insoles (I love these budget-friendly ones for arch support and have them in all my sneakers and boots), replace them yearly so they work well, smell well, and look good.
Handbags are expensive, but they are the items we wear daily, get banged around the most, and are more visible than shoes or any other part of our wardrobe. Take a pair of cuticle scissors and snip off any white threads that stick out from wear. See if your cobbler does bag restoration or at least consider a leather conditioner to keep the finish as soft and shiny as possible. And like glasses frames, this is an accessory where there are classics, but they do change over time and maybe your bag is ready to be replaced with a newer model.
You deserve to look and feel pulled together, even if you or your life feels as though it's falling apart. Clothing is a form of armor; you would polish and repair your armor between battles and so should you polish and repair your wardrobe.