Dressing Your Age: A Multi-Decade Conversation

A few months ago, I turned a socially (if not personally) significant number in years. The big 3-0. I didn’t struggle, and it was not painful. As a Millennial, the age of “official adulthood” has been continually pushed beyond my grasp for years. When I finally reached the finish line, I let out a sigh of relief, as it took me 18 years to grow out of adolescence.

Just a few months into my thirties, age isn’t often on my mind. I do feel slightly flattered when a waiter checks for my ID when at a restaurant.I feel disconnected from a 19-year-old who is snap-chatting her personal woes and triumphs to her BFF. In real-time. High school drama is so old-school, and I feel a sense of relief that, ok, I was normal after all. I get to enjoy a new sense of perspective on life. Perhaps, for the first time in my life.

I have, however, noticed a rising awareness of how I dress and present myself. “Age appropriate” means something different for me than it does for someone a few years older or younger than me. I recently had a chance to sit down with a group of women to discuss the issue of age appropriate style. The discussion included a 20-year-old, a 40-something and her 12-year-old daughter, and another  fellow 30-something.

The conversation revolved around a couple of questions: Are you concerned about dressing age appropriate? How has this changed over the years?

The adolescent perspective of the 7th grader added a fresh perspective to the conversation that I had not expected (maybe thirty is older than I thought?). The seventh grade girl was honest about the transition from a more childlike mindset to a greater awareness of how her peers are changing their appearance. The older women in the group reached self-awareness on social expectations of appearance a long time ago, and it’s easy to forget just how young this awareness begins. The girl said that she is sometimes peer-conscious about her appearance, thought not always. Sometimes she and her friends were more relaxed or more groomed. She also pointed out that at her age there is a varying degree of grooming skills and knowledge amongst her peers. This brought up all kinds of nostalgia for me: the first time I shaved my legs, learning to paint my nails (both hands!) by myself. The unfortunate 90s trend of wearing only lip-liner that was popular when I was in middle school.  The beginnings of navigating the expectations of your peers can be a strange and exciting adventure. The main concerns for an early adolescent seems to be: Who am I in relation to my peers? How do I express myself as an individual for the first time?

Our resident 20-something seemed to have a unique kind of pressure. While she felt the freedom of independence from adolescent peer-pressure, she is also navigating emerging adulthood. She said she doesn’t feel huge pressure to dress a certain way, and that pressure has actually diminished in recent years.  In high school, she felt more pressure to fit in to whatever trends were most popular at the time. Whereas our 7th grader was feeling peer-pressure for the first time, our 20-something was feeling a newfound relief.  In a college setting, she feels more independent and relaxed in creating her own style. She shared that, overall, she wasn’t body-conscious yet. Her main areas of focus were dressing appropriately for work, and as a college student, dressing in way that is most comfortable to her and expresses her personal style.  She said that she found herself shopping in Juniors, but also more mature clothing, as well, since she is now in a professional setting.

However, she did add that she couldn’t relate to the self-acceptance that was expressed by the women in their 30s and 40s. Your twenties bring about an enormous amount of change and milestones, so there is pressure to “stay in the game.” Our 40-something added that it could be hard on a young adult to completely ignore social expectations, as relating with your peers is still very important during your twenties. Your twenties are about experimenting and making big decisions about who you are and where you want to go in life.  The concerns of a 20-something: Who do I want to be someday? How do I relate with my peers, while still doing what’s right for me?

My fellow 30-something and I had similar perspectives. We are both mothers, both are post-college and have been part of the “grown-up” professional world for many years now. We had a similar attitude in that we feel comfortable in our own skin, and feel more independent than we did in our twenties. Both mothers of two, body-consciousness is more of an issue for us. We have both adapted to changes that are reflected in our wardrobes. Pregnancies brought about wardrobe additions specific to pregnancy, post-baby, and nursing appropriate clothes. At this age we are also more experienced professionally. Career changes or promotions have brought about an awareness of how to present ourselves.

My fellow 30-somethings expressed a relief from having to prove herself professionally through her wardrobe. She reflected on starting out in her career in her 20s, new to the workforce and having a conscientious effort to prove herself. She said that she felt more confident as a professional now, and doesn’t have to rely solely on her “big girl clothes” in order to be taken seriously. We also buy more strategically: more fine-tuning to personal tastes than just following the latest trend. Part of buying more strategically has to do with finances and being more responsible in general. I want a less-fuss wardrobe that works for me and my budget. This has lead to knowing my style more confidently and trying to make fewer mistakes.  The 30-something mindset: I have a good idea of who I am, so how do I express myself with confidence? How do I wear clothes that are the most flattering to my body type?

Our 40-something is actually a Regional Director of a Banana Republic, and mentioned that style consciousness is a personal choice, not one based on age. She is very fashion-minded, but said that one of the main struggles (and triumphs) for people in their forties is self-acceptance. Usually this decade brings the enjoyment of the first fruition of life decision whether it’s professional, relational or otherwise. She told us that she has loved her forties so far, but it does come with a risk of getting stuck. The temptation is to settle down, which can lead to a style presentation that looks outdated. She often helps her customers at Banana Republic in their 40s and 50s who don’t know where to begin. The styling for this age seems to have a focus on body-consciousness, but also a classic style. She says some of her more fashion minded friends start to feel an insecurity that they might not be able to pull off a certain style because of their age. She added that even if a style is flattering on women her age, certain looks “feel” off limits, like a short mini-skirt. The focus seemed to be on finding ways to stay current, but also feel age appropriate, though it’s hard to pin-point what that means exactly. 40-something concerns: What are some basics to refresh my wardrobe so I don’t get stuck? How do I pull off looks that are more sophisticated, yet still youthful?

I gathered from our discussion that “dressing age your age” is something we all think about, if only subconsciously. Deciding what is "appropriate" for our current age is a blend of personal consideration and social expectation. Age represents life experience, and dressing your age is an art worth mastering at every age.

How do you define age appropriate dress?

Anna AkbariCulture, fashionComment