Monday, July 13, 2009

Fashion Fouls: The Older I Get, the Easier It Is to Make Them

The other day I was running into the grocery store, and saw a vision of myself fifteen years down the road. There was a woman in an outfit I can only describe as bag lady athletic club. On top: a flowered tank top and Nike jacket; on the bottom, gym shorts over matching floral leggings and sneakers. A fleeting thought passed through my mind: there but for the grace of God and major self-consciousness, go I.

I admit, I’ve never been particularly Vogue-ish when it comes to fashion, but I’ve always tried to avoid outright wardrobe catastrophes. Still, there are moments that I look back on with bemused horror. The neon-pink fishnet stockings I just had to have in fifth grade. Spandex dresses. Strirrup pants. I had them in all the basic neutrals. Knit dancer’s leggings that we wore over shimmery tights because Flashdance and Olivia Newton John made them so must-have. All my past fashion sins are in some landfill somewhere, and will probably still be around in the next millennium thanks to synthetic fabrics. But so far, I haven't publicly embarrassed myself by dressing in inappropriate combinations that suggest some form of disconnection from reality. The fear in the back of my mind, though, is that I could be that woman in the flowered leggings and gym shorts. Maybe not this minute, but someday. It was almost like a premonition.

I say this because the older I get, the less weight I put on what other people think about my appearance. What concerns me now is comfort, sensibility, and all-weather protection. There was a time when I wouldn't be caught dead in clunky snow boots that had more tread on them than a Ford Bronco tire. No more. Going through my mother's hip surgery a few years ago, and living in a region where it can snow in June, makes you think twice about style versus safety. I knew I had entered the practical age the day I brought home a pair of unattractive but sturdy boots. Who would see, I thought? And so what? At least I wouldn't be sprawled on a pavement in designer heels with a shattered ball joint. If wearing thermal underwear over my pantyhose is tacky, you’re right. I’m guilty. But I’m warm.

Somewhere in the back of my head, though, there's a tiny, nagging voice that sounds vaguely like my grandmother. She was a woman with style. Never a lot of money, but definitely style. In family pictures, she always looks pulled together, often wearing a smart hat and carrying a matching purse. My grandmother couldn't conceive of going out in public without lipstick, let alone wear gym shorts to the grocery store. She would have been mortified to be so underdressed.

I like to think I've inherited my grandmother's taste meter, but there are days I look in the closet and wonder, "What was I thinking?" There are skirts at least four inches too short; jeans two sizes too small; tops that show a little too much cleavage (although not necessarily a negative).; shoes that I'll never wear out of fear that I’ll break an ankle. I know I should toss or donate these items that will never again be on public display, but there's a part of me that emotionally clings to the image of the girl in skin-tight denim mini skirt, fitted tank top, and a full body tan. The problem is, I'm not that girl any more. My daughter is.

To age my wardrobe forward is to admit that I'm no longer who I used to be. And if not, then who? I'm not ready for elastic waist slacks and tunic tops despite the fact my body no longer likes being squeezed into curve-hugging clothes. But mentally, I'm not ready to concede. When I look in the mirror, a part of me says, "I can get away with this," while the grandmother-in-my-head says, "Are you seriously going to wear that?"

Some days, I shrug off the scolding voice and throw on the too tight jeans. I may only be able to pull this off one more year, I think, and then it's adios slim fits. Other days, I look around and see women, a decade ahead of me, who are dressing with great panache and I tell myself, Take a cue. One of these ladies, an artist I know who’s pushing 80, showed up at an event in a fuschia leather jacket that looked smashing. My friend Deb has created her own signature style by combining long decorative skirts she brings back from Peru with fabulous, one-of-a-kind jewelry. Gorgeous silk scarves, batik printed jackets, quirky felted hats--they're all finding their way into women's closets who refuse to give into senior frump, and, instead, want to make a statement about who they are at an older stage of life. Not dark, somber, and draped like over-stuffed furniture; but vivacious, trendy, and original.

Even O Magazine is trumpeting “Yes, you can!” when it comes to dressing chic at any age. In the current issue (August), they put the same look on a 20, 30, and 50-year-old. Me? I’m loving the black and white animal print dress with knee high suede boots.

On the other hand, age makes me feel that I’ve earned the right to a little fashion liberation. I’ve never been a suit person so now I don’t sweat the fact that I’ll get by in separates. I sometimes wear socks with my ballerina flats. I’ve even dashed to the corner store for my Sunday paper in flannel pajama bottoms. Okay, they were under a full length raincoat, but still, my grandmother would have died of shame.

Knowing there are women out there who choose dignity over laundry basket diving, I’m reassured: there's hope! I can fend off the temptation to grocery shop in flowered leggings and gym shorts, and avoid the kind of fashion faux pas that make us wince when we see them. Gone will be the cute little sundresses that look better on Barbie. Off to the Goodwill with the tiny tees and size 4 jeans.Some thrifty eighth grader will think they’re cool vintage.

I may need a complete closet overhaul. Which, now that I think of it, could be just what I need: A little shopping therapy to erase my fears of being caught in a fashion disaster moment. That, and constantly reminding myself: No flowered leggings! No flowered leggings!