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Once you’ve become a Femme d’Un Certain Age it’s easier to figure out the politics of Afghanistan than how to dress yourself. If I had all the money in the world, I’d outsource the problem to a personal shopper at Bergdorf’s, throw myself at her mercy and gratefully haul home, say, a double-breasted Michael Kors Italian shearling coat with a fur collar. Since the collar detaches, I could justify the $9,995 price tag every time I wore it over a white T-shirt. The coat would look sportif, indeed, atop a fawn-brown crew neck sweater and flare skirt in ombré plaid crafted from mohair and polyamide wool—only $795 and $1,495, respectively—and I could cinch it with a $195 cinnamon leather belt. But what’s up with polyamide? Might it be a vital ingredient in crystal meth? Also, since the $12,495 total is what I’d like to spend on a Smart Car, not a cold-weather ensemble suitable for returning books to the public library, I’m going to pass and shop at another establishment. The question is, where?
I don’t want to dress Forever 21. I draw the line at shopping there, too. But life is short, and if you’re not going to eat dessert first, at least let your wardrobe be fun.
Once a woman is my age—let’s just say I last saw 57 on a bottle of sauce promising to add zest to beef, chicken and pork—and can’t afford to shop only designer racks, it gets tricky, especially if you don’t care to hide your body in a flowing frock from Chico’s, Eileen Fisher or even Calypso. This is not why I keep running my butt around Central Park like a rat in a maze and working on those Pilates roll-ups. But the stores that truly ignite my "gimmes!" are usually either tiny boutiques owned by girls named Ashley, Amber or Amanda or the on-trend chains: Club Monaco, J. Crew, Zara, Uniqlo, Anthropologie, H&M and my new favorite, Joe Fresh.
These stores are all proponents of cheap or almost-cheap chic, and genius at knocking off—excuse me, creating fashion “inspired by”—the Gil Sanders, Lanvins and Pradas of the globe. While their individual personas vary, what these stores have in common is not wanting as their customer a woman of my age. They market to fresh young things like my sons’ wives, women who are in their early 30s. Yet, I very often not only like the clothes such stores sell, I feel—subjectively, of course—that they look damn good on me as long as I stay away from the teensiest bikinis, lowest-riding jeans, leggings meant to be worn beyond the gym, 5” heels on 3” platforms, and minis that makes everyone wonder, “Honey, is that a prostitute or the teenager from next door?” This leaves a lot of pants, tops, skirts and coats that I feel I can get away with as long as I don’t accessorize them with reading glasses dangling on a cord while flashing iPhone pictures of my 5-month-old grandson.
When you get to be my age, adding to the puzzle is what to wear when. At a recent family wedding, my niece, the 42-year-old bride, a mother of two, wore flouncy, strapless Vera Wang ruffles. Some might say that a bride of this vintage should have dressed burka-style, perhaps in a demure long-sleeved suit or tea-length dress. They might also question why her stepmother, who is close to 69, chose a strapless Tom Ford with a jaunty peplum that flattered her slim hips and gorgeous gams—the identical dress that Jennifer Aniston, 43, wore to a premiere in February. They’d wonder, too, why my elegant mother-in-law, 88, wore a fitted bodysuit with a longish sequined skirt, both Armani. And they’d probably denounce my strapless, knee-length Milly cocktail dress as, well, too young.
Were we a barbershop quartet of fashion no-nos being judged by other guests who were mumbling and tsk-tsking, asking, "Who do these women think they are?" Perhaps, but I say, what’s age got to do with it? One of these days, I suppose I will no longer have a waist, and will need to hide myself in a teepee. Now, however, I think fashion’s only limits should be common sense and fit, and I’m going to shop wherever I please, ignoring snooty salesgirls if need be.
I don’t want to dress Forever 21. I draw the line at shopping there, too. But life is short, and if you’re not going to eat dessert first, at least let your wardrobe be fun. Looking good for other people is a public service, not unlike installations of public art.
So, gawk away. I’m Sally, a middle-aged woman in a jacket from Urban Outfitters, and not only do I approve this message, I don’t plan to change any time soon.