Irony: Not on after 50

Cathy Horyn's New York Times article "Irony and the Old Lady" is subtitled "How fashion's clever twists fall flat when you're 50". It's essentially a riff on the "if you wore it the first time around, don't wear it the second", and specifically cites the outfit a bunny-eared Madonna wore to a recent Metropolitan Museum of Art gala. Of course Simon Doonan loved Madge: "Scandal"!

Horyn asked Luca Stoppini, art director of Italian Vogue,
why fashionable women can't wear certain things after 50. "Luca had the answer right away. 'It's like fighting with the wind', he said." There's nothing you can do about it.

When I see a woman over 50 in certain types of overdesigned shoes, anything with skull and crossbone pattern, porkpies, tights with legs in two different neon colours, or '70s concert tees restyled with studs, I recoil.

Then I recoil at recoiling; I sound like my mother: "Can't you dress like a grown woman?"

On one of my last visits to her in Florida, I wore an Egyptian cotton blouse in a large print of a French breakfast table laden with café au lait bowls, flowers and a checkered tablecloth. It's not an ironic garment (I guess that would be a print of Gertrude Stein, strewn with roses), but it violated her sensibility: too 'unusual' and loud. She asked me to change before visiting a prospective retirement home.

She was much happier with my pool-blue linen blouse, but she missed the subversion of the yellow '50s alligator bag I carried, in fact, ironically.

Irony is defined as "an objectively sardonic style of speech or writing", extending this to dressing, irony may play with visual cues of opposition, contradiction and satire.

Our beloved blogger sallymandy, who writes The Blue Kimono, recently posted this Sartorialist shot taken in Paris (in her entry "Mixing It Up"), and asked what we thought. Madame is wearing those denim overalls ironically, don't you just know it? But, given my more conventional eye (and her age), I want to say, Go home and put on some clothes that don't reference the Back Forty; I know you have them.

Dressing with ironic intent is best left to the young, who enjoy irony's cousin, sarcasm, and think their costumes are highly original. And sometimes they are, but mostly they're just a goof, a wink, a bagatelle.

Irony is a form of self-referential elitism: I get the joke, do you? I'm willing to miss the recherché humour, and aim for well, instead of ironically, dressed.


s. said…
Certain types of irony can be delightful on seniors. For example, the chic older woman with a very blue rinse to her white hair can look fabulous and fun. But I agree that too often ironic elders fall flat and just look a wee bit... sad.
mette said…
I love this post Duchesse, just what I need right now! I realize that I have reached the point where to say farewell to something I loved in the past,and to say hello to something I will love in the future. I hope for a lot of conversation about the matter amongst us`in the certain age´. For me, having turned over 50, means that I want to wear clothes that feel comfortable. I do prefer modern classy pieces. I wish I wouldn´t have to rely on `labels´, I only do so, because I know that some labels guarantee good quality. I wish I lived in Italy and had the chance to choose a wonderful non-label bag and shoes. But since I don´t, I know I´ll make a good bargain choosing something from collections like YSL, etc. BTW, the grey lady in the picture makes me sad too.
Duchesse said…
s.: Saw a woman getting on the streetcar yesterday, maybe 65(?) with white hair and burgundy highlights.Definitely not LOL- but not ironic either. I prefer that slightly transgressive look to post-50 irony.

metscan: "Modern classy pieces" sounds to me like an excellent style summary with which to guide choices.
Anonymous said…
Yikes, the overalls!
diverchic said…
My darling and beautiful mother (87yrs old) lives in dread of being "mutton dressed as lamb". I love that expression!

As for the overalls - irony is ok, but not with her formal face, dark lipstick on unsmiling lips and hair. That's the mixed metaphor that got me. And yes, she needs to head for the back forty. Where were we when she needed us?
Anonymous said…
What if you're not ready to give up and wear so-called age-appropriate (i.e. boring boring boring, sad sad sad) clothes? How are we to tell that our clothing choices are mutton dressed as lamb? If the body is fabulous, I am nevertheless supposed to dress in a boring, sad way that takes all the life out of me? No, I don't show cleavage, wear miniskirts, or in any way dress tartily (ha! that word shows my age!) but MUST I also cover my (rather good) arms too? Must I throw out all my up-to-the-minute fabulous high heels and other interesting and trendy shoes that make me feel happy and alive and cause strangers to strike up conversations with me? It is all so depressing! We often hear that the clothes and shoes and body and face should match. If I have the misfortune to have bad genes and thus have more wrinkles on my face than I'd like (and more than I would were I rich enough to afford to have it all fixed!) must I get fat, dress like someone who has given up, and wear only boring or hideous shoes? I have read of the horror men feel when, having ogled a girl from behind, see, when she turns around, that she is actually 50. So is this prescriptive fashion (not to say fascist FAD) for older women to ensure that they dress in a way that doesn't upset ogling men really something to embrace, or is it something to reject?

I have nothing against people dressing however they want to. I just wonder if this whole mutton dressed as lamb thing (that I too worry about, I admit!) is dragging us down when we could instead be having fun with our clothing styles just like we may have done in earlier decades.

On the other hand, if I could find an older woman's style that was chic, stylish and non-frumpy, I'd definitely adopt it.

Am I a mass of contradictions?!

Duchesse said…
Sarah: Sounds to me like you're good and tired of being told "how to look". (I'm with you!)

And like you, am not interested in boring or sad clothing. At the same time, I realize things I thought looked great in my 20s or even 30s do not look good now (to my own eye); I look like I'm wearing someone else's clothes.

Who says you must "get fat, dress like someone who's given up, and wear hideous shoes"? I would not wish hideous shoes on anyone.

As for getting fat, I've always said women obsess far too much about weight. Beauty comes in all sizes and shapes. And with wrinkles.

Look around; you will see older women who are stylish and non-frumpy, there are plenty of us out there. Depending on your idea of what is 'stylish' and your definition of'older', exemplars above 50 in public life might include Isabella Rosselini, 57, Diane Sawyer, 64, Catherine Deneuve, 66, Phylicia Rashad, 61, Ellen Burstyn, 77, Vivienne Westwood, 68, Rene Russo, 55, Jane Birkin, 63, Helen Mirren, 64 and a favourite of mine, Anjelica Huston, 58.

We may not be able to afford their clothes but we can learn from their style and spirit.

I have seen women who look 20 from behind and 50+ from the front, and who cares if some guy gets a jolt? But if she is wearing teenager's clothes, and has a very obviously lifted face, she will look like a bit desperate.
My first thought about the Parisienne was "working artist", not "lower 40", as the latter doesn't mean anything in France and French farmers don't necessarily wear denim overalls, although denim is of French origin (de Nîmes), and jeans named for another port just across the Italian border. (Jeans - Gênes - Genova in Italian, Genoa in English).

The women I know of my cohort who dress in those are heavy-duty feminists, some but not all of them lesbian and wearing those as a badge of radical-feminist and/or lesbian identity. So counterculturalism more than irony. Not usually worn with dark lipstick, but who knows nowadays?

I have really mixed feelings about this. Yes, of course there are things we wore not only at 20 but also at 35 that we might not wear at 50-something, but I refuse to be "well-dressed" if that means not dressed with care and an attention to beauty but conventionally or corporately attired, as that simply isn't me and has nothing to do with who I am or what I do for a living.

These things are difficult, because middle-aged people in the arts have to deal with the pitfall of looking like the "mad art teacher" (a quote from Linda Grant's Thoughtful Dresser) or the crafty-wafty ladies discussed here a while ago.

Anonymous, I have the opposite "bad genes" from you. Practically no wrinkles whatsoever, and very nice skin on my décolleté, but have got fatter with those nasty hormonal changes (I don't mean obese or sloppy looking - I ride my bicycle for hours whenever I can, and every day that there aren't metres of snow).

Madonna is a performer, and her questionable taste is part of her act.

But of course Madonna makes me think of someone much sadder at 50 who has just passed away.
Northmoon said…
Strangely I was much more conservative or middle of the road in the way I dressed in my 'corporate' thirties and forties than I am now. Although I don't want overly short, tight or low cut garments, I'm now more likely to choose more dramatic colours or styles. In my fifties I feel freer to enjoy my clothes; I have no one else's opinion to worry about. It's kind of a paradox.

I admire women of any age who can style themselves in their own unique ways. Love the blogs such as this one who inspire me to be more adventurous, especially with accessories.

So I think the woman in overalls with the dark jacket looks fine, although being short I won't be copying this particular look myself!
Anonymous said…
People that know themselves and truly dress for themselves always look good. Madonna is always playing a part, only in her exercise wear does she ever truly look happy or herself (Ha, Madonnas true identity lies in a tracksuit!). I do think though, if she'd just changed her hat in that outfit the whole thing would have looked better, but I guess with Madonna, thats not the point.
Anyway, back to the subject. Sadly, I'm not really sure what irony in dressing means, but I know I am getting tired of judging people for what they wear (of course I do it anyway). I do snigger at people who still wear thier original looks from the 80's, or dress badly in a myriad of ways and I know I shouldn't. People really should wear what makes them happy.
sallymandy said…
Hi Duchesse: thank you for the kind mention here, and for continuing the discussion about my very least favorite photo from the post the other day. It's truly awful--didn't want to say that over there, but I was thinking it! I like your idea that subversion is better than irony--especially just a LITTLE subversion.

I know a fifty-something woman who does not have a perfect figure or face. She wears good quality, simple and neutral colored clothing with slightly subversive accessories and hair. I think she looks fabulous and alive. I can learn from her.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: I too think women should wear what they want, and -at the same time- realize their choice will be "read", perhaps accurately, perhaps not. Sometimes the message sent differs from message received.

At a big party I attended last night the women (all of the over 50) with some flesh looked far healthier, vibrant and sexy than the 'social x-ray' ones.

Northmoon: Ah, you take me back to the time when I wore suits like a man's, but with a skirt, and those stupid silk 'ties'. Thanks for reminding me how much more I like what I wear now!

Sallymandy: With your photo skills can you snap her sometime, oh please?
materfamilias said…
I can't help but connect the feelings I expressed in a recent post (on being judged on my appearance) with the project of assessing the value of irony in other women's style choices. Style reflects and expresses personality, and even if there are more appropriate, more classic, more suitable, more whatever, ways of doing that, toning down one's choices to fit those idea of appropriateness is inappropriate for some. I may not like some looks -- certainly, I don't -- but there are personalities that grate on me as well and while I'd love the world to be full of amenable sorts, just like, well, me, I'm pretty sure it would be a bland place. I'm not sure of the exact wording of a quote I long ago heard attributed to Luis Bunuel, but he spoke of "keeping alive the margins of eccentricity" and I think that's a service we all might applaud even as we lament what we find its aesthetic shortcomings.
Duchesse said…
materfamilias: I'm a cynic about Madonna, so doubt her intent to is Buneul's worthy goal of "keeping alive the margins of eccentricity"; keeping alive publicity is more like it.
Anjela's Day said…
I like things I like. The lovely white linen dress I have owned for years- simple plain buttons all the way down. A change with a beautful leather belt. A pair of jeans with ballet flats. A plain white cotton shirt. A simple thin cashmere cardigan... if it gets cold. Pencil thin skirts worn with basic leather shoes- good underwear. Subtle perfume. A great haircut.
I thought I knew how to dress and put on 30 pounds this year and suddenly I have nothing to wear. Every morning it is a call for my Addidas capris or some Eileen Fisher pants. All my beautiful white shirts don't button any more and those with s t r e t c h are way beyond their stretching point. I have worn my daughter's ex boyfirend's left behind white shirt and it fits!!! But I don't want to buy new clothes.I just look longingly at what I had which were simple timeless white or grey or black with taupe and sand and a splash of color every now and again.Thank the gods for spandex and some of it doesn't look too bad with the old ballet flats and the capped sleeved shirts. I no longer feel put together though- but more like thrown together.Lol I so enjoyed reading your latest entry but can anyone please dress me step by step ....I am lost:)
Anonymous said…
Anjela, I just wrote about this exact same problem on my blog (and in my case I wish it was ONLY 30 pounds!). The comments I got were really helpful if you want to go over to my blog to read them here's the link
Duchesse said…
Anjela and cybill: Tomorrow's post is all about resources and ideas for dressing when one gains... I've been there!
CompassRose said…
To this I say Anna Piaggi. And Betsey Johnson. And Vivienne Westwood. And Quentin Crisp.

The thing about Madonna (at least from my perspective) is that, unlike say Cyndi Lauper, who is no longer a girl but still having fun (with her clothing), she doesn't actually seem to enjoy her outrageousness. She WORKS at it. SO SO SO HARD! So hard she can't take a day off from the gym to enjoy a holiday with her children (according to the gossip columns, but perfectly believable). It makes me tired to see her strained face in pictures.

I don't know how one deliberately wears an attitude, but I think that's key. I know more than one woman of fifty or sixty plus who pulls off the crafty-wafty look, because she has the mindset that gives it a mesmerising witchy glamour, instead of looking like everyone's sad retired spinster drama teacher. The same goes for any kind of edgy fashion, at any age. Even younger women who don't OWN their eccentricity look a bit ridiculous, but a lot of people don't notice because they still look nubile and succulent, if silly.
Anonymous said…
Great discussion! I love reading everyone's different perspectives.

Coming up on 52, I keep feeling like the Supreme Court - I don't know what age-appropriate dressing is, but "I know it when I see it." Or rather, I know it when I FEEL it.

Lately I don't want to look "cute." It's not that I want to look somber, but anything that's too "ingenue" just FEELS wrong. (As does anything too trendy. If it has five zippers and more than two pockets, I just can't handle it.)

Great stuff to think about!
sallymandy said…
I'll have to start carrying my camera.

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