Dated or dowdy? Skirting the issue

My blogfriend Mardel of restingmotion recently asked of a coat she's owned for awhile: is it dowdy? Commenters replied that it fit her beautifully, and advised her to wear what she likes. One said, "If I feel confident and good about it, then it works."

Oh, could I relate to her doubt!

I recently discarded a number of lower calf-length skirts after an Uh-Oh Moment: What once looked current had morphed into dated and dowdy, from one season to the next. I thought I looked like a woman who feeds pigeons out of her handbag, and no amount of self-talk changed that.

Twinset by Brora
Dowdy connotes limp, ill-fitting, often sexless and certainly uninspiring pieces. The older meaning of the word is "shabby". Who was the unfortunate Ms. Dowd, anyway?

Dowdiness is in the eye of the beholder. Cashmere twinsets: dowdy to some, chic to others. For me, dowdy summons piecrust-collar blouses and white leather heels.

Dated is a related issue. The style arc moves inexorably from an edgy start, traverses widely-worn and ends at fizzled: the party's over and your outfit is the crumpled napkin clinging to an empty glass.

And sister, is there anything worse than double D's: dated and dowdy?

Clues to dated clothes:
So out they're in?
1. The item is conspicuously absent in better stores. You'll always find a blanket-wrap skirt somewhere, but not at Bergdorf's. My long skirts are offered as summer vacation wear, but the winter version is rare as a nun in stilettos. Three to six inches shorter–depending on one's height– is the 'new long'.

The odd piece might appear in ironic reissue, like these Vanessa Bruno Athé pegged pants, deeply on sale on Net-a-porter. If you can find it only with difficulty, via prowling consignment or eBay, time to move on. 
Cutie in mink stole

2. The item is worn by a generation younger, to the opposite effect.  

Knee socks, charming under a jeune fille's short skirt, look dated on a 55 year old. Mink stoles: snapped up in friperies by 20-somethings, not stylish on their grans. 

Maybe clothes should come with expiry dates, like your passport. Whether it's appliqued denim, dirndls, severe power suits or any number of jean effects, there comes a time–as it had with my skirts.

Brooks Brothers classic
 3. You feel defensive about your "timeless", "classic" wardrobe.

"Timeless" is a myth. One could try, living in Brooks Brothers, never much different as the decades roll by. But even classics need refreshing; cuts are updated, details tweaked. (Shown, Brooks Brothers blazer, $348.) 

Amanda Wakeley's silk crepe shirt dress has classic references but is totally of the moment, ideal for a spring wedding; price $695 from Net-a-porter.
Amanda Wakeley rose silk dress

When I admire women in their 70s and 80s, I'm impressed by how good they look in a current coat.

Not the wool with the little mink collar of twenty-five years ago, not the nylon with tapestry inserts from the '90s. If they choose a modern piece, like the MaxMara example below, they look energetic and appealing.

From MaxMara's 2010 collection

So that I don't care if it's not in style, I'll wear it anyway attitude? I respect that stance and raise you one: Those of us 50+ look even better in clothes that are current within a half-decade or less, excepting fine vintage pieces, ever-trickier to pull off.

Ever had that Uh-Oh Moment? What's past its best-by date for you?


Vildy said…
Frothy white dresses, either eyelet or gauze.
They look great on me still but at my age, 62, they don't make any sense, even though I'm very short and keep getting told I'm "cute, just like that mom on the 70's show." ugh.

I like your word "energetic" - it's the main thing I look for in clothing. I like feeling agile, ready, alert, aware...energetic!
Susan said…
This next summer, I am going to have to take a long hard look at several long lightweight cotton skirts in my closet. I've loved them (they were purchased from the Sundance Catalog over several years), but last summer, I caught a glimpse of myself wearing them on vacation. I looked a bit dowdy. I was surprised because these skirts had always made me feel great.
Anonymous said…
Another great post, Duchesse! While those who have remained the same clothing size over the decades are to be congratulated on their achievement in that regard, it is no tribute to their figures to keep on dressing them in garments that are also decades old! One can remain true to a certain "style uniform" (as in turtleneck and jeans, for casual, etc), but there is a world of difference between a current version of that outfit and the version from 20 years ago. Just another case where, sadly, we can't have it all: "investment" clothing can fluctuate in long-term value -- and it's a challenge to know when to "hold" and when to "sell"!
Susan B said…
Ugh, I've gone through this moment with most of my suits and blazers in the last few years. The blazers, especially, that felt so sharp and great for the office, now just look mannish. Jackets used to be my mainstay, but I'm having a hard time finding replacements that don't seem too trendy. (I've had good luck with a couple with the asymmetric look.)

I once noted that I don't want to dress to look *younger* but rather *current* and you've illustrated and elaborated on that point beautifully here.
Murphy said…
Wow, this is a great post! I have a couple of jackets that I'm struggling over - I think they would look trendy on someone in their late 20s/early 30s, and they would probably look classy on someone over age 75. But at over 50 I'm afraid they are making me look dowdy. I'm still wondering if they might look current if I mix them up with something more current than their original skirts... they were investment pieces - I've had one for 10 years and one for 6 years, but they were billed as "never going out of style classic." Well, I suppose they are still in style for SOME demographic, just possibly not mine.
La Loca said…
I had an "uh-oh" moment on Monday while wearing my Clark's Mary Janes with ecru crocheted knee-highs (I know, I know). Even with trousers, at age 42 I felt like Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane." I tried to salvage them a few days later with darker hose; no dice. This weekend I will be looking for "big girl shoes."
Oh a best before date would be helpful!

Dowdy is so scary for me...I try to stay far away from that really helps that there are so many great blogs and magazines which showcase fabulous images for women 50+...

thank you for keeping us fresh and current...
laurieann said…
Duchesse you are picking up on the zeitgeist of what our age group is concerned with. As I put myself together each day I am checking the mirror not for 'mutton dressed as lamb' but for that dreaded 'matronly and dowdy."

My sending strategy has been to put most of my clothing budget on current shapes that look good on my and then wear them often. My MaxMara coat is a good example; it's not timeless, but it's current, it's beautiful, it's versatile---and in 5 to 7 years when it's no longer current I will have more than gotten my money's worth from it.

Another important place to spend a bit more is on footwear. My "timeless" 14 year old Chelsea boots had to go because the heels were looking clunky. They were replaced by a gorgeous pair of minimalist styled black booties from J.Crew. These are worn at least 3 times a week.

One item I have that I have to be extra careful with is my Hermes Kelly. The younglings are now carrying them with irony. I have to very careful when I carry this bag that I'm not channeling....well you can picture the look. So the Kelly is only worn now days with the most current pieces like said coat and boots; otherwise it's taking a break.
Fuji said…
It's really challenging to find a comfortable balance. I know we all have different comfort levels regarding looking current and, yet, still being true to our personal taste. Somewhere between time warp or fashion victim would be good. :)
Frugal Scholar said…
I love lower calf skinny skirts. I hope they come back during my lifetime.
Anonymous said…
No more blazers for me! More buttoned up jackets with collars.
Demi-pointe said…
Duchesse, your list of clues is perfect! They should be laminated and carried about (and pasted to the walls of dressing rooms in second hand shops.)
Now that our closets are lean and we own only what looks good, fits and we enjoy wearing often, I would think there is not much in them that can be pulled out and questioned "is this still in style"?! :)
If asked the question, I realize that, while I can scroll through a "what's in" checklist and hit all the marks (e.g. lapel size-check; color-check; length-check,etc.) it is my "eye" that has changed. And it (whatever the item is) just looks
Marsha said…
I'm surprised at my emotional reaction to your post - a kind of anger that you fall for the planned obsolescence that is fashion, and which is the opposite of dressing to please yourself and flatter your individual figure, mixed with a recognition: "She's telling the truth."

Somewhere in there is also a resentment that once I have found something that I really like and enjoy wearing, I am expected to get rid of it after an arbitrary period and replace it with something that is both expensive and less initially appealing, albeit new. My frugal instincts rebel at wasting something that is still perfectly good because somebody (who, really?) recognizes that it is old - why is old bad? And what's good about needless consumption, when the money could be put to better use?

But I do see your point - my mother's lovely mink stole looked stupid on me, but great on my 26-year-old daughter, who can wear it with retro sass. (Alas, nobody looks good in mom's three-quarter length sleeve mink coat in "autumn haze" and I can't even get the local repertory theatre company to take it off my hands.)

What I want is to reach an age where I can't look dowdy, because I'm not trying to achieve something I can't achieve. Is this a matter of changing my perspective, or the world's perspective, or both?
Anonymous said…
Excellent post! And, yes, I've had those moments...helped along by my readers. You have some excellent tips here, although I believe the LESS frippery on any item the longer I can continue to wear it. And long skirts can be taken up.

The pink dress is just fantastic.
LPC said…
I've had my eye on that rose dress::). You WOULD have to post it here...I find that dowdy is just something that shows up in the mirror one day. You can't prevent it, it comes with the changes of age. But you CAN recognize it and make a quick shift. A couple of years ago I suddenly had to rid myself of at least 10 cashmere cardigans, as the line which used to be carefully sexy was now clumsy and sausage-reminiscent.
materfamilias said…
I had a mixed reaction to this post as well, although not quite as strong as Marsha's -- a mix of resistance to some of your message and of recognition of its truth. I think Laurieann's approach is the solution I'm trying to adopt, but I also believe that some clothes can transcend a time limit not because they're timeless in a conservative way but because they stand out aesthetically. I do realize I'm taking a risk in trusting my own perception of these aesthetics, but that's part of what does create a personal style. Additionally, I would only rely on these pieces as accents or highlights or even just as supporting pieces, always balanced by current elements. And then I have those three daughters to keep me in line . . .
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, I do hope that you will consider writing a book from your Montreal aerie--I promise to buy one for all my friends! This post is, as always, very relevant. I complained recently to my daughter that shopping is less fun for me now that it seems to require so much strategy. As a 60-year-old former gamine, I must avoid many pitfalls (that silky rose dress, for example, would look like a sad bathrobe on me) while balancing on an ever-narrowing fashion rail. The textured silver jacket that felt so chic over a platinum charmeuse blouse last Christmas horrified me this year. And even my vintage cashmere coat--so Max Mara-like in its way--could turn on me any minute, I'm sure. Meanwhile, I'll keep your pointers in mind, and take pleasure in shopping with my daughter; she looks gorgeous in anything.
rb said…
I think the "I don't care if it's in style, I'll wear it anyway" only really works if something is either retro or totally funky to begin with.

I have long thought that there is really no such thing as classic, even in menswear. A colleague treated himself to all new suits about three years ago, and now the high stances on those four button jackets look completely dated. (He pointed this out to me so I don't think I'm being mean repeating it.)
Anonymous said…
The Net-a-Porter link (for the Amanda Wakerly dress) is broken, alas.
I'm feeling a bit like Marsha and Materfamilias, and held off posting because I hate being negative, or a whiny hippie environmentalist (being a happy hippie environmentalist is fine).

I couldn't possibly afford a new Max Mara/Marina Rinaldi coat, so my only chance of getting one is turning up a second-hand one and working with it. The detailing on those coats is simply amazing. And nobody is taking away my Josef Seibel Mary Janes (with two straps) that are simply my most comfy and favourite walking shoes. Though they have only been worn with dark tights and leggings.

I agree with the elegance is refusal idea, and am doing what I can to avoid becoming the wacky craftsy-waftsy artsy-fartsy lady, but I guess part of working in the arts is finding ways to use what we have and can find in ways not to look dated, dowdy or tragic.
Rubiatonta said…
Couldn't resist looking up the origin of "dowdy" -- you're right about the unattractive part, but did you know that the earlier meaning was "slut"? What an evolution!

I don't think I've had the "dowdy encounter" with myself yet -- maybe because I dress so simply, or is that predictably? Or maybe because my body shape/size is basically the same now (closing in on 50) as it was 10 years ago. I think that can be a contributing factor, when there's an increase. Since I've always been big, I'm used of it, as we say around here.
Caroline said…
Thank you!! This post really clarified a lot of things for me. I think fashion changes because we change - just an idea.
It also made me look up The Devils Dictionary for this quote from Ambrose Bierce:
Fashion, n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.
Susan said…
The more I've thought about it today, the more this post has worried me. I took a quick look inside my closet and shuddered. I think I have a lot of clearing out to do. It seems so wasteful sometimes to get rid of things that are in such good shape--but I know it has to be done. I

Can we discuss WHERE we should shop? I know we all live in different places, but have access to many of the same stores. I took a look at the latest Talbots catalog---way too many ruffles and frippery. I honestly could not find a single suitable item.
HB said…
What a pertinent topic and one, in my opinion, that both men and women of all ages might do well to consider. I've noticed an edge of dowdy creeping into a couple silhouettes I once thought to be more timeless. In a fashion sense, I suppose they were, having lasted well over a decade. The culprits are big parts of my uniforms; pullover sweaters/jumpers and skirts. I am extremely short waisted and a bit bottom heavy so skirt profiles are tough anyway; the straight ones make me look like a truck no matter the length. Pencil skirts are laughable, so I have to sit out that trend. For a number of years I fit and fit-in while wearing a fuller, long length skirt. I recently cleared some of these out for consignment - the linen ones being the most dowdy on me and staunchly out of style. I've discovered the beauty of an a-line or flared skirt with gores in a slightly shorter length. And the sweaters? I have always preferred a looser fit but not a sloppy one in no small part because where the waist fits most body lengths hits me well below the waist. Still, I found a couple in my closet that were just too boxy - in favor of not clinging to my lower tummy/high hip, they lacked shape and not in a cool or edgy way. In keeping with the trend toward the "new long" in skirts and a gentler amount of fabric, I have moved to more shaped pullovers.

It is important to note the differences, of course, in trend and the larger arcs of fashion silhouettes. The extreme pegged trousers (jeggings?!) and nipped-in ankles never even worked on me when I was 115 lbs at a spritely 16. I always look for the most au courant palazzo or wider leg style with a low profile waistband in trousers. It's an easy part of the uniform that lets me play with the other elements and one that usually shows up in the higher end designers somewhere - one every couple of seasons more than suffices if it's truly beautiful and flattering.
Pearl said…
Yes, dowdy. My biggest fear for my middle-aged self. Especially since I have the short, round figure of my mom and grandmom, which can easily lend itself to frumpy, dowdy, and just plain forgettable, given the sad clothing selection in my sizes in even the best department stores. For me it is ruffles and bows, unshaped jackets in abstract patterns (like I see in Chico's that look ok on taller women but erase my breasts and waist and simply make me look like a chick--and I mean a yellow fluffy chick), matching pantsuits or sweatsuits, or anything that screams "comfy." I am actually less concerned about looking too young or missing the irony than looking too "settled" or shapeless.
Murphy said…
I looked over my wardrobe with a critical eye after reading this post, and I realized something else: part of whether something is dowdy on me has to do with how I feel about it. Because if I have doubts about a look -e.g. it reminds me of my mother at age 75, then even if it doesn't really look dowdy on me, I will probably slouch a little more and show less confidence - which can add a dowdiness factor of its own.
I think of the Queen, and much of the royal family, partly because Her Majesty could afford anything but protocol forced her into dowdy suits long before she was of Passage des perles vintage, and also because we are of similar build (as is the other famous Liz, but that is another matter)...

Matronly, when one is short and busty. Horrid word.
materfamilias said…
It's so unlike you not to respond to your comments (not that there's an imperative to do that within this short a timeframe) that I'm worrying you've either lost power along with many other Torontonians OR, perhaps worse, you've succumbed to the fluemani. I hope neither is the case, and wish comfort, warmth, light, and well-being are yours this weekend. Take care.
Duchesse said…
Vildy: Cute is not the term we want to hear at 62, is it?

Susan: I have those, which I wear at resorts, and like them still on other women but I must admit to myself they are more current shortened to just at or below the knee.

Teresa: Well put; I think the sweet spot is to really wear your clothes so they return value for the time they are current.

Pseu: That's a great example. One day they just kind of lose their "zip" on one, and they may have looked great for years.

Murphy: Your point is intriguing, about younger or older, but not on you. Ten years is a pretty good run and if we do not buy too much, I think we should declare victory and move on.

Jane W: Oh, LOL! It's as if a different person is suddenly in the mirror.

hostess: Now beginning to think it is b/t 5 and 7 years for the more conservative jacket or pant and maybe 3-4 years for more 'fashion' stuff. But see below... an imprecise guesstimate.

laurieann: You have some *superb* pieces and I would only like to have the problem of "what to wear with my Kelly." My Parisienne GF with one wears hers with a soft padded parka, narrow black jeans and little booties, never too 'lady'.

Fuji: We do have different comfort levels but as materfamilias points out if we have daughters (or friendly young women) they can help us. (But some are too trend-led.)

Frugal: One day it slips from conservatively current to passé but there is usually some kind of graceful skirt that subs in.

Anonymmous: Yet one still sees a lot of menswear blazers. But on me, like you, no longer.

Demi-pointe: Full disclosure, have closet in my son's room full of things that must purge. But day to day is fine.

Marsha: Whoa! It's not "an arbitrary period." No one told ME my skirts looked dated. It was my call. I have sweaters I bought 20+ years ago and still wear (Sonia Rykiel). To each her own, but one can hang on to a look too long.

I *am* "trying to achieve something": looking like a person who is not a slave to fashion (I detest trends) but who's engaged with the world- and vice versa.

Terri:: Time and again when I shortened a long skirt the proportion was wrong or I lost a detail. I now believe it's best to sell or donate it.

LPC: Maybe it was size or cut of your cardi? V-cardis are quite alluring.

materfamiias: They can transcend aesthetically but still look dated. At that point they are perfect for the young ironic dresser. Like you, many of my clothes are 6, 7, 8 years old but there comes a time when the tried and true no longer works, same as a hairstyle.

lagatta: Good clothes usually stay current and look better longer; secondhand, some look unworn.

Anonymous $ 5:15; That's it exactly, especially if some months pass, you put it on and it's not that you're bored, it's just over.

And I dislike being told what I *must* have for this season!

rb: Yes; but women who say that (and are over 50) are usually not wearing retro, they are wearing (for instance) a denim jumper.

I wish more men paid attention to the cut of their suits, not necessarily in terms of most "in", but fit.

Rubi: Oh, dowdy slut, if only I could draw, what a great cartoon!
Duchesse said…
Pearl: I don't think irony suits grown women, but then I'm bored with heavy irony on anyone. A GF carried one of those jelly Birkins for a season and it was (her words) "a complete mistake".

HB: We are so alike. Those are the skirts I got rid of. I am now saying "a decade is a superb run" and releasing guilt.

Murphy: There is quality of "being of the times"- not cutting edge, not trendy, but current, that is important once we pass 50, no matter how much 'tude we muster. Confidence is necessary but not sufficient.

lagatta: HRH is dressing better now than ever. She was dressed beyond her age but has grown into her attire. And the jewels!

All: The danger of sticking with your "favourites" is that at 50+ (and certainly by 70) this will not be read as ironic, you get the "cute senior" label. Arrgh!
Duchesse said…
materfamilias: Many thanks for your kind attention. Was in Montreal- buying condo! Occupation June 1- very tiny compared to our house, quite the change.
Oh, I know where la Duchesse et le Duc are moving and while of course discretion is the soul of everything, I will say that it is a tall aerie of old grey stone, and in that sense very fitting into the Parisienne fantasy - with an Italian touch. Are we channelling Maria de Medecis - or Carla Bruni?
materfamilias said…
I'm relieved to hear you're well -- how exciting (and how nervous-making as well, of course). We're surprised how comfy we can be in our less-than-500 city condo, but of course we're mainly camping out there while your place will be home and we don't try to host o/n guests there (excepting Nola) and we crowd around the barely-six-seat Ikea table for big family dinners whereas you'll obv. want more gracious living in a full-time home . You're organized, though, and wise about prioritizing, and I suspect you'll make the adjustment with aplomb. Congratulations!
Duchesse said…
Anon@6:18: The Amanda Wakeley Net-a-porter link is fixed. Thanks!

All: Links may not be current by the time you read this post; items on online vendors' sites come and go by the day.
RoseAG said…
That rose-silk "dress" is lovely, but I can't help but think of a picture I just saw of Hugh Hefner, in his satin bathrobe/smoking jacket, along side some busty young thing he's got on his arm.

I supposed once it's faded into the out-of-style category you can don it to get the newspaper off the front walk.

I think an easy expiration date measure is if it's a major wardrobe item -skirt,pants,jacket- and more than 5 years old, it's suspect.
Duchesse said…
RoseAG: Catherine Deneuve wore a nearly identical dress here, at the Film Festival premiere. It suited her mature, not thin body beautifully.

I once read a great piece of advice for tourists visiting Paris: dress in neutrals, nothing over 2 years old, and no running shoes. (Applied to any sex and age, and you can build from there.)

I hope to get 5 years, 6-7 is great and have a couple 20+ year old cashmere turtlenecks that look good, if not au courant.
Maggie said…
Duchesse, you struck a nerve here for sure. Being a tailor of sorts, I always had to pause and think before cutting into that $100 yard of cloth. Would it stand the test of time and flatter for more than one season? Trends would only slightly influence the choice in a much watered down way. Fit and color were the most important elements.
Interestingly enough, many of the posters seem to feel that youth can pull off most anything. Youth does have its own beauty, but I knew some dowdy teenagers back in the day. Myself, I lean more towards good posture, a trim figure and to quote Edith Head, "a wide set of shoulders".
And aren't there those that can pull off that navy blazer, cream gabardine trousers and a silk blouse with panache? Add some aligator pumps and a hermes scarf...dowdy? I've been looking lately to Lauren Hutton and Ali MacGraw for some inspiration. Stylish but neither dowdy nor trendy.
Duchesse said…
Maggie: Thanks for your refined tailor's comment about fit and colour.

Ali and Lauren are in 2-4% of the female population in their age bracket, exemplars of maintenance (and probably intervention).

We boomers think we'll be climbing Everest and brushing our thick locks on the summit at 80. Good, if that keeps us active. And IMO not likely for most.

So, the question is how to feel and look as energetic as we can, whether we have hip replacements, bone loss or simply cannot remember where we put our lipstick.
Mardel said…
OH my, I've been struggling with this point both because of my own mixed reactions to the post even though I have been somewhat going through this lately. Of course you know this from my own post on a long coat, which is only about 5 years old, where I wondered if it was dowdy or dated. Not that it was a popular silhouette the year it was fresh for that matter.

I think your rules are good, and even for those who don't care about fashion, there is a point where you have to be true to yourself but also adapt to the world or you look like some modern version of the "crazy lady in the old house". And none of us, no matter how much we pay lip service to the "I don't care" mantra, wants to disappear into the background or feel irrelevant.

I'm still trying to find that sweet spot, mixing the semi-old with the new, trying to find and wear what looks good now and wear it as much as possible. We all change, bodies, the world, our perceptions of our place in it. I think it is the idea that anything is timeless that is dated and dowdy.

I used to use what was in Bergdorf's as my yardstick as I was in NY a lot, but recently I have been out of touch with the world except through magazines and blogs and I find it is much more difficult to edit. That and even though I am near NYC, the styles here run several years behind, so I can see that the interpretation might vary according to locale. There are things that are just apart, too unusual, but they must fit the style of the wearer. And I am increasingly bored with irony in dress; it only works on the very very young, and then I suspect most people don't get it anyway so it requires a rather thick skin.

The trick seems to be that we each have trouble finding that line, it sneaks up on us and catches us by surprise. But I agree that when you feel it, it is time for a change. Being involved and in touch with the world requires more than just keeping up with the news
Duchesse said…
Mardel: You can see this topic concerns women. Bergdorf's is not my only yardstick, but b/c of their blend of classic and edgy, a good comparator. Quailty is not an absolute indicator. I recently gsold several Hermes jackets that were dated (but apparently wanted by someone!)

One of my friends had a most elegant, stylish father. Harry used to say, "The problem with older people is that they do not buy new- looking clothes". Now, at 62, I am older, or approaching that, and think of him often. New-looking is of course different from trendy.

Since I lived for many years with the locked-down irony teens affect (though they were deeply sweet at the core) I'm over admiring irony in clothing.
diverchic said…
My 88 year old elegant mother lives in fear of looking "old". I see women in our village who buy new old clothes almost as if they feel they are supposed to be dull as they age. Mum wears a number of favourite outdated items- blouses that are too big, mainly - but she does it with such flair and perfect grooming that she always looks fabulous. It is the giving up that is so boring. She hasn't given up.
Duchesse said…
diverchic: Your love for your Mom is so evident and you can see where you got your beauty.

Maybe a new blouse for her next birthday?

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