What to wear when you retire?

Thanks to Lisa of Privilege, Deja Pseu of Une femme d'un certain age and materfamilas of materfamilias writes for their insightful posts about identity, and in some posts, the intersection of wardrobe choice and identity.

One of Pseu's commenters, Carolyn from Oregon, wrote:
"... Though not a fashionista, in my work years I made the effort to put a look together, and focused my efforts and dollars on my work wardrobe, dressing very practically and casually off the job. That off the job wardrobe now leaves me feeling a bit dowdy and frumpy. I need a style for more casual, home-based living."

I too am mostly-retired, free from the requisites of a work wardrobe. Over the past two years, friends and I have discovered several principles. 

1. Get 'dressed'

The French word sortable does not exactly translate, but it means, roughly, that you are dressed to go out, not dressed up, but dressed. You can spend all day in sweats and an old t-shirt, but unless you're gardening, your attire will not add to your sense of vitality.  

"Why spend the money? I'm only wearing this around the house" is the first stop on the road to Frumpville. You know that saying "Work like you don't need the money, love like your heart has never been broken, dance like no one is watching?" Add "Dress like your house is somewhere special."

If you have justified good clothes because they were for work, and now you're not sure you "deserve" them, make yourself a nice restorative margarita and sip slowly till your attitude turns round.
Ooh la la!
If you still need to justify buying decent clothes, consider dressing nicely–not expensively, but with attention–as a small way of contributing to the community. It's like a windowbox I saw once in Paris, positioned so the residents of the apartment who installed it could not see it, but if a passer-by glanced that way, the flowers would delight the eye.

If you retired with a plump pension or simply have the dosh, I'd spring for this Queen of Cashmere long cardi with your monogram on the shoulder.  

2. You get to break the rules if you want

Yes, you can!
Purple tights? Shoulder-duster earrings? A little cleavage in your cami? You no longer have to follow a dress code. Have some fun! Put on your clanking charm bracelet and know you are not disturbing your colleagues.

There's a place for this
Some retirees trip out and dress in nothing but golf wear, but most of us get over it. If you were not a scarf woman for forty years, you will not become one now, so watch out for buying things because you think your style "should" change. Marian bought many pairs of shorts, which connoted lighthearted leisure–and now realizes she looks far better in pants.

3. The role changes, yet vestiges remain

Retired is you minus the symbolic attire. Donate the role-signifiers you had to wear, like the offend-no-one business suits I call Corporate Drag or "happy shiny teacher" sweaters (a term coined by Linda, a kindergarten teacher). 

Relaxed yet stylish
Your image is a palimpsest; make room for the new writing on your slate. Your taste is the pen you've held for decades. I now dress like I'm going to a decent restaurant; it's a standard that works. I got rid of many woven-fabric shirts and replaced them with less-formal knits that have some personality, like this Episode knit tunic.

Corollary: You are going to run into people who remember you in your old role. You no longer have to dress for that role, but you don't want to look like you don't care anymore, either. Attend to your grooming as if you were promoted, not retired. You finally have time to pumice your heels or use cuticle cream daily.

4. You need fewer clothes, but they need to be versatile and (mostly) washable. 

The workplace is a thinly-veiled fashion show, especially if you work with a lot of women. Now, if you want to wear your favourite skirt four days in a row, you can. Since you are not earning money, drycleaning is going to seem like a big expense, so search for washable but sharp pieces that reach the 'smart casual' level.

On and off the slope

Bogner's Ganna shirt, shown, the kind of chic sporty that's not "gym".

Washable cotton skirt
This Talbot's cotton skirt, in camel or black, $79, is washable, transitions into winter with tights and a sweater, and is definitely not you-caught-me-on-a-bad-day.
Barbour striped jacket
I'd like to run into a former colleague while wearing Barbour's striped jacket, and it would be my secret that I got it deeply on sale! 

If you'd like to see more ideas, Lisa at Privilege has a terrific post showing some cool Polyvores. It's titled "9 Ways Not to Look Like a Slob Even If You Don't Dress for the Office These Days".

5. Keep wearing what you love and adapt it

Julia's cotton pant suit
Some retirees don't dress much differently, they just tweak their favourites.

Julie wears mostly pant suits, same as when she was a sales manager, with fine cotton tees. (Shown, Talbot's cross-dyed chambray pantsuit.) She shortened the hems for flats, forsaking heels for good.

Mar's Thai silver belt
Marilyn, retired from IT consulting, has kept her wardrobe of soft Eileen Fisher separates, and now accessorizes with the exotic jewelry she's collected on trips to Asia, which she thought was "too much" for some of her clients.

She got a new hairstyle and colour that did not depend on costly high-and-lowlights and dumped the briefcase, but has kept 75% of her working wardrobe. 

Barb's tweed hacking jacket
Barb swapped tailored business pants for dark-wash denim but kept the cotton shirts she does not mind ironing, and adds her favourite tweed jackets (bought on trips to the UK and Ireland, the one shown is by J. Crew) or cashmere tees.

Liz' sailor shirt
Liz, who worked in the "very business casual" world of publishing, is a yoga pant devotee, and finds that a top with a graceful boat or vee neckline makes the difference between dash and drab. Liz collects longer-cut styles like this LL Bean French sailor's shirt and adds her pair of jade studs.

I've seen varied responses to retirement among my cohort, from delight to dread. When you retire, whatever your mood, you still have the task of determining what face you want to present to the world. 

You will feel best if that face is content, and wearing what pleases you enhances that contentment.


Susan B said…
*Excellent* post Duchesse! I'm linking to this one today. I love the concept of "dressing like home is someplace special."
Poppy Buxom said…
Great post! I agree with une femme. I'm not retired, but I'm a housewife, and I love the idea of dressing for working at home. (Even if my work is folding laundry, figuring out what to cook for dinner, and calling the plumber.)
frugalscholar said…
I dress the same all the time now--generally skinny pants, long tee, jacket or cardigan, flats. i don't see changing once I retire (never, I hope!)

It's important to look like you tried--lipstick helps too.
emma said…
I love this post! And if you have to dash out to pick up something, you'll be treated better by sales staff if you are pulled together...
Mary said…
Loved your post! I've been retired from corporate life for several years; I now work from my home office. I donated and gave away all my suits, sweater sets, handbags, etc. How liberating. My sister, who is an image consultant, worked with me to develop my true style. After 30 years in the corporate world, it was hard to change but now comfortable, chic and approachable (her mantra) is the order of the day.
Excellent advice here, Duchesse. I can easily adapt it to the casual workplace where suits and pumps are not required. I love the Talbot's skirt, and would wear it for work and weekends.

Frugal scholar: you are so right about the lips!
ilona said…
Thanks for putting it so well. A very timely post as I try to sort through an evolution of my own.
Anonymous said…
What a fantastic blog you have here, every post is fused with intelligence and humour, I'm three years off 50 but signing up as a follower!
Jean S said…
This is terrific! You nailed it! And I love the different approaches you present.
Mardel said…
Fabulous post. I love the idea of "dressing like home is someplace special" and have basically followed that idea with the exception of a few years where I was the primary caregiver and was mostly just lost. I'm still exploring as my life keeps changing, with more explorations ahead as I find a new place. But I know the basics of my style now, and although I went a little more artsy for a while, I am back to mixing those pieces with classic tailored pieces or interesting jewelry, and I suppose some variation of that theme will continue.

I have become quite fond of colored tights in the winter with basic dresses, or tailored basics with an interesting top or sweater or jewelry. My own standard is that I should be able to pop in for an impromptu lunch at one of the restaurants of the CIA.
SewingLibrarian said…
This post speaks to me as a part-time worker and a part-time stay-at-home-mom. I think it's important to dress well but comfortably when one is around small children. Washability is definitely a factor.
LPC said…
Adding my voice to the chorus. Great post. Love the examples of how different women make the transition in different ways, adhering to the overarching principles. My favorite quote, however, is this: "Attend to your grooming as if you were promoted, not retired." That's exactly how it feels. One now has time for excellence in the smaller details. It's a lot of fun, in my opinion.

Thank you for the mention, but thank you even more for pulling this all together so well.
"Work like you don't need the money, love like your heart has never been broken, dance like no one is watching?" Add "Dress like your house is somewhere special."

This post is sheer brilliance!
Duchesse said…
une femme: We're all thinking abut this and your post today is a great linkfest.

Poppy: That *is* work!

FrugalScholar: You are bang on about the lipstick!

emma: Yes, I've found that in my experience. One of them said to me awhile ago "Where is that giant bag you always had on your shoulder?" (She mean a big, boxy briefcase.)

Mary; I found one challenge was not to keep buying like I did in my peak working years. Yes, it's liberating to have less.

Patti: Be sure to check the "Privilege" link too, and thanks.

ilona: Would love to hear what you discover, on this post or others.

Bourbon&Pearls; You belong here if for nothing other than your name :)
Three years is not too early to start thinking , as you buy new clothes or prune your current wardrobe.

Jean S: Thanks, and thanks as well to the friends, real life and blog-world, who gave me the inspiration.

Mardel: That "going a little artsy for awile" is another typical road we take when we *can* wear things that were not suitable for the workplace. Forays are an excellent way to explore one's new life.

SewingLibrarian: I think it's also very important to dress with some thought while immersed in childcare. Washable is essential, as I learned when I once wore a suede skirt and ended up with ten little peanut butter fingers imprinted on it for good.

LPC: It is most gratifying to collaborate this way with you and others. Thanks!

hostess: Blushing!
laurieann said…
Very inspiring post. Like many I agree that 'dressing like home is someplace special' makes me feel better throughout the day. It also enables me to leave to do errands at a moments notice without having to do more than throw on a sweater or jacket if the weather requires.

Something else that has helped me is the newer trend of hemming straight legged slacks to the ankle which allows for wearing flats or heals. At home I can wear flats to scoot around then slip them off and add a small heel to go out if I choose.

Again thank you for the thoughtful fashion guidance.
Anonymous said…
Thanks, Duchesse, for putting it all so well, as usual.

Increasingly annoyed by my own frumpiness, I recently had to face the fact that 20 extra pounds were at the root. I realized that I simply need less food now than I once did, and cut calories accordingly, lost 12 pounds pretty quickly, and voila--a world of slim jeans and pretty dresses opened up. I'd been so tired of dressing-to-disguise, rather than to suit myself, that it was a real revelation to have fun with clothes again. And all the pulling-together and polishing seemed much easier after that.

Duchesse said…
laurieann: That's true for slim pants and an excellent point.

C.: Losing weight does wonders for the eye :) Have fun in your new pretty things.

It is a different world in smaller sizes, but should not be so. I am annoyed by designers who make designs in good fabric for their misses line and in cheaper fabric for their womens line.
Susan said…
I haven't retired because I have been at home for years (since my early 30s), but have always made the effort to dress, including my hair and makeup first thing every morning. Personally, I would never be able to stay home not looking my best. It would be depressing.

I do sometimes forget that I don't need that many clothing choices and overload. I'm working on that. And yes to the idea of versatility--that is essential.

It would help if my weight would stay the same, but I am working on that also.

Great post and thank you.
Duchesse said…
Susan: This post was not written with SAHMs in mind, but I have heard some say they too address the issue of "why bother, no one sees me?" and guilt about spending money on ones' self when there are other demands. But as the old saying goes "Ain't mama happy, ain't nobody happy."
Susan Tiner said…
What a wonderful post! I l am taking the slow road, making things by hand, but did buy some basic pieces so that I have complete outfits to wear when I go out. At home, I'm still wearing Land's End capris and Chico's tees but am making new tops and can't wait to try a Vogue pattern that will help me replace the capris with something a little more chic.

Speaking of tops, I want to make V8669 next with short sleeve (http://bit.ly/roOdbV) but I'm wondering if the reason that option isn't pictured (I'd had to improvise) is that anything shorter than 3/4 isn't as stylish with that neckline? I was thinking shortening the sleeves to just above the elbow. Like my Chico's tees.

I would love your opinion if you have a chance to look at the pattern :-)
Susan Tiner said…
Wow. Sorry about all of those typos. I was typing way too fast!
Duchesse said…
Susan Tuner: What a graceful pattern! (Would love to have this in many colours!) Prefer the 3/4 sleeve (my favourite length) and the sleeveless. I would find a just-above-elbow length unbalances the design. Also, an exposed elbow is not my best feature, but yours might be charming.

That just-above elbow sleeve length is usually seen in casual short-sleeve shirts and this is a whole different effect.

Never mind the typos!
Susan Tiner said…
That's what I was thinking! It's funny because I tried on a simple black tee with even higher sleeves and a little bit higher neckline -- no cowl just smooth -- and Martin said it looked "cleaner" than my Chico's tee with the just-above-elbow sleeves. They're both made of ribbed interlock cotton, so it's not the fabric, it's the cut.

The just-above-elbow sleeves must look more casual because of the balance. Ok. I'm going to make it in both 3/4 and sleeveless -- sleeveless I can wear with a cardigan and take it off if it gets hot. 3/4 is too uncomfortable on hot days but is perfect for Fall/Winter.

Thank you!
Susan Tiner said…
By the way, if you like V8669 you might also like V8634. I just finished making one -- here's a pic:


I made it out of silk jersey -- got the fabric idea from one of your posts. I think you said something about it being wonderful and it is!

So now I'm spoiled and don't want to wear anything but soft silks :-)
Susan B said…
Duchesse, I neglected earlier to thank you for the link. Thank you!
Patty said…
Could not agree more! My mom, who is 93 and still dresses everyday, always says you never know who is going to stop by and ask you to lunch.
Duchesse said…
Susan Tiner: I like it very much! And I see you have thin arms so the shorter sleeve might work. I still like the 3/4 best. You look wonderful in that vibrant pink!
Duchesse said…
une femme: It is I who thank you! Oh no, have we become the blogging Chip n' Dale?

Patty: Just before I read your ocmment, the apt. buzzer rang and an old friend of Le Duc's (35 years ago) turned up: "I heard you had moved here!" So, your mum is right!
Unknown said…
I love this post! Eventhough I am not retired yet, I am close and the wardrobe is changing. Corporate dressing is now gone, and casual dressing without looking schlumpy can be tricky! But I love your advice to keep our enthusiasm for looking good~
materfamilias said…
Suspect my dress won't change too much when I retire, although I will probably miss having an audience as an excuse for some of the more, let's say, expansive piece in my wardrobe. I could easily get away with a jeans, white T, blazer or cashmere cardi uniform, as I'm discovering this research leave, but I like a bit more fun/performance in my dress than the grocery store demands. I'm planning to follow your lead and indulge myself . . . that cardigan looks yummy!
Anonymous said…
I am filing this away for that fateful day 2-5 years from now. Thank you for saying to BREAK THE RULES.
Carolyn from Oregon said…
What a fabulous post - my home is someplace very special and I love the idea of dressing to honor it and to fully enjoy it.

Many many thanks!
Duchesse said…
Carolyn from Oregon: If you see my brother (Springfield) say hi! Glad you enjoyed the post.
Anonymous said…
Ditto what hostess of the humble bungalow said.

This is just the sort of post that I needed to see today. You're so right about how to go about creating a "retirement" wardrobe.

Or in my case, "a work-at-home suburbanite who has to go into the city once in awhile and doesn't want to look out-of-touch, but not like she's trying too hard" wardrobe! ;-)

Thanks so much.
Cara Larose said…
There's no so-called "perfect time" to be fashionably-dressed. What's more, being in the best clothes during your retirement years says a lot about your feelings towards life after work. In a sociable place such as a retirement community, retirees can try on the style they've always wanted to try on, or just be comfortable with the dresses that look exquisite on them.
Duchesse said…
Cara Larose; I have observed and in fact heard, that some elders feel quite a bit of pressure re what they wear once they enter a retirement home. It can be kind of like high school. (One woman said to my stylish but trend-averse mother, "I see you are wearing the same dresses you wore last summer".)

Also, I find locating 'the dresses that look exquisite" on them" to be increasingly difficult as one ages. While there are some fit, active women in retirement homes, many women in their seventh and eigth decades have issues of fit because of postural changes, arthritis and limited mobility.

I say this not to disagree with you, but to raise all reader's awareness of the needs of elders.

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