Pondering elder style: Lessons from Queen Elizabeth

I recently saw this photo of Queen Elizabeth at last spring's Royal Windsor Horse Show, and thought, "When I am her age, I want to dress like that." She looks smart, comfortable, relaxed. (You cannot quite see, but she is wearing pearls.)

Seems to me that women my age are obsessed about not looking old, but I am beginning to be obsessed with how I will look, old. But then, I've always thought ahead. In my tweens, I couldn't wait to grow up and wear a black lace cocktail dress. Now, I'm not so eager to race through my life, but I do think about what elder attire could be.

Not for me, the lamé leggings and "creative" jacket. I'm going "cas" like the Queen: matlassé jacket, cashmere cardi and tweed skirt, or possibly straight-legged trousers. I'm not alone; Agyness Deyn has said Queen Elizabeth is her fashion inspiration; shown, Deyn on the inaugural cover of Love magazine (2009).

The Queen is known for colour; she has long known that luminous hues draw the eye in a crowd.

When it's time to replace the Eric Bompard cardis I habitually wear, I'll remember how colour revivifys and adds interest. 

My long-loved black won't be so appealing in the next decade, and I'm not referring to the traditional connotation of mourning. Black doesn't ennoble the elder woman as much as rich grey, plum, navy or camel.  

Queen Elizabeth is known for Hermès carrés worn as headscarves, an effect I have not yet essayed. Certainly, I am keeping my stack. Though some fashionistas will not touch them, I am certain the glowing colours and prints will lift me, especially when worn with a smile as twinkly as Her Majesty's.

I'm developing interest in subtle, colour-flecked tweeds, such as a navy and copper tweed jacket from Brora. 

I think too, of my godmother. When she was the Queen's age, she received me in an ecru shirt, fresia pink cashmere v-neck, Donegal tweed fine wool slacks and a strand of big Mikimoto pearls. I always adored her style, and she will be another of my beacons now.

So, I'm going for more colour (even if only navy instead of black), more quality (even if not bespoke, like Her Majesty's), and more longevity, via relatively classic styles, for example, my coat from Dalmad Marine.  

In July I turn 67, rounding the corner toward 70, which especially matters when I make a major purchase. A new coat, for example, should last into that decade. Of waterproof wool (similar to loden cloth), durable yet supple, this fall topper is a maritime style that suits life in this northern island-city.   

Strangely, the fear of being dowdy has receded. I'm reaching the age when I can, with quiet pleasure, wear the sort of clothes I always liked best.  



I love this. Absolutely. Every word. I've always loved the Queen for her staunch adherence to her preferences; you and I are going to be twins if we both follow our hearts with these kinds of choices!
Anonymous said…
Bravo! As with Janice, I loved every single word you wrote. I'm just a few years younger than you and it totally resonated with me.
Scotti Vaccaro said…
I am absolutely with you. Lately, I have been trying to find a few things for an upcoming trip to Paris. How disconcerting to dig through racks of Britney-esque and Madonna-esque items to try to locate one quietly dignified item. And this, in a major high-end department store.
Madame Là-bas said…
I really liked the Queen's casual look when I saw it earlier this month. She looked pretty and like she was enjoying herself. Colour definitely is uplifting as we age. I found that "going natural" with grey curls gave me a better idea of the older me. The British and Irish clothing manufacturers have the cuts and colours of clothing that will "stand the test of time."
Swissy said…
It was you, Duchesse, who encouraged me to bring out the "retired' vintage tweed jackets, add more color and... go! I really agree with this post, especially the part about wearing what you've always loved, no matter the fashionistas.
materfamilias said…
Yes. More and more, I begin to think about this. I found a switch was flicked at 60 that's shifting all kinds of perspectives. . .
Anonymous said…

This post prompted me to reply. I am a regular reader of your blog but to date, the only one I reply to is Vivienne Files. However, I couldn't resist today. I think you are right on, lovely colour and a uniform of sorts. My mother is 99 and has a consistent uniform. Her bright white hair worn like Karl Lagerfeld, a belted man's shirt ( either from her long deceased husband or discards from my husband) with collar up, slim same colored pants(made by me), a simple bangle and ballet flats. Plus Iris Apfel glasses. That is my plan if I am so lucky to live so long.

Deb from Vancouver
LPC said…
I adore this post. Love it with all my heart. I think the Queen herself is getting happier, more relaxed, more at home in her skin. What a role model she makes. I don't think I'll go Queenly, maybe more Louise Nevelson,, but then I dressed kind of like Elizabeth when I was 40;). In spirit, however, and appropriate waterproof footwear, absolutely.
bomm said…
What would you think about comparing French "elder style" to the British country house look the Queen wears? I love the notion of a coherent style appropriate for one's latter years, and in fact used to buy my clothes with the idea that I'd still be able tomwear them in my eighties. Alas, my figure changed so need a new concept. I do think that a certain above-the-fray, we've-been-here-forever, frumpiness is part of the claim of the British country house look, which isn't for me. But neither is the extreme colorfulness of "advanced style." Would love to see examples of older women whose style is easy but chic. (Deb from Vancouver's mother sounds just that!)
I love this post!
You will be a willowy version of HRH...she is my height and we are both very ample in the balcony so the cardigans do come across a wee bit mumsy. Nevertheless she has great style and seems to be having a lot of fun theses days...
My wardrobe now sports two Barbour pieces...very English Country. A jacket and a gilet....add the Hermes scarves and pearls and I can be there! Not sure I can pull off the head scarf yet...but who knows in a few years it might change.
Would like to see your Hermes collection...if you care to share.
bomm said…
Hostess -- you'll need aged wellies, too, no?
Unknown said…
What a wonderful post! I am in my mid-70s, and still enjoy nice clothes and the IDEA of good clothes! I not only think HRH dresses perfectly and looks like she is enjoying her life, but I think she is besotted by her beloved Kate, who dresses with a wonderful style, perfectly fitted, colorful, and fresh look each time we see her! If only more young people would "get it" that they don't have to look like they are wearing rags or hooker clothes. While HRH and Kate wear the finest quality, it is the color and style that reign supreme.
I not only enjoyed this post but all the wonderful responses of your readers, dear Duchesse.
Duchesse said…
Jsnice: When I was in my late 40s, I bought a kilt and that was •really• a mistake; it was too short, too bright. Now I see I could have a skirt with kilt features, but a solid shade, and long enough... it is in the details.

LmC: I've been thinking about this for a good while, as materfamilias says, it seems to come on in the 60s.

Scotti Vaccaro: It seems what was once the Junior's dept has taken over every area of those stores.

Mme: The sweet spot is the intersection of those fabrics with at least a smidge of style. Since you are in Canada I can say, I find ça va de soie are doing this marvelously. So far they haven't an e-shopping site.

Swissy: And- did you ever think the hip accessory of the summer would be classic Birkenstocks? Sometimes the fashionistas fall hard for something formerly overlooked.

materfamilias: If you go way back in your blog you may find that you, like me, have gradually shifted. Blogs are fascinating documents of us growing older, when you have been writing as long as we have.

Deb: Thank you so much for commenting; as you can see, your mother's uniform is of great interest! And it sounds wonderful. So kind of you to sew for her.

Reminds me of a 90-someting NYC painter who had adopted a similar uniform: black yoga pants, white men's shirt (from discount stores), Converses, stack of silver bracelets. Only that, for everything. I might go the yoga pant route too, if I get that far.

LPC: A caftan, turban, enormous hoops and lashings of kohl? I can't wait to see that!

bomm: I see it more as a distinction between country (or sporting event) look than French vs English. I was recently at the races at Auteuil. The owners and their friends were mostly wearing that conservative style, plenty of tweeds and tailoring. (Though the woman in the figure-hugging off-whited skirted suit and five-inch tomato-red patent stilettos was definitely French.) The French "BCBG" types have always liked to wear English and Scottish clothes; they appreciate quality.

hostess: The head scarf is a kind of frontier, I think, though far less conservative when tied behind the heck, like Audrey Hepburn.

Kirsten: I have conflicted feelings about Kate's personal style, and appreciated your post because it made me think more about it. She occasionally wears mid-priced dresses, and the same dress more than once, which is a good example. It's a daunting thing to be on continual display, and she seems to have abundant composure.

Marilyn said…
YES to keeping our dignity as older women. Looking happy, relaxed, and pretty is a uniform I'll enthusiastically embrace for the last decades of my life. Well done, Duchesse, for showing us an alternative path to one that the media bombards us with on a daily basis. I find it ironic, though, that it's easier to relate to HRH than to an aging celebrity like Helen Mirren or Diane Keaton. The Queen seems more real, the others more fantasy.
Susan said…
Wonderful post. So many people say, "I don't want to look matronly. " Guess what? I AM a matron. You give permission (which we did not need to look like who we are.

I wear way too much black. You have persuaded me me to start looking for color--even if it is navy--like you say.
Duchesse said…
Marilyn: The camera loves Mirren and Keaton, with their bones and long necks. Though the Queen was born into enormous privilege and has always been what my father would call "a fine-looking woman", she did not get that particular genetic lottery of a certain kind of beauty. Maybe that's the basis for the sense of reality, even when she is wearing historic jewels.

Susan: Many elegant older women here wear black, but leavened with colour via a scarf (which we need so much of the year here) or necklace. I think "Up near the face, up near the face" will be my mantra.
Anonymous said…
I think Queen Elixabeth has evolved the perfect style for the life she lives.
On a related topic, a minor bugbear of mine is when I read that "these days as we age, we don't have to look like our mothers did". What do they mean by that? My mother, aunts and grandmothers were all stylish throughout their lives and I will be very pleased if I can emulate them.
the gold digger said…
"I don't want to look matronly. "

I do not want to look frumpy. I (mostly) don't mind looking my age, but I don't want to look like I don't have a clue about style.
Duchesse said…
Lilibet: (Is your name a coincidence?. I think that too... if I could only look as good as my mother, and many of her friends.

The Gold Digger: One of the dictionary definitions (source: Dictionary.com) of "matronly" is "of, characteristic of, or suitable for a matron; staid and dignified in a manner associated with a middle-aged, usually plump, woman."

"Frumpy" is defined by the same source as "(of a woman, clothes, etc) dowdy, drab, or unattractive".

One can be any age and be frumpy, and one can be matronly but not frumpy. The there's "dowdy", and who was the unfortunate Ms Dowd, anyway?

Sisty said…
Well, since I'm Irish, it pains me to say that I like anything at all about QE2, but of course I agree with you 100%. And I remember learning a while back that she had simplified things to one basic dress pattern from which all of her dresses were made, in different fabrics. How cool is that?

Just the other day I was trying on a pair of pants and wondering whether they made my ass look fat, and I had to snap myself out of it: a) at 58, my ass IS fat (or fatter, anyway); and b) you shouldn't be looking at it anyway, and I shouldn't care what you think.

The excellent Genevieve Darriaux notes that the Brits are unequalled on knits and woolens. How about a matching (or coordinating) sweater and skirt to bridge the gap between British tweeds and French tailoring?

The Hermes scarf works only if your hair has some height to it -- i.e., a "hairdo" like QE2 has. On flat, natural hair it's not a good look. Who knows -- maybe in a few years I'll be ready for a "hairdo" too!
Duchesse said…
Sisty: My sons learned, since maybe preteen on, to have only ONE response to a certain question: "Yes, your ass looks ENORMOUS in that!" I was thinking of Mme Dariaux when I responded to bomm- nearly 50 years after she wrote her book, my French friends still admire British fabrics and tailoring (of high quality) and borrow that look often.

re whether you need high hair to wear a headscarf, see this classic Sartorialist shot:
LauraH said…
Post and comments have been so interesting to read and think about. At 61, with your help and that of others, I'm now wearing a uniform that should carry me a long way into the future. Lots of colour too, which I'm feeling more confident about using. I'n not trying to look young, but I would like to look modern.

Wonder what Helen Mirren wears in private life? Btw her autobiography is a good read if you're an admirer.
Jill Ann said…
I'm a bit younger than you, Duchesse (58) so maybe I'm more concerned about not looking matronly? Although I think we all agree about not looking frumpy. I do love the Queen, but not sure I want to dress like her. (Love her Hermes, though). I have no fear of color, which is good because I am a White Girl (pretty pale and my hair is probably mostly grey or white, but I color it light brown/blond). I can look really blah without some color in my clothes.

I look at pictures of my mother back in her younger years, and LOVE the styles. Wish people still dressed like that (the 40s and 50s), except for the comfort factor I guess! As I age, I will definitely skew more toward the Queen rather than Iris Apfel. I love beautiful fabrics, but prefer the more understated styles. I volunteer at Dress for Success, and we have an interesting group of older volunteers, in their 60s and 70s: one does a Diane Keaton style, complete with round glasses, and another does strictly neutrals with bold jewelry. Yet another, in her mid to late 70s (I'm guessing) still works part time at Anthropologie, so she dresses with that vibe. They are inspiring for me to up my game!
Anonymous said…
Yes, the name is a coincidence. It is not a reference to The Queen, it's a variation of our cats name, Lily.
It seems to me that simplifying our clothing choices is a natural consequence of getting older. We've had the time to try lots of variations, to refine likes and dislikes. We also tend to be more confident and have less need to conform, which conveys it's own sense of style whatever we wear.
I know it's not the dictionary definition, but to me the word dowdy means defeated looking. I doubt you will ever be that!
Anonymous said…
In the photo you posted of the Queen, I think her true self is shining through. That's what I hope for myself, that I can still exhibit my personality and I'll be able to find those clothing articles that will allow me to do so. Theresa
Anonymous said…
I saw a lady in the supermarket queue today, grey hair neatly coiffed similar to HRH, cream silk blouse which was pressed and collar carefully laid out over the soft grey cardigan, grey tweed skirt, comfortable but elegantly plain black shoes, a subtle string of pearls, a demeanour of quiet dignity. I was rather aghast that the over chatty supermarket assistant asked the lady's age but she graciously obliged and stated that she was 98. What impressed me even more than her thoughtfully considered, clean, elegant ensemble was her air of grace, calm, dignity and half concealed wry humour. It immediately brought to mind the Guardian's very recent obituary of Marguerite Patten (born 1915) who was described therein as having "the aura of a more courteous era...she was genteel, without any of the negative associations of that word..."
We are more than our clothes, although one one hopes that our sartorial choices support our expression of our authentic self, and that inner self is in my opinion our greatest adornment as we age. What first attracted my gaze to the lady in the queue today was her twinkle, her quiet yet commanding, graceful, patient, good humoured presence. I wanted to walk up to her and ask her about herself, she seemed to full of Life Well & Interestingly Lived, but being English, of course I didn't!
Susan said…
I've enjoyed the comments here. And I do applaud the idea of dressing in such a way as to express our authentic self.
Unknown said…
Our Queen is a great one for tradition and duty and I admire her for it. I also love the colours she wears. Having said that she reminds me a tad of the 50s and early 60s possibly not a look I personally want to emulate, I would probably then look a bit like my mother, who was extremely elegant and chic. Wonder what she would be wearing now if she was still alive, would she have given a nod to fashion? Anyway I intend to look as classic and up to date as I possibly can with an appropriate adaptation to the trends in some way. Who knows it will depend on many things the primary one being health and motivation. I shall be 65 this July.
I really like the lessons la Duchesse draws even for those of us with an utterly different style (not to mention an utterly different budget. Remember that the extremely bright colours are for the Queen to be seen in a crowd, on official occasions - she is short, after all. The pictures of her in her private life show a more traditional upper-class British sense of "proper" casual wear, and colours.

One thing that I recall is that she never seems to have coloured her hair, not only now that it is a nice silver, but even when it was a salt-and-pepper many would have seen as "dull".
Duchesse said…
Josephine: I'm not suggesting we go into dresses with matching coats and hats- that's her "appearance wear", a kind of ritual attire. But the photo in casual wear resonated with me, especially when women are offered such "juniory" clothes.

lagatta: Good point; she has aged as herself, and I also noticed her posture is still very good.
Mardel said…
Absolutely adore this post! I'll be 57 in July, so younger, and perhaps the 60 mark will find me showing new colors, but this year in particular I've found myself narrowing down and simplifying, thinking about more about what suits me and my sense of self going forward than what is fashionable. It is as if I no longer care about what others think I should wear, and just want to be comfortable in my skin, and chose things I love, just because I love them and am comfortable. I am sure this process will continue to evolve.
Susan B said…
I'm not sure I'll ever get back to that kind of traditionally classic style, (put me in tweed and I look more like Lord Grantham than Lady Mary) but can see myself wearing more color, bolder jewelry and my silk scarves again. We saw "The Audience" with Kristin Scott Thomas while in London, and I was so impressed with how they captured The Queen's style through the decades, and how deftly the costume changes (many, and often onstage) were handled.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: The colours you've been choosing for your knitting projects are just gorgeous!

Pseu: Lord Grantham, LOL! Maybe it's cultural; I can't imaging HRH in Eileen Fisher, either.

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