Dressing like a grown-up: Vanessa Friedman's rules

Last October, Vanessa Friedman wrote an article in the New York Times, "How to Dress Like an Adult". In the pre-US election storm of press, I missed it, but in the holiday lull, I read, "...what it means to dress like a grown-up has become ever more complicated. Just because your legs are good enough, your stomach flat enough, your imagination wild enough, your self-image strong enough—does not mean you should."

Friedman's counsel will evoke two responses: One group will think, Good for her. Enough with the ironic, or infantilizing offerings.

The second camp will say, Nobody puts granny in the corner. If I want to wear lamé leggings as bottoms when I visit my gerontologist, that's my right.

She goes on to list three "golden rules of grown-up garb":

1. Do not distract
Friedman  says, "You want people to think about what you say, not what your clothes say."  Why put six dangly charms on the handle of a bag?

When I see a certain contingent of older women in outfits louder than a Daft Punk concert, I wonder what they hope to distract from.  I don't enjoy it, but there's room for everybody.

The refusal of distraction need not equal dull. I find this woman wears a perfect mix of individuality and discretion: the clothes are absolutely classic but the skirt is a stunner:

Photo: Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist

2. Think of your clothes as costume: Friedman says, "Figure out your chosen part, and dress for the part."

I browsed a chic department store with a visiting friend. "I am trying to figure out who I am before I buy any more clothes", she said. The business-casual wardrobe that Mary Pat rolled into retirement had begun to wear out, and she was now choosing from scratch.

At one point she'd thought she'd lose some weight and wear "cute Parasuco jeans", but you know how that ends up. I suggested she try what's worked for me: play a mental movie, or jot down what you're doing in a typical week or two. That's 'your part'.  In other words, observe what you do and you'll see who you are.

Then ask yourself if you have those clothes, or if they go on your shopping list. At this point, if your imagination has stalled or your list does not, in Marie Kondo's useful term, "spark joy", build an idea board and consult stellar blogs such as The Vivienne Files to build your eye.

Also figure out what you want to spend. In an ideal world my closet is filled by Stella McCartney, in real life, Muriel Dombret.

When Mary Pat tried the "mind movie" technique, her life required a three-season dress for a number of upcoming occasions, a "classy cardigan" to replace the work jackets, and deep-blue jeans. Mary Pat knows her palette: reds in the burgundy to raspberry spectrum, navy, grey.

She found a dress by Black Halo, whose collection includes designs by Janie Bryant, the former costume designer for Mad Men. For example, the Jackie O dress mercifully does not end at the upper thigh, and Pacific Blue is gentler than black:

She donated the last remaining business jackets, and bought a longline cardigan, by Pure:

The jeans, after many try-ons, turned out to be Levis 414  relaxed straight legs, with no "cute" details, and cut for a woman's body.

Enabled Assisted by me, and with a gift certificate to spend, she bought a scarf by Front Row Society that works with all the above. She can't wear wool against her skin; this is a viscose/modal blend.

She also realized that the black sneaker-style shoes she bought the instant she didn't have to work sparked only mild depression. She needs wide shoes, and was thrilled to find Rockport's Cobb Hill Genevieve bootie, blissfully walkable, with an extra cushioned insole for arch support, and more contemporary than the sneakers:

3. "Learn to iron."

Women over 50 are permitted an eye-roll here, but Friedman has a subtler point: "Well-kept clothes suggest clothes that are valued, which suggests clothes that have been earned, which suggests independence."

Friedman is addressing young adults, but this pertain to 'young elders', too. Once out of the workplace's scrutiny, we can let our shoeshine fade, our sweaters pill because we haven't bothered to get out that little comb thingy.

It's work to take care of a wardrobe, and even to shop for it, another reason to pare down.

Friedman's article took me back to our sons' early adolescent years, when it seemed impossible to convince them to put on a clean shirt for dinners at a good restaurant or friends' homes. Their reflexive response was,"Doesn't matter".

Nature resolved the problem; when girls started to notice them, they started to care. When one of them borrowed Le Duc's copy of "Dressing The Man" by Alan Flusser, we knew he'd grown out of grunge.

As we age, we can fall into thinking, Nobody Will Notice, or swing to the opposite pole: Dammit, I'm Going to Make Them Notice. The former leads to that whiff of neglect, the latter to a getup and possible attention from street photographers.

Comfortable things that please you, suit your personality and life: you may have figured that out for forty or more years of working life, and now have that task again.

So we too are well-served by Friedman's rules—and if you don't like playing by rules, just change the word to "ideas": three ideas about how to accommodate this stage of life.


LauraH said…
Nice post, I like the combination of philosophical and practical. And I like those booties!

When I retired I didn't quite have my act together and bought some stuff for my fantasy life instead of my real life. That has sorted itself out but I wish I had thought of the movie-of-your-life idea, that is a great tool.

I'm very happy with my winter cashmere and summer linens...although ironing them is not on the cards:-) A few pairs of tights and an athleisure hoodie have found there way into my closet, so practical for going from stretching class to lunch to errands as long as the top provides the necessary coverage. Now I'm thinking of a linen dress for the summer...might be a useful addition. So...enough small changes to keep me interested but not enough to take me off track. As always, you are a big influence and a big help.
Madame Là-bas said…
After 5 years of retirement and of reading The Vivienne Files, my wardrobe consists of key pieces that are worn a lot. My Pacific blue dress gets worn almost every week (different scarves, jewelry or cardigan) to church and Sunday lunch. My sleeveless blue dress goes to Mexico with silver accessories and a light cardigan. Hair colour is now grey and weight is an issue but my wardrobe takes me wherever I want to go. Older women do not need to be invisible or "out there" in their clothing choices. Once you have the "plot" of your daily life in your head, you will find the pieces that you need. I like being a grown-up.
materfamilias said…
I'm getting there -- and that Mental Movie is a surprisingly good exercise; it helped me see clearly how happy I actually am about the way my wardrobe is getting ever closer to matching my current lifestyle. Still room for more culling; not much need for additions. And I agree with both you and Friedman, although like you, I'm fine with others doing what they want. If the "distractions" are truly giving the individual a joy that she doesn't expect or require me to share, if the noisy dressing isn't meant to elicit my attention, why would I care? Sometimes, though, I find it tiring, if there's a sense I'm supposed to applaud. . .
OH, I love that scarf, and the boots are perfect! Your friends are lucky to have you around for your sage advice and unerringly good eye... and thanks for the kind words about The Vivienne Files!
hugs all around,
Another fabulous post Duchesse!
I can visualize this outfit all put together with that gorgeous scarf...
That first skirt is stunning.
I have been wearing skirts more often since I bought warm tights.
Easy dressing in a simple top and a long cardigan with a few accessories.
Tiffany said…
Interesting post. I have finally found a sort of uniform that works for me - trousers or jeans and a silk button-up shirt with flat shoes. The thing is, those silk shirts have to be hand washed and ironed and I actually don't mind. I look casual but not unkempt. It's not exciting, but I feel like myself. I keep my colour palette very stripped back as well - black, white, grey, navy/denim, some soft pink. If I want to spice things up a bit, I wear red lipstick or some (more) bangles.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: That idea came to me after several mistakes, things I loved but did not suit my lifestyle.

Mme: We were kind of brainwashed in our young adulthood to think you had to have lots of different outfits. It takes awhile to break free of that, and enjoy the perfect dress, worn many times.

materfamilias: I like that Friedman called them "distractions", because they are that for me, on myself or when I see others loaded down. Or as the Renata Molho said, "not too many special or fine things on at. once."

Janice: Front Row Society is a terrific brand and not expensive.

hostess: That first skirt, I am willing to bet, is very pricey, but what an effect. I wonder who made it. Reptile prints are really tricky and can look cheap but not hers.

Tiffany: I got deeply into silk shirts for a decade or so; it was not the upkeep (I found pressing silk oddly comforting) but the fact that where I live they are not warm enough, that made me give them up. My favourite was a Western shirt in deep purple with pale pink piping and white pearl snaps. I really like your 'uniform'.
Silk is wonderful - actually heavy silk can be quite warm, and good for layering, but button-up shirts are a minefield if one is a dd cup or more. I have a bit of the same problem with the cardigans. I really love jean jackets as they play that down, but they didn't have the colours I wanted in a size I could wear when you showed your lovely Talbots one, and since then they've only had blue denim (a bit too casual for some of my needs)or pastels, which I never wear. I've bought two black ones, but I'd love one in a deep red or forest green. Keep looking.

I have an aunt who has dressed a bit like those overdecorated Manhattan ladies (with less money) for as long as I've known her. Oh well, it is her thing.

Although the magical Parisienne books and articles could be rife with stereotypes, one key positive was reminding people that they didn't need a huge wardrobe to be presentable or stylish.

Cobb Hill booties are comfy, pretty and not expensive.
susayoun said…
Keep on writing blog. I just love your awareness, thoughtful ideas, and writing style.
Jane said…
Number 1, Do not distract. Oh, I find that so sad. I find myself wondering lately if my layers of bright beads have reached an expiration date. The thing is, my beads make me happy. When you feel good in your clothes you exude confidence and confidence is pretty and dare I say sexy!
Duchesse said…
Jane: I have summarized Friedman, if you read the entire article, you may notice that she is talking about "not having to fiddle with straps, waistbands, decoration or any part of a garment", she does not advocate wearing wearing boring clothing.

Friedman advises against wearing "what anyone n your vicinity will remember as a body part instead of an idea- unless you are a personal trainer." I would guess that colourful beads do not qualify, and hope you wear yours whenever you wish.
Bunny said…
First, my wide feet thank you for the Cobb Hill mention. I am always on the lookout for comfy shoes my years of working on my feet have made difficult to find. Thanks.

Love this post. I get a kick out reading the blogs with the 80 somethings competing for who can wear the most and biggest jewelry. But in reality, the let me know I never want to look like that. I like the attitude, just not the getup. Your example with the animal print skirt is just luscious and perfect. Thanks for the inspo.
Many Cobb Hill shoes, boots and booties come in width. I have a bit of arthritis, and the bumps need my shoes have to be somewhat wide, at least in front. We must remember that the lack of widths is also a problem for people with narrow feet, who can get blisters and other problems from too-wide shoes, and not enough support to walk for hours.

My aunt must be 90-something by now. Her father died at 99 and her mother at 102. She is admirable in many ways; has a special-needs son who is well into middle-age (fortunately he is in a decent living situation). She is at a stage where the getup stuff has become an eccentricity one smiles at, while admiring her chutzpah.

I have the most wonderful friend in Paris who is a great inspiration, in terms of her style (with far less money - she is a retired professor, but for many years a lecturer). She is of Italian-Jewish origin and had to wear the yellow star as a little girl, and her family fled of all places to officially fascist Italy, where they got a "certificate of Aryanity" (eye-rolls). Now she is absolutely intolerant of any form of bigotry, but is also active, involved and interested in the world. And very much an Italo-Parisienne blend of style influences. Very chic in a subtle way...

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