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FASHION : The Midlife Mode : Something About Turning 40 Makes Women Question The Way They Dress

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“I’m too old to wear that.”

The thought creeps into every woman’s consciousness at some point in her life. When a woman decides she has to give up short skirts, skin-tight dresses or high-heel shoes, it is the first symptom of an ailment for which there seems to be no certain cure: the midlife fashion crisis.

Mary Kiernan, 39, a computer sales representative for a Santa Clara-based software company, recalls the day last spring when she went shopping for a pair of cutoff jeans. She used to ask herself whether her legs were long enough, or thin enough, for shorts. This time, the question was: “Am I too old?” She bought the shorts, but doesn’t wear them outside the house.

“I think about my age all the time,” she says. “I question my clothing, my hair. And I’ve already been to the plastic surgeon to have some work done on my eyes.”

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What prompted this self-examination? “I’m turning 40 in January.”

Jan Bina, an actress in her mid-40s, faced her day of reckoning last summer. She was shopping before a trip to Chicago for a family reunion when a pair of silver studded, black high-tops caught her eye. She had seen Michael Jackson wearing a similar pair in an L.A. Gear ad. “In a weak moment I bought them, then immediately thought: ‘Am I too old to wear these?’ ”

Unlike Kiernan, Bina does wear her purchase in public. It’s her way of counteracting a spinster image she often adopts for her work as a commercial actress. The shoes with silver studs are part of Bina’s “other” wardrobe, the one she wears to and from auditions. Consciously dressing as the complete antithesis of her character role subtly assures clients that she’s not really a spinster. Tight jeans and a black leather jacket are among the clothes she wears to prove the point.

“I love to come to the set in something hip and flamboyant,” Bina says. “This is where I get into the crisis, though. I don’t want to look like I am 17, yet so much of the stuff that is trendy is for 17-year-olds.”

Joni Consroe, owner of Zen Glamour, a Marina del Rey wardrobe consulting firm, says her clients, many in their 30s and 40s, consider anything short of a dress-for-success business suit too youthful. They say such items as spandex dresses, bicycle pants or short shorts are off-limits.

“They make assumptions about what is appropriate for their age,” she notes. Stifled by their own limitations, they end up on her doorstep seeking per mission to deviate from their own imposed dress code. Although most of her flock have their insecurity attacks between the ages of 30 and 45, Consroe has heard woeful tales of fashion distress from women in their 20s.

The I-need-an-overhaul attitude tends to run rampant among women 37 to 42, notes Susan Kaiser, author of “The Social Psychology of Clothing” (Macmillan) and an associate professor for textiles and clothing at UC Davis.

It’s at about that age, she explains, that women have to face the facts that they are showing signs of age--gray hair, lines around their eyes, a sagging jaw line.

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Patricia Mulready, professor of fashion merchandising at New York University, has conducted surveys on self-image and found that women’s self-esteem builds until the age of 40. Then, between 40 and 45, it rapidly drops off.

Mulready theorizes that this is so because most women under age 40 look better than they thought they would. After 40, the signs of age are more apparent and difficult to disguise.

Vevie Reynolds, a saleswoman at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, sees post-40 distress all the time. Inside the sanctum of the dressing room she has heard all the complaints: “I’m too old, too fat, my problem is my arms, my legs, my knees. Strapless dresses look awful, sleeveless ones look worse.”

She has noticed that women begin the litany of grievances after 40. Until that point they dress in a way that allows them to shop every department in the store. Afterward, they adopt a “can’t and don’t” mentality about dressing.

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There used to be rules to help avoid confusion: wear white between Memorial Day and Labor Day, patent leather shoes should be worn only in the spring and summer, women of a certain age should always wear dresses with sleeves and skirts that cover their knees. But the fashion rule book got tossed out the window during the social revolution of the 1960s.

Now, says Brenda Ferreira, a Santa Monica-based wardrobe consultant, “rules don’t apply any more.” The upshot of so much freedom: “Women are confused.”

In lieu of an official list of do’s and don’ts, she finds, women come to her with their unofficial lists, which are usually topped with “no short skirts” and “no pants.”

As for what they should wear, says Ferreira, “they have only a vague idea.” Instead of specific garments, they name designers. Women in their 20s and 30s want to wear young spirited labels such as Isaac Mizrahi and Jean Paul Gaultier, widely copied by designers at every price point. “If they’re in a work mode they play it safer,” she explains. Liz Claiborne, Calvin Klein and Jones of New York are popular.

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“By their 40s, most women are executives or entrepreneurs,” she continues. “They wear anything from Donna Karan to the pick of the designer litter.” By the time they reach age 45, she concludes, Chanel-inspired knit suits with boxy jackets, especially by Adolfo, begin to look good.

Patty Fox, a Los Angeles based-fashion consultant, is over 40 and has a closet full of Adolfo suits. She’s worked in the fashion business for 20 years. Yet, even she fell victim to the “Am I too old?” quandary last month.

She had noticed teen-age girls wearing sheer baby-doll dresses over leggings and thought they looked like a comfortable and inexpensive way to dress up her own leggings, a favorite item. She tried pairing the two. But inside a Saks dressing room she said her reaction was, “I can’t wear this, this is what teens are wearing. I’m going to look like a jerk.” She didn’t buy the dress. A few weeks later she saw a similar dress on the Venice Beach boardwalk and succumbed. “At first I thought I’d just wear it around the house, but lately I’ve even worn it out in public.”

Fashion magazines used to be an unquestioned source of guidance for women wondering how to dress. Now experts find that women may read the magazines but when it comes to making purchases, they rely on more personal advice. Mulready has found that young women look to their husbands as a primary influence. Older women are more likely to look outside the family, to a superior in their office. Celebrities over age 50--particularly Linda Evans, Tina Turner and Jane Fonda--were also listed as role models for older women.

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Kaiser maintains that women do not use celebrities as role models but does agree they look closer to home for guidance. “Only the fashion forward look to the media for fashion images,” she says. For everyone else, “style is negotiated in a small group context--in career circles, social circles and with family.”

While academicians such as Kaiser and Mulready have little advice for women in a fashion quandary, fashion consultants encourage taking risks.

“Every woman should pick one outfit that she thinks she is too old for, and buy it,” says Fox. “It makes you feel good.” She cites her own splurge on the baby-doll dress as a catharsis and says, “If you say you’re too old, than you probably are. So never say those words.”

Consroe recommends picking an age that “vibrates in your heart. One that is possible both physically and metaphysically, and dress to that age.” It sounds like flaky advice but it works for her. “I lie about my age constantly,” she says. “My chronological age is meaningless because it has nothing to do with me or the way I look. I am well over 25, yet I look 25. Most women my age, outside Los Angeles, look old and matronly. Because they’ve made the conscious decision to look old.”

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On a more practical note Fox adds: “Being fashionable and stylish is a mind set. No matter what age you are you should consider a garment on the basis of, ‘Does it show off my best features?’ not ‘Is it too young or too old?’ ”

Because most women turn to their friends and family for help, they are more likely to hear warnings such as the kind issued by Bina. “I think you have to know how old you are,” she says adamantly. “When you are 45 those tight tube dresses are too much. Even if you have a darling body it doesn’t work. Look at the face. You have to look at the calendar once in a while and check your age.”

Even if you are wearing a pair of studded high tops.


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