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THE FORGOTTEN SHOPPER : TV Role Models : Stars Over 50 Know What’s Flattering--and What to Avoid

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you’re old enough to have midriff bulge, the fashion stories emanating from television can be a major turnoff.

There’s no denying the spandex-and-denim set dominates the tube’s style waves, from “Melrose Place” to MTV. But a few stylish, mature role models--for whom black leather motorcycle jackets are not the be-all and end-all--do exist.

The reigning fashion queen, and one of the few female TV performers old enough to collect Social Security, is indisputably Angela Lansbury of the long-running “Murder, She Wrote.” Her character, a sleuth-mystery writer, wears rose-colored Armani blazers by day and trails murderers by night in blue silk tuxedos and long black skirts paired with bright magenta organza blouses.

Lansbury, 67, always looks so right because she knows her assets and doesn’t take chances. She never exposes her knees, for example, and avoids a lot of ruffles, busy prints, heavy jewelry and muddy colors. She receives more fan mail about her wardrobe than any other subject, says Eilish Zebrasky, the series’ costume designer.

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The costume designers and supervisors dressing TV’s 50-plus stars know which jacket cuts obliterate a less than perfect waistline, which shoes make legs appear more slender, which colors and fabrics flatter, and when to show knees. They also understand which trends are off-limits to women of a certain age.

Clunky platforms are forbidden, for example, and the menswear look must be softened, if worn at all.

“At Angela’s age, she doesn’t have to prove anything. I wouldn’t go so far as to put her in a man’s gray pin-striped suit,” Zebrasky says. “That would be (more suitable on) a woman in her 30s starting out in business,” she adds. “Less is best.”

The idea is to draw attention away from flaws and enhance the positive.

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“You think of clothes as a smoke screen. You put a spotlight on the areas that are good and smoke screen the rest,” says Robert Blackman, costume designer for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

The show’s Auntie Mame-ish Lxwana Troi, played by Majel Barrett, frequently wears stretch catsuits with as much assurance as a 20-year-old. How does she get away with it?

“I do an asymmetrical cutout that reveals her bustline, and so that’s where the eye goes,” Blackman explains. “Majel has a beautiful bust, great clavicles and great legs.”

Her stature also helps to pull off the look. “She’s tall--5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10--and a Size 12 or 14. But I usually extend the shoulder line with rounded or square pads to add a half-inch of breadth on both sides of the shoulder. That makes the waist look smaller.”

When Barrett wears a skirt, it’s usually a leg-revealing style, and she always wears Lycra stockings that firmly hold the leg. A matching shoe that “doesn’t break the line” and elongates the leg often completes the outfit, Blackman says.

Costume designers say most mature actresses know what flatters them. No one can get Rue McClanahan of “The Golden Palace” out of her sexy mules--she’s worn them for seven years. Lansbury believes she looks best in pinks, red, creams, beiges and royal blue. And Diahann Carroll, who has a recurring role as Whitley Gilbert’s chicly dressed mother on “A Different World,” shows off her legs with skirts two inches above the knees.

With narrow hips, a large bust and long legs, Carroll looks best in clean, fluid lines and fabrics, says the show’s costume designer, Ceci. “Diahann already knows that less is more. She’s timeless. When you’re young you can be eclectic. An older woman has to look refined, as if she learned something through the years.”

Lansbury seems to have her look down to a science. She almost exclusively wears short, fitted, single-breasted jackets that show off her waist. “A jacket that just hangs doesn’t work for her,” says Zebrasky. “And a double-breasted (one) adds bulk.”

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Her straight skirts always fall just below the knee, and her pleated trousers are neither tapered nor wide-legged, because “the less fabric, the better,” Zebrasky says. And Lansbury prefers open collars on blouses and sweaters that “elongate the neck.” Shoes have high heels--2 1/2 to 3 inches. “Even if a woman doesn’t have the greatest legs, a heel makes the leg look better. You walk better. You stand better,” Zebrasky says.

Sometimes the stars supplement their TV wardrobes with clothes from their closets. This season, Lansbury raided hers for a long black silk evening skirt to wear with the magenta organza blouse. Last season, Diahann Carroll wore her own red strapless sequined Bob Mackie sheath.

Costume designers say they comb local department stores in search of suitably conservative clothes, but often come up empty. Then, they rely on custom designs. Judy Evans, costume designer for “The Golden Palace” prefers to make Rue McClanahan’s wardrobe, from her soft, flowing, fingertip-length jackets to her pegged trousers. But for co-star Betty White, who looks best in shirtmaker-style and coat dresses, Evans buys off the rack, favoring Dana Buchman, St. Gillian and Tess labels.

Budget-conscious Ceci of “A Different World” says she “combs the Earth” to outfit Carroll’s wealthy character and often scores at Robinson’s, Beverly Hills, where she finds “really good unfussy coordinates.”

Zebrasky shops for three or four pricey pieces--Armani jackets, for example--to mix with less expensive separates by Ellen Tracy, Anne Klein and Paul Stanley. Los Angeles designer David Hayes is a good source for evening suits, she says.

Her best hunting grounds include Rodier, Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin Wilshire (formerly Bullocks Wilshire). “You can get a gorgeous pantsuit for $294 on the fourth floor at I. Magnin Wilshire,” Zebrasky says. “And it’s wool or gabardine. You don’t need a big label,” she adds. “Ladies can do so much if they learn to shop for good fabrics and good shapes instead of a lot of faddy clothes.”


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