Loose guidelines for age-appropriate dressing

Many of you have requested some guidelines for dressing to suit your chronological age and although I’ve touched on some loose guidelines for women over 40, I wanted to address this topic from a more general standpoint.

But first, the caveats:

There are about a billion guides to age-appropriate dressing out there, and I know that many of them have proven invaluable to many women. I’m not a huge fan of such guides because they leave so little room for individuality and variation. Like all sets of rules, they are rigid and inflexible and assume a lot about bodies, goals, and needs. I don’t believe that fat women should never wear formfitting clothes, I don’t believe that short women should never wear long skirts, and I don’t believe that women of ANY age should be automatically excluded from any garments or styles. We are informed adults who know our figures. We can make those calls on an individual basis.

That said, many women are interested in understanding the rules so that they may bend and break them on a rule-by-rule basis. Many women would rather stay within the common parameters for age-appropriate dressing for their own comfort. Many women are just curious about these norms and guidelines.

But instead of parroting the socially-accepted rules, I’m going to present a different way of looking at age-appropriate dressing. I realize that many of you think all age-related dressing guidelines are total bunk, and that’s just fine. But I have been absolutely inundated with requests for my input on this topic, so I know that many of you are quite curious …


How you present your figure, which aspects you choose to highlight, and which garments make you feel confident and comfortable are ALL influenced by age. And relating your age to your wardrobe choices can help you build an ideal, highly personalized style.

But how a woman looks, feels, and behaves may make her seem decades older or younger than the date on her birth certificate. And although some experts believe that chronological age should shape certain aspects of life, I’m willing to assert that internal age is considerably more important and influential. Especially when it comes to matters of style.

All style rules are simply guidelines, but I think that edicts about age-appropriateness are the most guideline-y of all. No one over forty should wear a miniskirt? Seriously? Have you SEEN Madonna? Pearls are the exclusive domain of aged grannies? Rihanna and Nicole Kidman would beg to differ. Of course, exceptions to these rigid, age-based fashion rules aren’t all celebrities. In my opinion, any woman who feels confident, beautiful, and wholly herself in a certain garment should wear it, regardless of age.


So all this makes you the ultimate judge of what works for a woman at your age. Try not to get drunk on your own power, OK?

Now, if you loathe all age-based rules, you quite possibly loathe socially-centered dressing norms and shun edicts about the comfort of the observing world. And the following will simply rankle you. But if you have concerns about dressing your age, you may also want to consider context and audience when you mull matters of age-appropriateness. If you fall into the latter category, here are some questions you should ask if you’re ever in doubt:

Do your friends and peers wear it, and wear it well? Your peer group may include women whose styles are vastly different from your own, but use your imagination. Can you imagine a similarly-aged coworker donning this outfit? How would you feel if you saw a woman your age wearing it and didn’t know a thing about her?

If it’s outside what your age group normally wears, why do you want to wear it yourself? I don’t believe in hard-and-fast rules of age-appropriateness, but I do believe that some women dress to appear older or younger than they truly are. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails. And when it fails, it can fail SPECTACULARLY. So examine your motivations carefully. If no one else your age would consider wearing this, why is it important that you break new ground? Are you trying to disguise your age, or fool the observing world somehow? Do you simply love it and not care about any potential peer judgment? Are you trying to recapture a time gone by?

Does it make you feel fabulous about your body? If you’re 57 and have amazing legs, there’s no reason to hide them under long skirts. If you’re 19 and feel best when well covered, don’t let anyone pressure you into overexposure. Clothes were invented to cover our privates and keep us warm, but clothes exist in variety to help us feel awesome about our bodies. And clothes that make you feel awesome about your body should be worn. By you.

Where will you be wearing it? A 38-year-old in a babydoll dress at an outdoor concert will blend right in. A 38-year-old in a babydoll dress at a corporate conference will raise eyebrows. A 22-year-old in a tweed suit interviewing for a job will pass muster. A 22-year-old in a tweed suit at a kegger will stick out like a sore thumb. You may not care to conform to age-based fashion norms, but they still exist and you probably have a decent idea of what the big ones are. If you’re going to subvert them, make sure that doing so won’t cause you undue discomfort or attract unwanted attention.

Who will be there, and whose judgment are you considering? The most important consideration in dressing outside typical age boundaries is judgment. If you are a sensitive soul who can’t stomach criticism, bend those boundaries only when you’re spending time with trusted friends. If you couldn’t give a flying rat’s ankle what ANYONE thinks about you, wear anything whenever. Use your head, of course, and avoid jeopardizing your job and offending important officials. But otherwise, anything goes.

Most age-appropriate rules revolve around older women dressing “too young,” but some younger women have concerns about dressing “too old” AND “too young.” I feel that these flexible, reflective questions can aid women in either situation.

Again, these questions and considerations will only be useful to those who want to dress and feel age-appropriate, and avoid incurring any potential negative judgment. I admire women who shun age-related norms and women who embrace them quite equally, and don’t believe that either philosophy of dressing is superior. And, again, these are mere guidelines. Nothing here is gospel, simply a set of ideas about how to address age-based dressing concerns.

Image courtesy Boden

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