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First things first. I am no fan of ageing. I am anti-ageing. I see no joy in the prospect of diminished mobility, the casual atrophy of my knees, nor the strange gravitational displacement that drags one’s cheeks to fall in folds around the chin. I search my face in vain for youthful adjectives such as fresh, luminous, dewy — the ones that skincare marketeers pretend are eternal — but find them quite gone. There is nothing positive to be said about this.
However, a defeatist attitude in the face of certain decrepitude is not an acceptable path to tread. Maybe you will never be called pulpeuse (that terrific French indicator of lusty promise) but as an older person certain other adjectives are yours to own.
There is no reason why you should not be elegant, chic, ravishing even. And while some things may be lost, age does brings the cool distillation of a lifetime’s experience: by 60, you should know what you like and also what works for you. You can ignore fashion trends. You can afford expensive fabrics. And only in maturity can you truly finesse, that most elusive of things, the signature look.
Just look to the writer Joan Didion, 83, who has remained a style icon for her simple sartorial formula of black turtleneck, pendant necklace and oversized shades. Or Lee Radziwill, who, at 85, remains the epitome of New York glamour in a strict uniform of monochromatic separates, punched up with jazzy red jackets.
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves /And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter” goes the oft-quoted poem. To which I say: “please don’t”. Or at least not if, to date, you haven’t done so already.
Because why save the satin sandals for one’s dotage? Why weren’t you wearing them already?
Warning, the famous 1961 poem by Jenny Joseph, is often interpreted, I think erroneously, to mean that age should bestow on us new freedoms, the chance to show our true selves suppressed by years of professional duty or social decorum. But as Joseph points out in the closing lines of the poem: “maybe I ought to practice a little now?/ So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised”.
Yes, she should. Finding one’s true style is the culmination of a lifetime’s work. It should have been well under way by the age of 40. Contriving some entirely new persona in one’s pensionable years sounds just as uncomfortable as it looks. The most truly stylish figures develop an early signature and then continue to wear versions of the exact same thing. Quentin Crisp didn’t wake up one morning in the guise of The Naked Civil Servant. His flamboyance was a gradual evolution.
Samuel Beckett, to whom we should all defer for style inspo when wondering what to wear, didn’t just happen to sling on a fisherman’s sweater and Gucci saddle bag. His latter-year look was the product of slow and patient study, as tightly edited and precise as any one of his plays. Ditto Picasso — as fine an advocate for the life-long use of a striped Breton sweater as any — or Georgia O’Keefe and her black kimono coats.
Mature style (as it is at any age) is about intuiting what feels right, and the confidence to carry it off. It doesn’t matter if you want to live out your retirement in Hawaiian shirts — though preferably you won’t — what matters is that you look and feel like you while doing so. Looking appropriate is irrelevant. At 60, you don’t need to follow any other rules than your own. Fashion designer Tom Ford, 55, wears a black suit every single day, even in midsummer. Does he look like a stiff? Don’t be daft.
Ford has his own thoughts about how to be a stylish older person. Mainly that one should “stay limber”. He has a point. Looking good beyond one’s forties is as much about maintenance as it is manifestation: not even a Max Mara camel coat will disguise the fact your moustache needs a trim (and I’m talking about you, ladies). Whiskers must be monitored, cod liver oils should be taken. The phrase self care was designed for you. Do pilates. Eat sensibly. Monthly pedicures should be considered a medical necessity.
Likewise with the hair: Jane Birkin, 71, cuts her own, but she’s Jane Birkin and you aren’t, so invest in a good haircut and have regular treatments to keep it shiny. I have no specific advice as to what you should do with it: of the most arresting older women I can think of is, Isabella Rossellini, 65, keeps her coiffure cropped close in a cap of dark brown while the Irish actress Olwen Fouéré (approaching 60) has silver, waist-length hair that falls around her shoulders like a spectral veil. Do want you want with your hair, though I would suggest that unless you have access to the colourist who fixes Martha Stewart, 76, or Meryl Streep, 68, you should probably let go of the idea you look authentically blonde. As the fashion plate Iris Apfel, 96, said in a recent interview: “If you’re 75, no one’s going to think you’re 32.” Deal with it.
After that, the rules are simple. Stick to a simple palette — grey, white, black, and any shade of brown will do for me but you might want to be more adventurous — and build your wardrobe in shades of these same tones. This looks chic. It also makes getting dressed a lot easier.
Women: scarf-neck blouses are a marvellous idea: if you’re busty then tie the tails to fall down the cleavage. If you’re skinny, wrap them round the neck. Make sure you own a blazer. You might want to get something in slightly softer tailoring, but a good jacket pulls everything together. Some caution against shorter lengths, but if you’ve got good legs, get them out: Brigitte Macron, 65, is not afraid of a kninkle, and neither should you be. But likewise, ban clothes that don’t make you feel your best. If that sleeveless top doesn’t imbue you with the invincibility of Michelle Obama, 54, give it to charity. Evict all clothes that cause you needless anxiety. If in doubt — buy cashmere. Or steal your partner’s.
Men: don’t look on retirement as an opportunity to look slovenly. Shirts please, or possibly a polo shirt. The late actor Sam Shephard could get away with Henley tops and T-shirt, but he was Sam Shephard. If you must wear a T-shirt, wear it under a shirt, like George Clooney, 56. For shirt inspiration, look to the breezy white versions favoured by Frank Sinatra, rolled to just below the elbow, on the golf links in Palm Springs. Or snatch up the shirts favoured by that other blue-eyed actor Ed Harris, 67. You cannot go wrong with a good blue shirt.
A lifetime of office suits may make you wary of them, but they look so dapper. Tom Stoppard, 80, wears a tweed jacket and always looks distinguished and debonair. Don’t just wear the same old blazer you’ve been wearing for the past 20 years go. Buy some new ones. That fit. Everyone should always buy things one size bigger (if nothing else you’ll be more comfortable) and then get clothes adjusted to fit. Invest in better, and buy less. I would go for something grey and suitable for the weekend in a textured fabric — and make sure it’s insanely luxe. You deserve it.
I know what you’re thinking. This is all deeply boring and grandmotherly advice, but grandmother knows best. Mine (now 99) is unquestionably still the best-dressed woman I know. And, yes, you may be old, and think you know it all, but even you would be best advised to pay attention to your elders. And please try not to wear purple.
Jo Ellison is the FT’s Fashion Editor; Twitter: @Jellison
This article has been amended to correct Isabella Rossellini’s age.