My own comeuppance happened one night, five years ago.
I was headed out to a summer dinner wearing a short turquoise T-shirt dress over some perfectly acceptable leggings over some perfectly acceptable legs. My son and his girlfriend stared frankly when I tip-tapped down the stairs in my outfit, thinking I looked quite the bonbon. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"It's a cute dress!" my son's pretty girlfriend offered generously.
"It would be a cuter dress," my son offered, not so generously but from the heart, "on her."
Back in my closet, behind closed doors, and with a sober soul, I faced shelves covered in the garment equivalent of excessive chocolate. With a firm hand, a firm conscience and a big donation bag, I dispatched everything that could be considered even remotely "cute." When I was finished, to my shock, I didn't feel old. I felt grown up — straight-backed, dignified, a woman in full.
The joy of piling up a certain number of years is that you get the freedom to do whatever the hell gets you over the rainbow. It's that we … just shouldn't.
And yet, why not? Most of us reading this are in better shape than our grandparents dreamed possible. It is said of certain people that, with a body like that, she can wear anything she wants.
Collage: Simone Tieber; Fishnet: Dreamstime; Red heel: Dreamstime; Denim Shorts
But … not really.
Consider the leotard-and-lace that Madonna, age 52 years and 6 months, wore to the Oscars. And before you read this clip, granted: A 14-year-old girl would be humiliated if her mother drew breath on the living room carpet wearing a Hillary pantsuit and Trotters — much less on the red carpet. And yet, wasn't this asking for it?
Consider also the clothing of The Real Housewives of Orange County. They're not wearing those 18-inch-long leather skirts and off-the-shoulder peasant blouses for giggles. That's what they actually wear. And though they're chicks, they're not spring chickens.
Granted: Tacky is the whole point of The Real Housewives. It's like the nursery rhyme about the purple cow: You'd rather see than be one.
That said, there would be no need for a brand of jeans called Not Your Daughter's Jeans if we hadn't pirated our kids' fashions (music, dance moves, hunky movie heroes). A great friend of mine and I are the same age exactly — which is to say, well and truly over 50. Somehow, my friend's mother-in-law, a truly regal beauty, has turned out to be younger than we are — at least on her Facebook page. The other day, she told my friend and me she just bought "the cutest little Jennifer Aniston-ish coat."
Gentle reader, what is wrong with this sentence?
It's true for me and you and Madonna.
And someday, even Jennifer Aniston. Yes, even Jen. The age for thigh-grazing bronze Lurex dresses doth end, and it doth end — yes, even the golden-est girl of all — well before our truly golden years, maybe in our bronze age. Jennifer Aniston could soon find herself toeing the line of parody in gladiator sandals.
So, with 50 in the rearview mirror, here are a few — actually quite few — things we should probably never wear again:
- Juicy sweatpants or anything with writing on the backside, including Hollister (which is the name not just of a clothier but also of a company that makes colonic irrigation supplies).
- Miniskirts, mini-shorts, anything to wear that's been deliberately diminished. Or deliberately ripped — unless it's you and your muscles.
- "Strappy" accessories. Yes, they're adorable. Yes, your daughter can wear them to the prom.
- Low-rise pants that showcase low-rise anatomy. In some critical places, more really is more.
- Super-tight skinny jeans, even if you are both.
- T-shirts that say "Sexy Grandma," "Vote for Ozzy" or "I Am the Man from Nantucket." The ideal tee should fit well and keep its mouth shut.
- Thigh-high boots.
- Thigh-high boots with stiletto heels.
- Plunging V-neck shirts. Plunging V-neck sweaters. Not just for women, here. Maybe especially not just for women.
- Purses with dogs on them. Purses with dogs in them.
- See-through tops. This is really true for everyone, of any age, including movie stars.
- See-through bottoms. Don't need to say more. Wish I could say less.
- Seventh Avenue cruiser couture: Underwear labels on the outside. Bra straps on the outside. Jock straps … let's not go there.
- Pajama bottoms during the day, outside the house.
- Gold chains with your name on them.
- Gold chains with anyone's name on them.
- Gold chains.
Although her own fashion sense routinely won her the privilege of being called "Mrs. Robinson," my mother was right about one thing: Taste is something you can buy. Class is not.
My own closet went from being a garden of gypsy prints to a palette of winter, with a riotous, kicky rainbow ranging from black to lighter black to charcoal and the odd slash of blue, crimson or gold. And yet, wearing smock tops from Forever 21 didn't keep me forever 21. They made me look as though I wished I were.
And truth be told, most of the time, I don't.
Jacquelyn Mitchard, the best-selling author of 20 books, lives near Madison, Wis., with her family. Her next novel, Second Nature: A Love Story, will be published in September by Random House.