Our bodies, faces and lifestyles have changed over the decades. However, our fashion choices haven't always kept up.
But do we need hard-core rules? Actress Ellen Barkin famously declared in O, The Oprah Magazine that women over 50 should never wear blue jeans to dinner. I (and my 7 For All Mankind jeans) beg to differ.
Forget the rules! We just need a few guidelines to great style and answers to questions about how to get it.
Below is a master list of go-to pieces for women who want to fight the frump and look smart, energetic, youthful and appropriate. You can wear these basics to work, out to dinner and anywhere else:
1. Dark denim, mid-rise, boot-cut jeans
The boot-cut hem leaves room for booties (a footwear option for almost every occasion).
TIP: Keep length about 1/8-inch off the floor (depending on the shoe), and make sure the jeans fit well (with a little stretch) in butt and hips. Take the waist in, if necessary.
2. Dark denim, mid-rise, straight-leg jeans
Skip the tight skinny jeans (unflattering on most of us), and get these in dark blue, with no fading or whiskering. Pair with flat ballet slippers, moccasins, loafers or kitten heels, and tuck them into tall boots in cooler weather.
TIP: Straight-leg jeans go perfectly with longer jackets or tunic tops. Check out options from Uniqlo, 7 For All Mankind, J Brand, Levi's or Not Your Daughter's Jeans, in prices from about $40 to $200.
3. White jeans (boot-cut or straight-leg)
In warmer weather, wear with wedge sandals and tunic tops or a crisp navy jacket and white tank. When it gets cooler, pair with brown or black boots and a sweater or jacket, and a pretty scarf.
TIP: Be sure to wear underwear that matches your skin color with any white pant.
4. Great-fitting pants
Look for a lightweight wool blend (wool/Lycra is best) in black, charcoal or navy. The cut of the pants is crucial and the length must be exact. Take your shoes to the store (and to the tailor, if necessary) to get a perfect fit.
TIP: Wear with a silky blouse, a T-shirt or a tank with a cardigan or jacket. Look for pants made by Theory, Tahari, Joseph, Banana Republic, J. Crew or Ann Taylor in prices starting at about $60.
5. Black fitted jacket
Short and snug (not tight) jackets that hit at the hips are a great look. Black is most versatile, but consider navy and cream, too. Wear it with jeans, skirts, dresses, pants — everything.
TIP: Wear tanks, T's and jewel-colored blouses underneath, and check out some of the longer, less-fitted options to wear with skinny jeans. Some to try are from Theory, Tahari, Ann Taylor, DKNY, Chico's and Target, in prices starting at about $50.
6. Black pencil skirt
Versatile, stylish and surprisingly flattering, no matter what your size. Wear it to the knee (or slightly shorter if worn with black tights), and make sure it has a little stretch and some draping but is not tight. Pair with black tights and booties, or patent-leather pumps for night. Don't wear a flat shoe, but a mid-heel or high-heel pump, wedge shoe or boots. (Here's a video about how to shop for shoes that are both stylish and sensible.)
TIP: A black jacket could look severe with this skirt; instead, balance the look with a long tank and a cropped multicolored jacket. The best-fitting pencil skirts I've found are from Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Kors and Tahari in prices starting at about $120, but you can shop around.
These are a year-round fashion accessory and the best way to cover up arms that are less than toned. Look for long and three-quarter-length sleeves that hit you at or above the hip. Longer cardigans are great with straight-leg jeans or pants, but not with skirts. The best cardigan I've found so far is the Classic Cardigan from Merona at Target ($19.99 and up).
TIP: Get a size or two smaller than usual or you'll end up with a "Mumsy" sweater, which can look frumpy. The sweater's fit should be snug, and never wear it closed: The point is to cover your arms and add color to your outfit.
8. Tank tops
Buy these staples in bulk, once you find the ones you like best. Get them in white, black and cream to wear under the cardigans, jackets, blouses and sweaters. I wear them under almost everything for a smoother look.
TIP: The fit should be snug, so size down if necessary, and make sure they're long enough to tuck in and stay put. Uniqlo, Target's Mossimo Supply Co., American Apparel, Banana Republic and Gap all have great tanks in prices starting at about $10.
Dresses make everyone feel pretty and sexy, and there are three styles that flatter women over 50 best, no matter our size or shape:
- Wrap dresses, especially those with long or three-quarter-length sleeves — knot the belt on the side, never in front, and do not tie it in a bow!
- Sleeveless sheath dresses worn with snug-fitting cardigans or jackets, which are perfect for almost any occasion
- "Fit and flare" dresses that are fitted on top and flare out slightly starting at the waist, creating a flirty, swingy look.
Jewel colors look good on all skin tones; keep length at the knee.
TIP: Have at least one perfectly fitting LBD (little black dress) in any of these styles, which can be dressed up or down. Great-fitting dresses can be found at Target (Merona), Diane von Furstenberg, Theory, Nicole Miller, Hugo Boss, Ann Taylor and Chico's at all price points.
10. Cropped black leather jacket
No, a black leather jacket is not too young for those over 50. Wear it with everything you own: jeans (very cool with white jeans), skirts and dresses. This staple is more expensive than the others, so shop around for one that fits right (cropped at the waist is best) and is classic-looking, so you can wear it forever.
TIP: Check out this video to see my moto jacket.
You can mix and match all these pieces, depending on the occasion, for different looks. Add a few key accessories — a statement necklace (chunky, worn close to the neckline), colorful scarf, cuff bracelet, perfect shoes and beautiful bag (clutch for evenings and classic black leather over-the-shoulder for day) — and you're ready to go.
Barbara Hannah Grufferman writes for AARP Media about living and aging well.
Style Smarts (for any age)
- Get a good tailor. Clothes look best when they fit well
- Define your waist, no matter how big or small
- Keep your skirt and dress lengths to the knee
- Don't show too much skin: too-short skirts and tops that are too low don't flatter anyone
- Keep it simple; stay away from bling
- Mute the loud prints, lean toward solids
- Buy bras that really fit, and consider "shapewear" when needed