Women question their look, men celebrate their status

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It will be a sign of progress when older women would be free from the business of covering up as a sign of shame

Julia Twigg, Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at the University of Kent and author of Fashion and Age: Dress, the Body and Later Life

With her work on embodiment and age, Julia Twigg answered a lot of questions that have been floating in my mind since I began this exploration in the realm of age and culture. I confess I was not really successful in articulating these queries. I noticed that there was a sort of “code” in the way older people dress, but it was a scattered image and I couldn’t really make much sense of it. When I read Julia’s papers, everything became instantly clear. 

Julia is a professor of Social Policy and Sociology at the University of Kent. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics and began her career addressing the issues of health and social care. She realized that clothes can be interpreted as a sort of indicator in the constitution of age and this became the focus of her studies. Her first research project explored the role of fashion in the female aging process and her findings converged into the book: Fashion and Age: Dress, the Body and Later Life. She then took into account the role of dress in supporting the embodied personhood of people with dementia, and lastly she published a “mirror” study on the relationship between clothes and aging mainstream men.

Julia will be among the panelists at the upcoming conference of the British Academy “Narratives of Old Age and Gender” so I plan to add more information in this space in the weeks to come. In the meanwhile, I hope you will also have your “a-ha moment” drawing from Julia’s experience.

How did you begin to research this topic?

I began because I was working in old age care and I realized we see age in a problematic way. I noticed that there was a cultural aspect that was missing and I thought that clothes could be a useful tool to illuminate our perception of age. 

What role do clothes play in shaping our identity as we age?

Identities are a complicated business and clothes are just one element. But dress is a very important part of the social-self representation of how we present ourselves and this is true for any stage of life. But while we keep thinking about older people as a lump, there is a great variability. The gap in the income distribution and the health conditions is wider in this age group than in the younger generations.

When it comes to aging and clothes, it seems that things are more straightforward for men than for women. What can you tell us about this?

Age is less a point of challenge and change, because men’s clothes are much more coded. They are like a uniform, they are related to their occupation and reflect their authority. There is less choice and when the choice is done, the same style can go on all their life. So, men’s clothes are characterized by an element of continuity both with their younger selves and with mainstream masculinity of which they still feel themselves to be part. 

Dress is not seen through the lens of age as it generally happens with women, but it is still used relationally in later stages of life by men to differentiate themselves against women and gay men.

There’s also less focus on their choices. Think about the difference in the attention on men politicians and women politicians: men act, and women appear. Men’s clothes have less expressivity and I also think less intrinsic enjoyment. But the dullness of male dress liberates them, while on the contrary, women are subjected to a sexualized gaze that plays a central part in the construction of the core values of fashion as a cultural idea. 

What about the role of dress in the life of older women?

We know that clothes provide information in relation to social position, gender and age. But when it comes to women’s fashion, it is still primarily related to youthfulness and beauty. This normative idea of femininity based on youthfulness and sexiness leaves aging women with a little less space to manoeuver. Therefore, the keyword for aging women is “appropriateness.” Women ask themselves, “Can I wear that that dress? Is the neckline too low?” They really question their choices.

When do we begin to question what we wear?

For women, it generally happens between the age of forty and fifty. The perceived loss of sexual attractiveness kicks in around the same time. As we said, for men things are different, because they are not on display, nonetheless there’s some questioning, but it starts later. 

Have you noticed any changes since you began your research on this topic?

Over the last 20-25 years, there was an enormous explosion of the fast fashion. The cycle of purchase sped up and older women adopted this pattern of consumption, too.

I also noticed that some women say, “I’ve had enough” and, instead of answering social expectations about their look, they choose clothes that are comfortable and easy for them to wear. There’s a sort of freedom in giving up.

The fashion industry doesn't take the older population into consideration. What do you make of that? 

It does and it does not. It does because older people buy clothes. There are a lot of clothes that - maybe not fashionable - are sold and this means that there is a market. The concept of fashion and attractiveness are connected, but when it comes to older clients, suggestions are disguised. The term “classic” is a code word for older people’s fashion.

When I talked with the staff of one of the major UK chains (Marks & Spencer), they told me that they have a very loyal base of old clients. They do not design completely different clothes for them, rather they adapt the existing collection by making them a bit looser. 

The fashion industry has adopted a welcoming attitude towards plus size women. Do you think it will eventually happen for age, too?

The plus size has grown enormously. There are a lot of ads and companies cater to these needs, but I think it is because more and more young women are plus size. When I was young, plus size was a dimension of older women. The fashion market recognized this change.

Does this mean that there’s not a real change and the fashion industry is still using the same playbook young equals sexy?

Yes, exactly.

Can we talk about the relationship between aging and clothes? I feel we're dealing with a series of diminishing, negative and unwritten norms. For example, there is no form of inspiration (think about advertising), we are culturally conditioned to have negative feelings and therefore we hide the aging body, the market offers less choice in terms of style, materials, colors and shapes. 

There’s a difference in how the fashion industry presents itself, with its cutting edge image in the media and what real people wear. One area where we notice a change is color. Older women used to tone down, but now they feel they can wear brighter colors. They are choosing color over cut.

Some companies are starting to use older models. But still, because they are models, they are very slim. Same goes for the beauty companies, even if they choose older actresses they are still very beautiful and beautified. So, to answer your questions, I do not know where older women can get inspiration from, because older women tend to disappear from the public space and so it is difficult to find aspirational models.

In your paper Identity, Clothing and Age you pointed out that clothes for older adults have a leisure component. They signal that the wearer is no longer in business and they have something in common - material, colors, washability, style - with baby wear. Is this a less talked-about form of marginalization?

When we interview them, older men - they were over 58 - say they did not see their dress through the lens of fashion and declared they are not bothered by aging. But we noticed that when we asked about the elastic waist, they didn’t like to talk about it. It’s a synonym of a declining health and this gives anxiety, because people are concerned with their future.

Fashion is both a form of self-expression and a social diktat. If dresses have had to be understood ideologically, what do we make of the older style icons on Instagram? Are they trying to blend in or are they trying to stand out?

I think it’s both. Writers of fashion emphasize too much. The majority of people do not wear fashionable clothes. You can notice it by going to a social setting, all the people dress for the occasion. On Instagram, they are showing their individuality, it’s a very look-at-me type of style; they objectify themselves. At the same time, it is a form of resistance. So, they want to stand out as part of high fashion and rejecting to be part of their age group.

We rarely think about it, but it's true that clothing and dress can be used as a tool to improve the understanding of our culturally-conditioned process of aging. If you flip the coin, they can also influence the process of aging. What elements would you pick, what suggestions would you give to choose and use clothing and dress as an ally to a self-directed and meaningful aging?

Wear things that you like, that make you look nice and feel comfortable. We must be free not to meet sexy demands. 

One last question: do you think that a lot of the pressure for older women to cover up has to do with the stigma for the aging body?

It will be a sign of progress when older women would be free from the business of covering up as a sign of shame.