Wearing an above-the-knee floral dress, I emerged from the dressing room in a wood-and-glass boutique that smelled of lavender and the kind of candles forever flickering in spas, and asked the sales associate, “Am I too old for this dress?”
It wasn't super short, just in that in-between space where you would ask yourself — and maybe text a close friend with a photo — if, styled correctly, it was professional enough for a presentation. But I was alone and in a strange city, dawdling in the shop after dinner and I have a bad habit, when I am alone and out of town, of buying clothes that don't quite fit into the rest of my life.
“Well, how old are you?” she asked, earnest and even pensive.
“55,” I replied.
She seemed visibly shaken, as if I had just confessed to a gruesome crime years earlier and whispered to her where the evidence was buried.
“Oh, no, you just can’t,” she said, shaking her head violently as if to signal that she would tell no one anywhere, anytime — even if pressed — that I had violated the rules of polite society by even trying it on.
Her stern rebuke implied I should take the dress off quickly and exit the store as soon as possible, without even so much as a glance at the accessories counter. So I did.
I am surprised now that I was so easily dissuaded.
Five years later and reconciled with my own complicity during The Texas Boutique Incident, I refuse to accept age limits when it comes to my wardrobe or anyone else's. Yes, I am eligible for AARP, but I do not want to look like the accepted and prescribed cultural version of an older woman — the mythical old witch who lives in a shoe.
There is a deluge of reminders, from ads in magazines to clothing store displays, that women my age are not supposed to be allowed to dress the way we feel. Relegated to muted colors, shapeless knits and long, flowing tunics, we can dilly-dally with accessories that are oversized and exaggerated well into our 90s, but we dare not think that we can get away with a form-fitting anything — even with head-to-toe Spanx underneath. We are ever reminded to stay in our predictable, old lady lane, to remain neutral, compliant and uncomplicated, for everyone else's comfort as much as our own.
These sartorial standards mimic the erasure foisted upon older women in what feels like every other arena of our lives. We are expected — and required — to be invisible, silent, absent in the conference room, boardroom, Congress, classroom or any public arena in which we could be seen or heard.
But I will not go into that good night without a wardrobe fight. I am dressing for me and I intend to express how I feel about myself (which is that I am actually about 37). I am not age-defying or ageless, as the cosmetics industry demands I be; I am age-authentic.
Luckily, older women do have role models for style in two very recent additions to the sixties set: Madonna and Angela Bassett, both 60, are undeniably fashionable, and joined by Christie Brinkley, who is 64. Helen Mirren, Tina Turner and Cher are rocking their 70s, while Jane Fonda and Rita Moreno demonstrate what the 80s look like without a care for the idea that we ought to blend into the crowd.
There are also major social media influencers over 50, women whose style and fashion consciousness earn them millions of followers and even more respect. Still the New York Times referred to them as “Glamorous Grandmas” — a compliment sandwiched in a stereotype, especially since the article even noted that not all of its subjects were grandmothers.
Because of their mega-star status and followings, none of these women are going to be remembered for wearing outfits that my friend Katie calls “going Mrs. Roper” — the muumuus and elastic waist pants that are supposedly the prescription uniform for women 50 and older.
I know many women of my generation say that age is the permission slip for the most deliciously liberating choice on the planet: To not give a damn what you look like anymore and slip into those flat, Velcro-closed shoes, pants without zippers, dresses shaped like housecoats with pockets, bras (once again) optional. If that liberates you, so be it; my stance is not judgmental.
But that choice is not for me.
I accept that I am no longer the 21-year-old who wore tube tops and hot pants to class, but I can and will wear a flowered blouse with striped pants and a plaid jacket, mixing patterns like my younger colleagues do so well. I dress to mirror how vibrant I feel inside, and as an outward expression of my personal resistance to the old lady dress code.
At a birthday party for a younger neighbor recently, most of the other women were luminous in their fitted sleeveless dresses and the men — tan, with gel-slicked hair, casual shirts, creased pants and shoes with no socks — were laughing in clusters of confidence.
In a cobalt-blue halter top and white skirt with flower appliqués, I danced among them for almost three hours. After applauding the band for their last song, I walked home, slipped out of my emerald green leather slides, and bounced upstairs to watch the news. I felt good about how I looked — even if no one else was looking.
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, senior leader with The OpEd Project, emerita faculty at Northwestern University and editorial director of Take The Lead. She is at work on a book of essays, "Act Like You’re Having A Good Time."