The day I turned 29 I threw out everything in my wardrobe that was chocolate brown or cut soberly to the knee. Investing in a pair of black leather go-go boots, I proceeded to wear emerald green eyeliner, tousled Bardot-style hair, a bodysuit and hipster cords. It didn’t take a shrink to tell me I was desperately fighting the fact that I would soon be 30. Eight years later on my 37th birthday, out came the eyeliner, the big hair, the high-heeled boots and the slippery little dress. Guess who’s fighting 40?
Armed with a jar of Crème de la Mer and a new petal-pink MAC lipstick called Lovelorn, I expect to pout and shimmy my way around the problem. Vogue might coax me to wear a sensible bone-colored trench coat, some beige linen cargo pants and a fluffy little hairdo that softens my laugh lines like Meg Ryan. Harper’s Bazaar might weigh in favoring a conservative, classic little suit and Botox, but I’m not ready for all that. In fact, I will never be ready for earth-colored eye shadow, discreet cosmetic surgery or pebble-colored Armani, and I am sure millions of women at this precipice they call “middle youth” feel the same.
The canyon that exists between Juicy Couture sweats and elastic-waist chinos leaves us all stuck between a rock and bad look. If style is a department store, then there’s a floor missing between teen fashion on one, career woman on two and Grandma’s knitted things on three. It is assumed that 40-somethings are either running the boardroom in a sexless tailored suit or ruling a tribe of kids in jeans and sweats—without much joy in between. Given the gap, many women feel obliged to either ape a much younger style or conform to that weirdly sexless category known as “smart casuals”: boat-necked cashmere sweaters, knee-length A-line linen skirts and brushed-cotton pastel pea coats. Ugh.
“Classics” can easily be an excuse for camouflage. Necklines slowly creep up, hems slip down and perfectly fit figures start to obscure themselves in discreet layers. “Mom” clothes are supposed to be sporty and spill-proof but who said you can’t cook a casserole with a pinch of cleavage? Nigella Lawson does it beautifully. The idea of age-appropriate style is due for a fashion backlash because it is a popular notion that conceals a lie: that women get less sexy as they age and that they should defer sensuality to the young. But I’m not ready to move over just yet. Are you?
Sure, all of us make bargains with maturity. A pink angora sweater looks odd with crow’s feet. But other than the obvious physical changes, aging is a matter of style as well as gravitational pull. Anne Bancroft was only 36 when she played Mrs. Robinson, the ultimate older woman in The Graduate. Yet her hair-sprayed chignon, heavy black eyeliner and severe tailoring made her look prematurely hardened. Looking older is not the natural result of being older. At 28, Grace Kelly was famous for her handbag but not for those frumpy bouclé suits and chunky low heels. Even Princess Rania of Jordan looks chic beyond her years, and so did Jackie-O in her Camelot era. Elegance makes everyone look 40—even Madonna. Perhaps even she came to realize that there’s a time to dress for dinner and wear pearls and heels that don’t feel borrowed.
Dressing like a lady is one of the pleasures of being a grown-up and not a girl. It is also an art. European women understand this but they stretch the conventions so they never look starchy. If glamour is the consolation prize for lost collagen, they work it. Reveling in outrageous perfumes and trailing Missoni scarves, the French and the Italians wear womanhood like a badge of honor. Fruity, full-blown and a bit nonchalant, they’ll team a black tuxedo jacket with jeans, high heels and a studded Sonia Rykiel bag. These women, sporting bracelets they found in India, a beret from the flea market or a single diamond earring, look deliberately ripe…experienced…
Just look at Florida-native Lauren Hutton hopping on her motorbike in silk parachute pants. Or Jane Birkin, all crinkly eyes and tangled long mane ordering another café au lait at Cafe Flore. Witness Susan Sarandon saucy in yet another corset dress and the thought of freezing your face into a static mask of youth just fades. The stars that do less to their faces do so much more as role models: They are fluid and scarred, tanned and defiant—alive. Nipped, tucked and dieted into size-two Dolce and Gabbana, the women who violently cheat their age look attractive but anxious, like custodians vigilantly trapped inside a museum of their own beauty.
Beauty after 40 does takes work, but it shouldn’t feel like a job. I delegate the moisture, elasticity and protection of my almost-40 face to a lot of bottled water and a handful of jars and potions: MD Skincare Maximum Moisture Treatment by night, Nuxe Phytochoc Lift Emulsion by day, Clarins Special Eye Contour Balm 24/7 and Molton Brown Liplift Formula lipstick on days when my lips look set to disappear altogether. Beyond this kit, I’ve found other ways to keep the bloom blossoming: Galumphing around in the snow gulping down fresh air, singing aloud, laughing hysterically, eating herring with ice-cold riesling and making love in the afternoon are also crucial beauty aids rarely listed for “older skin”.
There is no doubt that workouts, a good colorist and an even better bra make good sense, but a passionate personal style is even more important. At 55 my mother has just bought six yards of forest-green fake fur and cut velvet to make an opera coat. At 57 my girlfriend Wendy is trawling the markets of Shanghai for the perfect black silk cheongsam jacket. At 65-plus Helene is wearing a forest of art deco bangles while she paints. These women are not sitting around grieving the loss of a bikini belly, and this summer neither shall I. Forty is no longer a milestone at the start of a style Sahara. Right now I am marching towards it with a mixture of defiance and curiosity: three-inch Cuban heels, DVF wrap dress, five-pound hand weights and all!
10 FASHION MOMENTS ONLY A 40-YEAR-OLD CAN GET RIGHT:
1. Wearing Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium to breakfast
2. Stealing her husband’s shirts, ties or even his pants if she needs to
3. Teaming a Chanel jacket with jeans
4. Tying a Hermés scarf around the handle of her handbag
5. A real-deal, full-length ballgown
6. Diamonds at brunch and a seriously fake cocktail ring
7. Camellias on a lapel
8. A dress shirt and a black-leather pencil skirt
9. A classic Chanel handbag
10. Red lipstick with red high heels