Dressing the Mutton

 I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. —T.S. Eliotalice lowe

I throw on purple tights and an orange racer-back tank top with the logo of Milestone Running—the San Diego store where I buy my athletic gear—emblazoned on the front. I’m out for an early five-mile run. After I return home and shower, I dress in jeans and a t-shirt for a day at my desk, add a hoodie when I walk out later to the library and grocery store. This is me, age seventy-four, on a typical Tuesday.

My grandmother died when she was younger than I am now. In my memory, she’s an old woman, blue-haired, stocky and shelf-bosomed. In a family photo from my brother’s 1956 high school graduation, she wears a dark shapeless dress under a long shapeless coat, a little pancake hat perched on her tight tinted coils. She dressed her age, like most sixty-something women of her day. In tights and a tank top or jeans and a t-shirt, she’d have caused a stir. She’d have been accused of making a pathetic attempt to pass herself off as younger, of being “mutton dressed as lamb.”

Will I wake up one Tuesday morning—next month or next year or ten years from now—and want to wear a powder-blue polyester tracksuit on my morning run? Will I deem it more appropriate, decide it’s time to dress my age? What does that mean, and is it still a valid consideration? One question conjures another; they pile up in my mind like back issues of The New Yorker. I’ve explored and written about women’s aging from both societal and personal perspectives, seeking answers to questions like these. The matter of dress presents itself as a thread worth following.

The expression “mutton dressed as lamb” originated in Britain, where both are commonly eaten. Lamb is under a year old, tender and desirable. Mutton is the meat from older, tougher, gamier sheep—an acquired taste, I’m told—often relegated to stews and soups. Hosts were known to try to fool their guests by having mutton roasts prepared and presented to pass off as lamb.

Lamb chops often are adorned with little paper frills—accessories like bows in the hair, scarves or beads around the neck—but lamb roasts are served without ornamental embellishments, so whatever made them lamb-like is a mystery. Recipes for mutton recommend marinating and tenderizing it, cooking it long and slow. It may turn out as a respectable roast, but no one’s going to mistake it for lamb. Mutton is mutton, and ostensibly you love it for itself.

In reference to women, “mutton dressed as lamb” was attributed to the Prince of Wales, later George IV, in the early nineteenth century. He used the expression to praise older women, however, not to denigrate them. He liked the frills or perhaps was titillated by the subterfuge: “Girls are not to my taste,” he said. “I don’t like lamb; but mutton dressed like lamb.” In recent times, it’s become a form of ridicule addressed toward older women who defy what they believe to be antiquated standards.

When we’re young we’re birds, chicks, fillies. Then, without warning, we’re no longer “spring chickens.” We become crows, hens, nags. One day we’re lamb; the next, mutton.

When I entered the workforce in the early sixties, women, regardless of their age, did not wear pants—slacks, trousers, or any legged garments—in business offices. Chanel and Schiaparelli designed women’s pantsuits in the thirties; Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn wore them on screen and in public; but they didn’t catch on with the greater population of women and were outlawed in the secretarial pool. My mother was hired as a bank teller in her fifties, becoming the oldest nonmanagement employee at the branch. She was caught in a limbo of needing to appear both young enough to be thought viable in her position and tastefully mature but not superannuated. We dressed much the same in skirts and blouses, dyed-to-match sweater sets, shirtwaist and A-line dresses, feminine-cut jackets. 

In my mother’s time, as in my grandmother’s, older women—whatever number is assigned to the category—were still expected to look and dress their age. They must be tidily outfitted and coiffed, with nothing too short or showy or sexy, nothing that would draw attention, nothing that would seem unseemly. Over recent decades, we’ve seen the relaxation of social mores and a loosening of formality in dress. The social revolution of the late sixties opened the door to an anything-goes assault—but on what? On hypocrisy and pretentiousness, some believed; on decorum and decency, according to others. How far one went was subject to cultural, socioeconomic, geographic, and generational divides.

Growing up in a San Diego beach town, I was aware that what was accepted in casual Southern California may not have washed on the East Coast, where my family originated, or even in sophisticated San Francisco, where my grandmother lived. I don’t recall particular shibboleths about dress, but my mother recited and adopted this refrain: when a woman reaches forty, her hair shouldn’t reach her shoulders.

Now it would be easy to say that standards of dress based on age are no longer a consideration. That we’re freed of constraints. Except that’s not entirely true. I can wear my skinny jeans, or I can don polyester with an elastic waist, but my choices are still subject to scrutiny and consequences. At stake is my identity, the statement I make about myself to the world. It’s a Catch-22. Women past a certain age are mocked if they dress like their daughters, dismissed if they dress like their mothers. They can straddle the middle, hug a safe space along the continuum, but they still teeter on the brink of uncertainty. Is there a right and a wrong, and is it as capricious as it appears? Is seventy the new fifty, or is it still irredeemably geriatric?

When I retired after thirty years in human services management, I donated my casual/professional nonprofit “dress-for-success” attire—suits, blazers, tailored slacks and blouses—to a program that helps homeless women get back into the workforce. I winnow my wardrobe periodically and discard garments I no longer wear, but I’ve never rejected anything because it was no longer age appropriate. I was always a conventional dresser and aimed for good taste and a mature-but-youthful appearance, so with the exception of a few impulse buys later regretted (like the open-weave crocheted mini number I wore to a friend’s wedding), my style of dress hasn’t changed.  

I’m bemused by this whole idea of appropriateness. Whether it pertains to dress or speech or behavior, it carries a weight of judgment: appropriate (fitting, suitable, seemly, apt, proper, correct) according to whom, and to what standard? With no fixed criteria, it becomes a precarious balancing act. Even in that seemingly safe middle ground, scrutiny dangles over you. Magazines and the internet, as wide-ranging as The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Forbes, proffer advice: how to know if you’re dressing too old, too young, or just right—like Goldilocks sampling the three bears’ porridge—in six signs, nine mistakes, ten tips. At some indeterminate point, showing skin (midriff, cleavage, thigh), wearing t-shirts with slogans, or borrowing your daughter’s clothes may trigger an alarm, a flashing neon sign—“Act your age!”—or a convulsive shock.

Arbiters of fashion pay lip service to a liberating consensus—you should wear whatever makes you feel confident and comfortable. But there’s a caveat: don’t take this freedom too far. The women surveyed in the 2014 Women in Clothes, by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, took a fatalistic view; they appeared ready to give up the fight before it began. The study’s older contingent consisted of women in their forties, whose days, to hear them tell it, were dwindling down to a precious few: “After forty it’s time to give up your game.” “I’m almost forty, but I still want to wear tight pants.” “…straddle the line between slutty and frumpy.” They sound as if they’d stepped into a bottomless middle-aged crevasse. My grandmother at forty might have been one of the respondents.

In vivid contrast, Ari Seth Cohen declares in “Advanced Style” (books, website, and documentary), “The ladies I photograph challenge stereotypical views on age and aging. They are youthful in mind and spirit and express themselves through personal style and individual creativity.” Cohen’s subjects are a striking bunch—some glamorous and elegant, others ranging from quirky to outrageous, all over sixty, all eye-stopping. For them, “appropriate” could be a verb: to wrest, seize, commandeer. They’ve laid claim to the art and fun of dressing up, of making a statement, of performing. Their age is a license to dress as lamb or lion or lemon meringue pie, and they go to great lengths to create their public personas.       

As a sociology major in the eighties, I was surprised and delighted to learn that one of my instructors had studied dress as it defines our identities, that such a topic was deemed worthy of sociological research. Another professor published a paper on thrift-store shopping. She found that women’s behavior and purchases in second-hand stores were more adventurous and assertive, less constrained by societal “should,” than in department stores. These projects employed qualitative methodology—interviews, observation, direct experience—rather than quantitative. They drew from Erving Goffman’s 1956 seminal work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which posits that social interaction is a kind of theatrical performance, that we’re acting out roles, whether in front of an audience or backstage. As one of Ari Cohen’s models remarked, “We must dress every day for the theatre of our lives.”

In the perennial student costume of jeans and tee, I don my sociologist/detective hat and magnifying glass, a la Sherlock Holmes, and take up my post in a carrel at the San Diego State University library, nested among the same stacks I inhabited as an undergraduate. I scan the shelves and peruse professional journals for “aging and dress” and find its continued significance in provocative titles that include:

    • “‘Growing old gracefully’ as opposed to ‘MDAL’: the social construction of recognizing older women”
    • “‘No one expects me anywhere’: invisible women, ageing & the fashion industry”
    • “‘Bat wings, bunions, & turkey wattles’: body transgressions & older women’s strategic clothing choice”

Fashion and Age: Dress, the Body and Later Life is grounded in fashion theory and cultural gerontology. Working from the premise that age is a social division like gender, race, class, sexuality, or disability, author Julia Twigg found that while aging has become more fluid as a result of the Baby Boomer effect, it is still associated with a toned-down, self-effacing presentation. A moral code of dress continues to exist, and it’s fraught with ambiguity. Don’t dress too young, expose too much, let yourself go. Do resist age, be up to date and well dressed. The women surveyed wanted neither to stand out nor to disappear—the message they sought to convey was “look at me, I’m not invisible,” echoing another of Ari Cohen’s subjects: “I would rather be considered different and somewhat mysterious than ignored.” I may never make the pages of “Advanced Style,” but I recoil at the idea of “toned-down and self-effacing,” of invisibility.

My investigations reveal a scantily clad elephant in the room. Sex has been glaringly absent and/or discreetly swept under the bed. The literature is silent about sexuality in older women, lingering sexual taboos, or the conflict between the two as they relate to the way we dress. Changes wrought by the sixties became a demarcation point between my mother’s generation and my own; now Baby Boomers are entering their seventies with visions of eternal youth and undiminshed libido. Today most people would agree that older women are sexual beings and as such can, if they choose, announce it in their appearance and dress. Celebrities are trotted out as evidence—Helen Mirren in a bikini, Jane Fonda in a miniskirt, Sophia Loren in anything—but it wasn’t apparent in Vogue or Sociology Today.  

In her 2008 memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Athill reflects, at ninety, on differences between present and past for old women. In her grandmother’s day, women wore what amounted to a uniform; they “went a bit drab and shapeless, making it clear that this person no longer attempted to be attractive.” Old women still can’t get away with dressing like teenagers, she says, “but I have a freedom of choice undreamt of by my grandmothers.” She recalls past loves and writes fondly of the sexual relationship that “accompanied me over the frontier between late middle-age and being old.” At its end, past seventy, “I might not look, or even feel, all that old, but I had ceased to be a sexual being.”

No one wants to be old, fat, ugly, undesirable. Age is in conflict with society’s focus on youth, beauty, and sex. The fashion industry, keen to capitalize on the lucrative gray market, promotes “new ways of being older” yet still bows to the ambiguous standard of age appropriateness. Complicit are bodily changes that accompany age and defy fashion. The response is to cover up and hide sags, spots, veins, and wrinkles in longer skirts and higher necks, darker colors (as if in mourning), or bland neutrals. Or to adapt, by means of elastic waistbands and stretchy fabrics, toddler-like shapes and asexual styles. Think Annie Hall’s “Grammy” in lavender and lace, my grammy in pastel prints. In “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” Nora Ephron observes that she and her women friends wear turtlenecks, scarves, and mandarin collars to hide their telltale crepey necks. She calls it compensatory dressing. For me it’s jeans like NYDJ (Not Your Daughter’s Jeans), with high waists and hidden tummy tuckers, fitted to enhance mature bodies without sacrificing style.

In my working years, I shopped equally at Nordstrom and second-hand stores. I combined smart professional wear with shabby chic to stretch my dollars and achieve my take on an Annie Hall-in-middle-management look. I still rifle through the racks at thrifts for jackets, workout gear, and t-shirts (with or without logos). My body is contoured differently from when I was young—there’s been some shift over time—but I’m still slender and toned. People say I look younger than my age, including my daughter, who will be the first to tell me if and when I’m out of line.

Thanks to cultural and social changes over the past fifty years, we have the freedom Diana Athill celebrated. We no longer have to dress in high collars and low hems or accept that being old means being dismissed, undervalued. We’re still sexual beings. But there continue to remain capricious and often concealed standards and expectations, rights and wrongs. If I’ve exaggerated the dichotomy between mutton and lamb, it’s to emphasize that a quandary still exists. Older women walk a narrow tightrope of judgment, because, like upstart toddlers or defiant teens, we’re still seen as needing to be controlled. Seventy is still seventy, but a new seventy, and yes, this is what it looks like—it can wear purple tights and orange tanks. I don’t think a baby-blue polyester tracksuit is in my future, but I have that choice too.