My feet, in Birkenstocks bought in Berlin, on the cobblestones of Rovinj, Croatia
By Caitlin Kelly
Now that the U.S. Congress has its highest-ever number of elected women — yay!— The New York Times recently commissioned color portraits of each. Given the nature of politics, where everything is fodder for argument or criticism, most of the women chose safe-but-snoozy gem-toned jackets, the default option of TV reporters and anchorwomen everywhere.
Damn! I was immediately intrigued by her confidence, and wondered who voted for her as well. Those boots! That lilac-highlighted bob! That Miyake-esque dress! That muffler!
Intriguingly, she represents a wide swath of Connecticut, not a place I’d expect to elect a woman with such awesome style.
Rep. Rosa di Lauro of Connecticut; NYT photo by Elizabeth Herman or Celeste Sloman
I love personal style!
I grew up among people who did as well. My father had a growing collection of safari jackets and highly-polished leather shoes while his late wife, literally, had garment racks bulging with designer clothing. My mother owned a glossy black mink with an emerald green silk lining and a stunning collection of wigs, changing her hairstyle daily when she felt like it.
One of my Banana Republic scarves, a Ghost bias-cut dress bought in L.A., a silk floral and sequin jacket bought at an Opening Ceremony sample sale. Why are my Dad and I hysterical? It’s my wedding and all we can hear outside the church, on Toronto’s Centre Island, is cows mooing from a petting zoo nearby.
My own style? It’s tough when you’re (sigh) larger than a 10, a size most designers ring with razor wire, deeming the rest of us too fat to bother with, while I’m a size 14 to 16 trying hard to get back to a 12.
The basics of great personal style include knowing your body well enough to emphasize the better bits and draw attention away from the rest; wearing clothes that fit you properly and are comfortable without being sloppy; meticulous grooming (hair cut/color, manicures/pedicure, attractive eyewear, discreet make-up, well-polished/ironed footwear and clothing.)
I spent a year living in Paris, and visit as often as we can afford, which has taught me a lot. I don’t find nearly as much inspiration in New York and black is, indeed, our official color.
Style is less about spending a lot money and more about choosing quality cuts and fabrics, knowing what suits you best, wearing it with pride and consistency.
My style? Minimal. European.
— Knits, not too revealing. Recent finds include a Michael Kors top and matching skirt, several sweaters and dresses from Canadian retailer Aritzia.
— Scarves. Silk, wool, cashmere, cotton, Hermès to vintage. When your basics are simple, you need a hit of added color and pattern. My favorites include a violet wool muffler from J. Crew and four silk crinkled ones from Banana Republic, in cream, dark brown, pale pink and fuchsia. (visible in my new Welcome and About photos on this site.)
— Good jewelry. Lucky to have a generous husband and I haunt antique shows; I wear my tiny diamond wedding hoops almost daily. Here are a few of my most-worn rings.
l to r: wedding ring, Secrett, Toronto; vintage; new; vintage, found in Truth or Consequences, NM; new, mother-of-pearl and sterling, bought in Alexandria, VA.
— Unexpected patterns and colors. While I stick to neutrals for my main pieces, I add color and pattern in scarves, gloves, hats, shoes.
— Shopping out of the U.S. I pretty much hate most of what I see from mass-market American retailers: colors, shapes, sizing; sleeves too long, armholes cut for elephants. So, every two or three years, in Paris, I stock up, and every four to six months, in Canada, usually in Toronto and Montreal, where I know the stores. Thanks to the Internet, you’re only limited by budget and what’s available. In Canada, I like Aritizia, Ca Va de Soi, La Senza (lingerie) and Heel Boy and Brown’s, shoe stores. Were I wealthy, I’d buy almost everything from Gravity Pope, another Canadian clothing and footwear retailer. We buy scarves at Diwali in Paris on every visit.
— Occasional full-price the-hell-with-it investments. Very rare, but worth it. In December 2014 I wandered into Barney’s and found an Isabel Marant heathered navy light wool jacket in my size and a dark denim carryall with black leather handles and base. I blew $700 and don’t regret a penny, still using both and loving them. A $250 cardigan from Canadian brand Ca Va de Soi is perfect in size, shape, color and weight.
— Thrift, resale, vintage and consignment. Check out The RealReal, Vestiaire Collective and others for high-end stuff. Recent scores include a beige suede newsboy cap and a burnt orange velvet and silk muffler.
My husband is a snappy dresser, slim and able to carry off French looks with ease, like a wrapped muffler with a jacket or blazer. I follow a British professor, Nigel Cleaver, on Instagram and hope to go clothes shopping with him when we get to London later this year; his Insta handle is (!) ignoreatyourperil.
For inspiration, we read the weekend FT’s How to Spend It, which offers insanely expensive ideas, but also some cool stylish ones we can afford. I read Vogue and Porter but don’t follow anyone on Insta or any fashion bloggers.
Where do you get your personal style?
Are there people whose personal style has inspired you?
Getting in and out of these three cities, and around them while staying there, can feel overwhelming. It’s not. Download whatever apps work best for you (I am not an apps person!) or, as I do, grab a few really good maps, including separate maps of the bus and subway systems. Study them in bright light at your leisure — i.e. not in the dark/wind/rain when you look like a gormless tourist inviting thieves to snatch your purse, backback, phone or suitcase.
In London and Paris, the lines have names; in Paris for the final destination, and in Paris they also have numbers. In NYC, they have numbers or letters — the L, the Q, the 4. The problem with NYC? Sometimes they go express and you’ll have to get out before the stop you had planned.
I was heartened in Paris and London to see sliding glass panels at some station platforms that open in concert with the train’s doors — which prevent the horror of suicide or homicide. In NYC, which has nothing so civilized, be careful.I can’t say this too strongly; people have been shoved onto the tracks and killed by mentally-ill people standing near them. Stand as far back as possible from the platform edge and be aware of who is near you.
Cabs cost a fortune in London, less so in Paris and are not terrible in New York. In NYC, you’ll see bright green cabs — they won’t stop for you if you’re in Manhattan as they are designated for the outer boroughs. You’ll also go crazy around 4:30 p.m. trying to hail a cab as that’s the time of shift change and many are racing to the garage.
Take the bus whenever possible. You’ll see so much more of the city and start to understand its geography. Buy a weekly transit pass in each city to save money and speed you up; in New York, you slide your Metrocard to enter the subway, dip it when entering a bus.
Remember that others work there and are weary/late/in a hurry. Don’t hog seats/space with your bags and packpack!
When walking do not, ever, walk slooooooooowly and in a large pack of bodies that spans the width of the sidewalk. It’s rude, dangerous and obstructive. Nor should you abruptly stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or stairs or the entrance to the subway. We’re in a hurry, dammit!
It’s too easy to assume your default setting of hotel/Air BnB/couchsurfing. How about house or apartment-sitting? A home exchange?
As I blogged here earlier, I spent my three Paris weeks in two people’s homes, both of them professional photographers and photo editors, (hence, great taste!) It was so much more relaxing for me to lounge away my mornings at the kitchen table or dining table, reading the paper or a book. I was able to spread my stuff out, do laundry, cook my own meals — and listen to music as loudly as seemed prudent.
In short, I felt truly at home in a foreign city. I loved food shopping, coming home with my baguette and gooey hunk of Reblochon (cheese) and some fresh figs for breakfast. I bought several sorts of loose tea and enjoyed it as well.
Unless I can afford a really lovely hotel, I’d rather rent a place.
A whole set of blog posts on its own!
If you love antiques as much as I do, you’ll quickly suss out the best vintage stores and flea markets in these three cities; in Paris, I scored a gorgeous fedora and 80s earrings at Eponyme in the 11th and was deeply disappointed by the sky-high prices at the flea market at Clignancourt. In Manhattan, check out the East Village — East 7th and East 9th — for lots of vintage and some great indie shops; I just discovered Haberdashery on East 9th. Heaven! It has one of the best-edited collections of serious vintage I’ve ever seen.
All three cities offer boatloads of style from smart, savvy retailers, whether the fabric department in London at Liberty (swoon) or the jewelry in Manhattan at Barney’s (bring a Brinks truck full of money.) Pick a cool/chic neighborhood and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring it, whether Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Marylebone High Street in London or the 6th or Marais in Paris.
Don’t forget — you can, (as I did twice on that trip) — box and ship home your new things from the local post office or a bunch of your less-needed clothes/shoes to make room/reduce weight in your suitcase; mine weighed just one pound below the limit when I returned!
These are three of the world’s most stylish cities. Sure you can schlub around in baggy pants and white sneakers and bright pink nylon, but you might as well wave a flag shouting “Tourist!”
Many of their residents take serious pride and pleasure in how they present themselves, whether the hipsters of Willamsburg or the Sloanies of London. In NYC, assume that wearing black makes for good native camouflage; women favor a good, fresh manicure (easily acquired in many affordable nail salons), and haircut, with polish in cool dark non-frosted shades or pale.
Parisian women, and men, are justifiably known for their style and it’s easy enough to fit in if that’s fun for you. Women rarely wear prints or leggings and many sport truly eye-catching accessories — an unusual hat, a terrific muffler, interesting shoes. I rarely saw anyone wearing high heels; cobblestone streets chew them up. Many men, of all ages, also wear mufflers or scarves to add a dash of color and texture. Look for unusual color combinations and flashes of wit — a lavender sock, a tangerine pair of gloves.
London men, especially, dress with care: narrow-toe, highly-polished leather shoes, narrow trousers, a great briefcase. Women dress more eccentrically and playfully there than in Paris or New York — all black in London and Paris just feels sad and lacks imagination, while the pom-pom-studded skirt I saw on the Tube in London would raise dubious eyebrows in much of New York.
Bring an umbrella to all three cities! In a month, (late December to late January), I faced a frigid low of 33 F to a high of almost 50. London was more humid. A small umbrella, (with a sealable Ziploc bag for when it’s soaked and you need to tuck it into your bag or backpack), is a must.
To stay warm, I’m a big fan of cashmere, even socks, mitts, scarf and/or hat. Light and silky, it’s super-warm but not bulky. Add a thin layer of polypro or silk beneath your clothes on the bitterest of days. Woolen tights aren’t easy to find in the U.S. but also make a big difference.
Eating and drinking
London will bankrupt you! I have little great advice other than…expect it and bring money. I save hard for my vacations and refuse to make myself miserable, so I mix up splurges, (a cup of tea at the Ritz in London [not the full tea!] for about $10) and a cocktail in their gob-smacking gorgeous bar for $30), with a quick cheap sandwich for lunch.
Keep in mind that museums and art galleries often have excellent dining facilities; I loved my lunch at Tate Modern,
Paris restaurants typically offer a plat du jour, always less costly than dinner. For about $15 to $20, you can enjoy a hot meal of two or even three courses. Wine can be a little as five euros a glass — about $7. Enjoy!
New York City has a terrifically wide array of options, from the hautest of elegant bars and restaurants to the usual national chains like Olive Garden, Friday’s, etc. The city excels at diners, old-school, all-service restaurants whose enormous laminated menus go on for pages. Few things make me as happy as settling in at the battered Formica counter, (look for a shelf or a hook beneath it to hang your purse or pack so no one can grab it and run), and eating there. Try Neil’s, at 70th and Lexington, or Veselka, on the Lower East Side, in business since 1954.
Whatever you do, flee midtown: boring, crowded, filled with tourists.
When you’re a visitor with limited time, it’s tempting to rush around all day and forget how tired, hungry and thirsty you’ll end up. Allow for a two-hour lunch or a glass of wine or an espresso sitting outdoors in a Paris cafe — which has heaters for the winter. Slow down.
And do not keeping staring into your bloody phone. Just….be there.
Read about your city!
These might be histories, or fiction or guidebooks. I always take my London A-Z, (a highly detailed set of maps), and my Plan de Paris, (ditto), both of which are small and slide into a pocket or purse easily.
There are, of course, dozens of great blogs written by savvy, stylish people living in each of these cities whose posts will be timely and give you all sorts of fun ideas; I like Small Dog Syndrome for London and Juliet in Paris (whose August 2014 posts about London were super-helpful and detailed.)
Pick up the local newspapers; in New York, compare the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News to get a real picture of this city’s diversity; in London, the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail; in Paris (if you read French), Le Monde, and Liberation. The letters to the editor, alone, offer some serious insights into what people all around you are thinking and care most about.
Yes, you can read online but don’t. Go old-school and savor it.
Gives you something to tuck under your arm, and look like you belong!
I arrived in Paris on December 20 with 30 days ahead of pleasure and business, spent in two of the world’s most stylish cities, including festivities like Christmas and New Year’s. I live near New York City, so already have a big city wardrobe with a lot of black, which I knew, from previous visits, would work just fine in Paris.
But which clothes for comfort and style?
For temperatures ranging from near 50 to a frigid 33?
For business meetings in London and long afternoons walking Paris streets?
To fit into local norms?
To be comfortable out walking for hours?
I chose very few colors: black, cream, white, scarlet, purple.
My weapon of choice…
I see you eye-rolling at its cost, but cashmere can be found on sale, in thrift, consignment and vintage shops. It costs more than wool every time, but it lasts. It has the supreme value of being really, really warm but also light (i.e. not bulky) and, oh yeah, elegant.
So I brought a black cashmere T-shirt dress that hits mid-calf. The damn thing is, literally, 20 years old, and I have to keep sewing up little holes in it. But it’s the best investment I’ve ever made. A garnet-colored long-ish cashmere cardigan and a black cashmere turtle-neck.
I’m deeply regretting leaving behind several more cashmere turtleneck sweaters, (but whose colors didn’t fit the bill.)
My coat, (and I debated long and hard about the wisdom of this choice), is a black wool sweater-coat that I pin closed. Even at 33 degrees — which is damn cold! — I’ve been fine, wearing layers beneath it, a wool shawl, a wool hat and wool or lined suede gloves. I can shuck it off easily when on the Metro or stuff it into my carryall. It’s stylish, comfortable and adapts easily to any layers beneath it. (My other options were too bright and/or bulky.)
Also, two nylon T-shirts (warm but not bulky), one pair of black leggings.
Three skirts, black, scarlet and a dressier DVF one with those colors in it. Stockings in black, purple and scarlet. A black H & M cotton dress. Several pairs of comfy/warm yoga pants and a cotton sweatshirt for lounging and sleeping in. Two pretty caftans for when I’m a houseguest visiting friends in London.
Two pairs of shoes and one pair of boots, all black, all low-heeled, all comfortable and tested before I left home. I’ve been walking all day here, on wet cobblestones and pounding the Metro stairs, all good.
I did pack (hah) a set of clothes for working out, and very light gym shoes. Unused, so far!
My one concession to dressy is a very thin print silk jacket I’ll wear over my black cotton dress, add purple stocking stockings and a devore brown velvet scarf, nice for New Year’s dinner here in a restaurant.
I did laundry in the laundromat across the street — Charlie Chaplin-esque! Washing only one washer full cost eight euros, (about $12), so I skipped the additional cost of drying and used the clothes dryer, (the non-electric kind that is a rack across which you lay or hang all your clothes), in our borrowed flat.
There are sales only twice a year in Paris, in January and June. They start January 7 and I’m back here January 11 ready to run for it! I’ve already mapped out some of my targets.
French women do dress differently than Americans — a lesson I learned at 25 when I lived here for a year. They generally buy many fewer items than Americans do, take good care of them and keep them for many years.
I’ve been checking out some of my favorite shops already and you can have anything you want, as long as it’s made in black, white, camel or navy. You see, at least in better stores, few prints or clothing made badly of cheap fabric. So you buy less, spend a bit more and love it.
I also love the colors you find here that are much more difficult to find in the U.S. — navy blue, a soft neutral peach, deep emerald green and every possible shade of gray.
One of the other things that makes a long trip easier is how many shoe-repair shops line the streets here! Our NY town of 10,000 lost its only cobbler a few years ago necessitating a 10-minute drive to another town — here in the 7th arrondissement, an upscale neighborhood, there are four cobblers within a five-minute walk of this apartment.
Dry-cleaning is expensive here (which I knew) so I’m hand-washing anything delicate.
It’s been an interesting reminder how few clothes you really need and how many ways you can combine them to make a cool look.
A few wardrobe items worth buying here:
— Jewelry, especially costume. The French make amazing costume jewelry! I’m still wearing and loving pieces I bought here 20 years ago. Look for bold, unusual pieces. A trip to les puces, the flea market, (esp. Vernaison) at Porte de Clignancourt, offers fantastic options.
— Underwear. If you’re small enough! There are gorgeous colors on offer, and look for chains like Princesse Tam Tam. Much prettier than that old American standby, Victoria’s Secret. I’ve seen the most gorgeous jewel-toned lacy silks ev-uh!
— Vintage. If you’re a label-girl, you’ll find plenty of Hermes, Chanel, Issey Miyake, etc. Just bring a sack full of cash.
— Scarves. My weakness! I passed up a terrific wool piece with maps of the Megeve ski slopes at the flea market, but scored two pretty ones (so far) for $15 and $20 each.
— Shoes. I’m forever fascinated by what stylish Frenchwomen wear on their feet. My favorite pair so far this trip? Petrol green patent oxfords. You don’t see many women tottering along on stilettos, so you’ll find plenty of cool, stylish flat or low-heeled options. (I’ve got my eye on a fab pair of pony-fur desert boots.)
But I was struck by his comment, the headline to this post, as it resonates for many women I know, mostly those of us north of 40. Good to know it’s a challenge for some men as well.
Bits of you head south. Bits of you are little less appealing, (upper arms, upper thighs), than they once might have been. The late Norah Ephron wrote a whole book, published in 2008, called I Feel Bad About My Neck.
Choices that are cute or fun in your 20s and 30s suddenly start to look cheap, tacky and weird in later decades. Grooming — hair, nails, pedicures and (yes, please!) trimming men’s nose and ear hair — becomes even more essential. Careless starts to look disheveled.
Do you know about this terrific blog — Advanced Style? Ari Seth Cohen focuses his lens only on older New Yorkers with panache.
Have you heard of Iris Apfel? Now 91, the self-described “geriatric starlet” gave an interview to Harper’s Bazaar in April, 2013. I liked this:
If your hair is done properly and you have on good shoes, you can get away with anything. That and having a good attitude — try to keep yourself on an even keel. All the plastic surgery in the world isn’t going to help if you are unhappy.
My father just turned 84 and, when he dresses up, still sets a very high bar for elegance — navy blazer, polished loafers, a silk pocket square. My husband, in his 50s, is known around his Manhattan office for a splendid array of socks and ties. I bought him a great pair of fawn suede Lacoste sneakers as my wedding gift.
I see far too many women in their 50s and beyond who look like hell, as though they have simply folded the tent of style, (if they had one in the first place) and jumped the express train to schlumphood. No, I say!
I’m not arguing for the size-2-ropy-arms drama very prevalent in the wealthier precincts of America, as much a uniform as a diktat. But surely we have better options than crappy haircuts and dumpy clothes?
Then what? Shop where?
For me, it’s a varied mixture of vintage, J. Crew, an H & M shift, a bit of designer, some classics: an Hermes silk carre or a pair of Ferragamo suede loafers or an Edwardian necklace.
Then something unexpected to shake the whole mess up. This week I did something utterly out of character, emboldened by a surprise check, and bought a big, blingy watch. I wear it loose, like a bracelet. It’s a hoot and I love it.
The worst sin we make as we age is to give up, to stay stuck in a style rut, to assume that color and wit and fun is something only enjoyed by the young ‘uns. There are several women on my apartment floor who are north of 80 and look great — sparkling eyes, make-up, coiffed hair, fab outifts. Bless them for being a role model.
And so I still read Vogue and Bazaar and Elle and Marie-Claire. I buy very little of what they suggest — both the sizing and prices shoving much of it beyond my reach — but I have fun keeping up, knowing what the cool kids are wearing, and sometimes snagging an H & M copy for $30 or $50 instead.
I’m more willing to invest real cash on great shoes, accessories and jewelry.
Ladies and gentlemen, how has your look changed as you’ve aged?
So why do men appear to be shopping for themselves in record numbers?
Men’s wear sales are surging at double-digit rates. Suits, sports coats and outerwear, nearly all bought by men themselves, are leading the gains, according to Steve Pruitt, founder of the fashion and retail consulting firm Blacks Retail. Blacks projects that men’s suit sales will be up 10 percent this fall and holiday season, and sports jacket sales will be up 11 percent, while women’s ready-to-wear sales remain flat.
“Men are the new women,” Bret Pittman, director of J. Crew’s Ludlow Shop in TriBeCa in Manhattan, told me when I stopped in recently for a tour of the new store, the prototype for a line that will feature men’s suits and tailored clothing.
As I write this, two gift-wrapped boxes await Jose in my closet, from Paul Stuart and Brooks Brothers, with more sartorial goodies en-route for Christmas. He went to the dry cleaner’s tailor today to get three pairs of corduroy trousers altered — after I insisted. (The tailor agreed.)
A well-dressed man is a rare and lovely sight. If this is becoming a trend, I’m all for it.
Madison in the mid-40s, in Manhattan, is where you’ll find Brooks Brothers on the south end of the block and Paul Stuart — a 74-year-old shop named for the founder’s son — at the north end…keep heading north and you’ll find 111-year-old J. Press, all shops with classic, elegant, well-made clothing.
Brooks has everything from a smart black umbrella with a real bamboo handle, (a reasonable $60), to suits, shoes, pajamas, cologne, hats and leather briefcases. Their small shoe department has wonderful things, from dressy to casual. Paul Stuart, whose styles and colors are far more European, is not for the faint-of-heart or thin-of-wallet — a pair of socks is $48 and their sweaters and jackets roam to the four figures. Their cheapest shoe, a stunning black suede Italian loafer, is $562.
But some things are affordable, and fun — silk pocket squares and their knotted fabric cuff-links for $12. I love the quiet, old-school atmosphere and the jewel tones, in virtually every item, that are their trademark.
Elegance is an acquired taste.
My father, at 83 exploring Hong Kong as I write this, still dresses with great style, as he always has, which gave me a decided interest in dating — certainly marrying — a man who appreciates it as well. I still remember exactly what Jose wore on our first date 13 years ago, very much enjoying that he had bothered to dress up for the occasion; when I see guys in their 30s or beyond still schlubbing around in sneakers and caps and hoodies, like a bunch of 12-year-olds with no dough and less imagination, I sigh.
Male elegance has a few basic, classic components:
American men seem to have no idea that tailors even exist, as so many wear trousers, (even on their wedding day!), that puddle hopelessly atop their shoes. Too many clothes, certainly the cheaper ones, are laser-cut in China, with little or no attention to proper fit. Read GQ or Details or The Sartorialist for examples of how do it right.
Learn the difference between cotton, polyester, nylon, wool, cashmere and rayon, calf leather, cordovan, suede. Read labels and feel the materials under your hand. Once you can tell the difference between cashmere and merino, (and your budget has no room for new cashmere), hit consignment and vintage shops for affordable options.
Many men have absolutely no idea what colors look well on them, or awful. The color of your hair, (or lack of same), eyes and skin tone should all affect your choices — including hats, scarves and eyewear. If you’re very pale, a white shirt and light gray suit are probably not the most attractive choices. Jose, being Hispanic, has a skin tone that allows him to wear some fantastically bold color choices and look terrific in them. A decent salesman or woman in a better quality men’s store can help. Men whose wives or partners have a great eye could do worse than let us help you edit your choices.
Huge. The nicest pair of leather shoes will look like hell if you let the heels wear down, (hence the expression, well-heeled), don’t polish them frequently and forget to use heavy, solid wooden shoe trees after each wearing. Regular haircuts — including nose, ear and eyebrow trim for the over-40s — make a serious difference. Keep nails short and clean, and hands moisturized. A subtle cologne is a wonderful lagniappe.
By far the trickiest part of weekend dressing is footwear. Look: there is no smart casual in footwear. Smart is what you wear to work. Casual is trainers: comfortable, fashionable. A chairman of the Royal Opera House once declared that he never wanted to sit next to anyone wearing trainers. He was ridiculed. It was a seminal cultural-podiatric moment. We are the generation that invented trainers, and now we had earned the right to wear them, whenever, wherever.
Joe Ottaway, personal shopping consultant at Selfridges, grimaces. “I’m not a great trainer [note: Britspeak for sneakers, running shoes] fan,” he says. He admits that weekend footwear can be a thorny problem. “What is important is to find something that is age-appropriate.” It seems, not for the first time, that I have missed a key trend in men’s fashion. “The age of the well-dressed, well-groomed man is coming back.” And it means, beyond a certain age, no trainers. What age might that be? “25,” says Ottaway.
Have fun! These include gorgeous silk pocket squares, (this one is $8 in jewel tones), lovely knee-high colored socks, cuff-links, a sterling belt buckle, a slim (possibly vintage) watch, great eyewear, a well-made hat, a snazzy duffel or backpack or briefcase. Frenchmen almost always add a fab scarf or muffler to their outfits, and there are many options out there; I like this striped one from Barney’s, by Paul Smith.
Take time, if being stylish appeals to you, to browse a few high-end shops, on-line or in person, to see what’s available. The king of this is British designer Paul Smith; a visit to his Fifth Avenue shop is always fun and inspiring.
Ladies, does a well-dressed man catch your eye?
Do you — gentlemen — pay attention to such matters?
Any woman over the age of 40 (and it starts younger for many) knows the feeling of utter dread.
What do I wear now?
I work in New York, surrounded by skinny, wealthy women with a lot more time and money to spend on their appearance, grooming, accessories and wardrobe. My mother was a model for a while and my skinny, elegant late step-mother had entire garment racks filled with very costly clothing, so I had beautiful and terrifyingly confident women around me as role models visually — but advice on how to look as great as they did?
Not so much.
I read all the fashion magazines for ideas and guidance, but can’t afford $1,500 handbags and $900 shoes. Nor am I a 15-year-old from Lithuania, on whom all clothes look amazing…
Here’s a video link to an interview with my favorite fashionista, Stacy London, of the TLC show “What Not To Wear”, who says, wisely: “Fear is a real detriment to great style.”
(She even has her own stylists. No wonder she looks so damn great!)
Here are some of the ways I dress well, at 54, on a budget:
A la francaise
French women think long and hard before adding something to their wardrobe. Is it chic? Flattering? Well-made? Americans have too many stores, are overwhelmed by too much choice and keep buying poorly made garments. Having lived in Paris and returned many times, I stick to French-style shopping — buying, and keeping for many years, fewer and better-made pieces.
The simplest black T (well-cut!) and trousers (ditto) can look totally different, thanks to accessories. I look for sales, vintage, antiques and, when possible, buy the very best I can afford at the time. I shop high when possible (Hermes, Manolos) but often low. Two chain necklaces from a super-cheap store in New York have won me multiple compliments. I buy cord and ribbon to make my own necklaces with lockets and other things I’ve picked up along the way, from an Atlanta boutique to a Toronto flea market; this New York store is a treasure trove of gorgeous ribbon.
Men can always up their game with great socks, beautifully maintained classic shoes (penny loafers, brogues), a silk pocket square, a fabulous tie. Fit matters! Watch the break in your trousers and the length of your sleeves. Details, gentlemen!
Never forget how much good a good tailor can do. When I needed a black-tie outfit, I scored a gorgeous teal taffeta floor-length skirt at Loehmann’s, a local discount chain, for $80. A tailor removed the waist and altered it to fit beautifully. Very few clothes come in the exact size and shape that we do, especially as we age.
Rich ladies (and men) wear their silk and cashmere for about 20 minutes. They get bored. Or they never even wear it once. I have a few shops in a nearby town that have helped fill my closets with Ferragamo loafers, triple-ply cashmere and never-worn sandals from Prada and Sigerson Morrison. No one needs to know where your clothes and accessories come from.
This is a tricky area, as so much vintage clothing reads costume-y or fits poorly. But you can add a huge hit of style with the right choices, with styles, materials and workmanship often now priced out of reach. I love my fab black mohair hat from the 40s and a silk Genny dress I scored at this amazing Manhattan shop. It wasn’t cheap, but I’m in my fourth year of wearing it year-round and loving it.
Cut and color. Manicures and pedicures. I’m not fan of obsessive age-fighters like Botox or Restylane, but paying consistent attention to detail really matters as you age. I see far too many women my age simply give up, sliding into matronhood with horrible hair color, choppy cuts and dumpy, unflattering clothing.
Men — nose and ear hair trimming is crucial. Pluck those caterpillar eyebrows. Stylish women love the company of equally stylish men. My Dad, at 82, still dresses with panache and care, as does his partner.
I’m a size 16, hoping get back to a 12. In the meantime, I still have toned legs, strong and shapely shoulders, pretty feet and a waist still clearly defined. That’s enough to keep me from despair.
I was recently photographed (!) for the cover (!!) of a magazine, (oh, all right, Arthrtitis Today), with 750,000 readers, which was crazy. A crew of five people: makeup/hair, wardrobe stylist, art director, photographer and assistant came to my small New York apartment from New York City, Atlanta and Chicago to take my photo. It required four hours’ standing, posing, smiling, high energy.
But I was told my confidence was appealing and unusual. I know what they meant — for my size.
A personal shopper
Every department store has one, and you don’t have to drop a fortune. Having total strangers examine your shape and offer you some fresh new choices can boost your confidence and blast you out of your style ruts. This happened to me twice in the past six months, and it’s made a big difference in how I think about my appearance.
Here’s an interesting blog post on this vexing issue of how to change your style as you head north of 50 — although the comments are much more interesting! — from the British newspaper The Guardian.
I went out and spent a gobsmacking amount of money last weekend buying new clothes.
It was not quick, simple or fun — at several junctures, like an infant needing a nap, I found myself trying not to cry with total frustration. Everything was ugly: too tight, too expensive, too baggy, too bright…
The poor sales associate, Frances, fearing my imminent meltdown, found the department manager, a lovely, calm, reassuring man named Dallas. He offered the necessary sangfroid of my admired sartorial tutors — Clinton and Stacy on my favorite television show, What Not To Wear.
(If you’ve never watched, and need female fashion help, WNTW is your new best friend, the kind whose style and panache are matched with compassion and kindness for your freakouts over body issues. We all have them!)
Only with the help of three gently-encouraging people, including my sweetie who — being a photo editor and a man who’s been my partner for 11 years has both a great eye and knows my taste — could I even find enough clothes to feel that, yes, I now have assembled the start of a stylish and professional wardrobe.
Big deal, right? Isn’t this pretty basic stuff?
You make a lot of money, so spending it doesn’t freak you out and make you fear a penniless old age in a cardboard box
You work in an office surrounded by other people whose clothing and style help you figure out what to wear so you’ll fit in
You wear clothing in a one-digit size
Your mom/sister/best friend/auntie/Granny/gay male friend with fab taste took you shopping and helped you develop a clear idea what’s flattering on you. Which, of course, must change as you age. But how?! (My poor Mom and stepmom fled in fear after a few teenaged trips with me in search of a winter coat and a prom dress. I finally found both but not, literally, without visiting dozens of shops. I haven’t shopped with anyone female and stylish since then.)
You’re blessed with total confidence about the shape and size of your body and which colors and shapes you’ll rock. (My late step-mother, 13 years my senior, had exquisite clothing and a teeny tiny body and made me feel like a heffalump. My mom, a former model living far away, saw me in March: “You’re fat!” she said. Accurate, perhaps, but not confidence building.)
You don’t live in a city where many women and/or their husbands are very high earners, work out daily and stride the streets with terrifying hauteur In New York, (as in some other punitively stylish spots), looking successful on a budget isn’t easy. And if you’re ambitious and don’t look the part, you’re toast.
I find buying clothes so overwhelming I avoid it and then — boom! — I really need to look great right now and what the hell am I going to wear?
In 2009, I appeared on CNN on two days’ notice, in 2010 on BBC within hours of getting an email from England and, quite likely, will be doing some television appearances when my new book is out in two weeks. Right now I have 12 public appearances scheduled, from a closing conference keynote in Minneapolis in August to a local library reading in two weeks.
So I need clothes that are: flattering, comfortable, stylish, age-appropriate, forgiving of the weight I haven’t lost yet and chic.
And what do people expect an author to look like?
Luckily, I finally found some great things, including two Tahari dresses, a strong sea-blue cotton shift and another in black; a gray print sheath dress that works with my curves, and three pairs of trousers. That’s a ton for me to buy at once and everyone was worn out, hungry and cranky by the time we got out of the store.
But working alone at home, year after year on a tight budget, has meant I’ve slid by on a snoozy, safe, comfy diet of leggings and Ts , flats and cardigans. Time to up my game!
Do you enjoy shopping for clothes?
What are your favorite places to find great things?