There I was: on the train to work, wearing a recent order that had just arrived in the post. I had seen the group of university interns in my office taking turns coming into work in baggy balloon trousers, and each intern worn in different ways of chic.
One paired it with a baggy boyfriend shirt and strappy flats, the other with a denim blazer he thrifted from a backpacking trip with new Adidas Samba sneakers. Another girl paired it with a tie-dyed bodysuit and heaps of jewellery.
I decided I had to have a pair too. I found a pair of billowy cargo pants in navy-coloured hammered silk. I felt good.
As I settled down at my table, my colleague turns to me, sizes up my pants, and blurts out, “Isn’t this too young for you? You’re not Gen Z, you know”. Ouch.
Her statement provoked a thought in me: why do we assign age limits to fashion trends? And if we do so – whether consciously or not – isn’t it time we stop? Truth is, at 35 years old, I have little woe to gripe about. Many older women have had it much worse when it comes to the critique of their style. Truth is, I could’ve had it much worse.
Do fashion trends have an age limit?
We often hear things like “You shouldn’t be wearing this after [insert age here]”. Type in “fashion trends age limit” to your browser and it pulls up articles like Fashion Mistakes That Make You Look Older. Supposedly, looking ‘older’ is a scarlet letter to be hidden away in shame. How many times have you overheard someone in the changing rooms tell their friend “This skirt is too short for you at your age”?
Fashion has always had an ageist nerve, that much is no secret.
We sell anti-ageing creams as if they were the switch to stop time itself. We fawn over celebrities beyond 50 who have nary a shadow of a wrinkle around their eyes – as if we haven’t conditioned them to run to their plastic surgeons at the first sign of ageing. We praise young women for channelling Old Hollywood but deride older women for attempting Gen Z-led trends.
Last year, Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood Issue included a cover of Nicole Kidman in that viral Miu Miu collection. On her, an extremely cropped top and a mini skirt cut all the up drew comments such as “This is so inappropriate for a woman her age” and “School girl look, not a good look at her age”. A year on, and Kidman has finally addressed the buzz, saying that despite knowing the intense criticism that cover look got, she’s chosen to remain in her blissful ignorance. “There are times when you hear things and you go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s really hurtful,’” she was quoted in response. “Don’t tell me, I don’t really want to know.”
Closer to home, the tongues aren’t any more forgiving.
41-year-old singer Joanna Dong may be known for favouring eclectic, maximalist looks that unabashedly mix statement colours, textures and prints together with dramatic silhouettes from the likes of Noir Kei Ninomeiya and Richard Quinn, but it wasn’t always like this for her.
“For the first decade or more of my singing career, I felt like I had to compartmentalise my avant-garde personal aesthetic and put it away because clients’ expectations of a jazz singer usually mean that we are dressed in an elegant and unobtrusive gown,” Dong recalls. “It was only later, after making a name for myself at Sing! China, that I felt like I had more negotiating power to express more of my personal style.” Even so, she later shares that she once had a client request if her outfit could be “more conservative”.
“I rarely wear anything revealing, so we had to clarify if by ‘conservative’ they meant ‘more modest’ or ‘less personality’.” The client replied, telling her team “less personality please”.
Even style icon Carrie Bradshaw isn’t immune to this either. With promo stills of Sarah Jessica Parker dripped out to the press, we got to see her beloved Sex and the City character sauntering around New York in overalls and a J.W. Anderson pigeon-shaped clutch. Social media lit up, with users saying that Parker’s look and age felt wildly out of place carrying such a silly bag. That then led to users pointing out how time-weary Parker looked, so much so that the actress criticized what she called ‘misogynistic chatter’ and said “I have no choice. What am I going to do about it? Stop ageing? Disappear?”
When true, personal style trumps fleeting trends
“I feel sorry for anyone thinking they can tell someone else to tone down their dressing,” Sandra Cameron, a 53-year-old in the business of connecting people, states. “I might come off as arrogant in saying this – which if you know me, you know it’s not who I am – but I don’t feel like I have to justify anything when it comes to my style. I am that confident.”
Cameron states that if she chooses to wear something, it’s because it fits her shape and personality. “It shows my true self”.
Similarly, Dong mirrors Cameron’s sentiment of fashion serving its wearer.
When it comes to Dong’s view of fashion, she plainly states that “age is irrelevant, body shape is irrelevant, even gender is irrelevant.” Dong is known for her avant garde, larger than life outfits that include print-clashing tights from Richard Quinn, diaphanuos tulle ballgowns and oversized bows.
“One can check all the boxes of what is considered socially acceptable and still look awkward in your clothes,” she elaborates. “The main considerations for me are if I am owning the look personally and if I am dressed for the occasion. That’s really all I can, and want to care about.”
This disservice ultimately means that older women are less likely to spend on clothes for fear of being deemed ‘inappropriate’. In a 2020 study published by the International Longevity Centre UK, it was estimated that people aged 50 and above are expected to become the key consumer base for the clothing and shoe industry in the UK. They also noted that despite having accrued significant savings, women aged 75 and older stop spending on fashion despite maintaining an interest in fashion and looking stylish.
I don’t feel like I have to justify anything when it comes to my style. I am that confident.Sandra Cameron
Sure, there is a way to dress to look older or younger, but that’s different from being labelled as ‘too old to attempt this fashion trend’. If we are to believe that, unlike a bag of spinach, good fashion and great trends have no expiration date, then who are we to tell women that the way she dresses today is too young? If we are to tell people that they can remain young at heart, then who are we to give them sneering glances when this mentality manifests in their fashion?
“I always say age is just a number,” says Gym Tan, a 63-year-old homemaker. “Clothes come with a size tag, not an age tag. It says S, M , L and not 20, 30 and 40!” She notes one can and should rock a cropped top, bikini or swimsuit at 60 years of age because fashion should be enjoyable and make the wear feel joy rather than intimidation. “In fact, some more extreme looks are absolutely fabulous on an older person because with age comes a certain sophistication, confidence and gravitas that actually elevates the look.”
Tan, who describes her style as a blend of clean, contemporary and elevated, has never been afraid to experiment. Citing her 20s, where she “didn’t want to look like everyone else”, she favoured avant-garde Japanese designers before they hit the big time. Even today, she tells us that even though she doesn’t blindly hop onto trends, that doesn’t mean she’s afraid to experiment with silhouettes, colours and fit. Her Instagram (@californiaistoocasual) is a swoon-worthy feed of Tan in everything from backless slip dresses to print-clashing separates, all pulled off with Tan’s signature elegance and nonchalance.
“I figure, if this 63-year-old woman can look good in these clothes, then other women of my age should give it a go too.”
I always say age is just a number. Clothes come with a size tag, not an age tag. It says S, M , L and not 20, 30 and 40!Gym Tan
And while this doesn’t just apply to women beyond 50 – the criticism of dressing versus perceived age can affect anyone, even millennials and Gen Zers – it still affects them the most. It’s as if we’ve put women beyond 50 on a higher style pedestal that says “No crop tops and Nike Dunks for you; stick to your pearls and luncheon suits”.
“I don’t subscribe to the notion of dressing your age,” remarks 45-year-old Fiona Siew. “If I don’t wear certain trends, it’s not because of my age but rather, it’s not my style. If I didn’t wear that in my 20s, it’s unlikely I would wear it in my 40s”.
For Siew, fashion is fun and experimental. “As long as you’re comfortable, I’d tell you to go for it.”
Perhaps it’s time to expand the dialogue on trends beyond just seeing it through the lens of age-appropriate-ness. Perhaps it’s okay to admit that someone can look good in something, regardless of the year they were born. Perhaps it’s time that we unlearn the inherited vocabulary and habit of being too quick to judge women who don’t try to dress their age, simply because they don’t feel the inclination to.
Like Cameron tells us, “Just have fun with fashion, and wear whatever fills you with confidence”.
Cutting back to my reality and my balloon pants. Was I inspired to wear this because of my much younger interns? Perhaps. Did my colleague’s words sting when they were first uttered? Yes, they did. But am I going to let that stop me from enjoying these gorgeous trousers? Like heck, I will.