Why we need to stop telling women to 'dress their age'

The phrase ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ has long been bandied about, used as an insult to describe a woman (yes, always a woman) wearing clothes that are deemed too ‘young’ for her age.

Typically ascribed to middle-aged women, you’d expect the label to be applied to those in, say, their 40s? Or 50s? Well, research reveals that the most common age a woman is told to ‘dress their age’ is in fact, wait for it … 23.

Yes, really. The survey, from footwear brand Hotter, found that the majority of those comments (65 per cent) come from family members and partners.

Read: ‘Dress the way you want, not how you’re expected to dress’

Ironically, the results also found that while more than half of all women (57 per cent) have felt societal pressure to act and dress in a certain way, confidence grows with age – only 42 per cent of over-55s feel the same pressure, compared to 68 per cent in the 18 to 34 age group.

Certain trends and clothing items were found to be more unsuitable than others, with ripped jeans, hot pants, crop tops and neon colours topping the list of offending items, and the majority of respondents (74 per cent) agreed that women fare worse when it comes to ‘forbidden fashions’.

Commenting on the research, fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell says: “Even from a young age, appearance has always had major social consequences for women, who in turn feel social pressures not only to dress ‘their age’ but to dress in a way that conforms to contemporary standards – standards that are mitigated by patriarchy.

Read: Over-40s fashion style to steal

“Studies have found that as they age, men do not face the same ‘changing room moment’ as women and never feel an item is ‘too young’ for them. These findings further underline the intense pressure that women – and women only- feel to make certain styling decisions.”

This research comes at the end of a period during which there have been multiple reports of women being shamed by airline staff or turned away from flights because of their ‘inappropriate’ clothing. In one case, social media user Sierra Steadman was left in tears after being told to zip up her baggy hoodie to cover her shorts and crop top. In another, a woman was turned away from a pub for wearing a crossover halter top.

Often, the smaller the item of clothing, the bigger the ‘problem’, however, as the Hotter survey shows, even trends that don’t involve revealing a lot of skin are supposedly unsuitable above a certain age, such as skinny jeans, hoodies and fashionable trainers.

Of course, there are times when a strict dress code should be adhered to (in churches or temples, for example), but beyond these occasions, isn’t it time we stopped telling women to ‘dress their age’?

It seems some people believe that only hip young things should embrace fashion trends, that older women should stop trying the latest looks. You know who doesn’t believe that? The many chic 40- and 50-something Instagrammers who share outfit inspiration and their latest shopping finds.

Read: Jerry Hall’s fashion and beauty evolution

These stylish social media influencers prove that catwalk trends aren’t just for teens – but they’re honest about how they have adapted their wardrobes as they’ve grown up. No-one is saying you have to wear mom jeans or a crossover halter top if you don’t think they look flattering on you.

Similarly, no-one is telling celebrity style icons such as Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston or Sarah Jessica Parker (all in their 50s) to tone it down and stop trying so hard.

Ultimately, if an outfit makes you happy, you should wear it. If you want to try the neon trend or pull on a pair of catwalk-inspired combat boots, go for it. Fashion should be fun, and it’s true what they say: age really is just a number.

Do you think people should be able to dress however they like, or is there a limit? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

– With PA

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Written by Katie Wright

Fashion and beauty editor at the Press Association.



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