Building the Perfect Wardrobe over 50

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Want to add a little zing to your style — but don’t know where to start? Barbara Grufferman’s talked to the experts — so before you buy that, read this!

My husband shops for fun. He’ll spend hours on the Internet, perusing different sites from Zappos to HauteLook to Orvis in search of the perfect kahki pants. Or, he’ll swing over to Bloomingdale’s on a Saturday afternoon to see what’s on sale, lingering a little longer at Armani.

Me? After I turned 50, I was so confused about what I should or shouldn’t wear that I preferred unloading the dishwasher — my least favorite household chore — to buying clothes. Shopping, for me, was intimidating and time-consuming. And I usually got hungry, tired, and grumpy, which meant that I ended up buying either the wrong things or stuff I didn’t need. On the flip side, though, I love style and I love to look good. It’s a dilemma.

I thought about paying my husband an hourly fee to shop for me — but that option became unnecessary when I decided to write The Best of Everything After 50. While doing research for the book, I had the great opportunity to interview Diane von Furstenberg, Ginny Hilfiger, and a few other fashion-forward experts who gave me guidelines (no rules, please!) on what to wear and to avoid once I turned 50. Here’s their master list of “must haves”:

  • Dark denim boot cut jeans (Uniqlo, 7 For All Mankind, Levi’s)
  • Dark denim straight leg jeans
  • White jeans (boot cut and straight leg)
  • Great fitting black pants (Theory, Tahari, Joseph, J.Crew, Ann Taylor)
  • Short, snug-fitting black jacket (Theory, Tahari, Ann Taylor, Target)
  • Black pencil skirt (wear it to the knee, and make sure it has a little stretch, but isn’t skin tight — Theory, Diane von Furstenberg, Kors, Tahari)
  • Cardigans (best year-round fashion accessory you’ll ever find — look for the Classic Cardigan from Merona brand at Target and buy one in every color. Make sure to take a size or two smaller than you would normally get or else you’ll end up with a “Mumsy” sweater)
  • Cropped black leather jacket (shop around for one that fits you perfectly: cropped to the waist is best, and no, a black leather jacket is not too young for us!)
  • Tank tops (buy a few in white, black and cream to wear under the cardigans, with jeans and skirts. The fit should be snug not loose, so size down if you need to — Uniqlo, Target’s Mossimo Supply Co, American Apparel, Banana Republic)
  • Dresses — wrap and sheath (Target by Merona, Diane von Furstenberg, Theory, Nicole Miller, Hugo Boss)

I now have all these pieces, which I mix and match, depending on the occasion, for different looks. I just add a few key accessories, like a cool necklace, big ring, scarf, perfect shoes, or a bag, and I’m ready to rock and roll. My two favorite purchases were the Merona dress from Target (which costs $39.99) and the cropped black leather motorcycle jacket from Saks (it costs a tad more than the Target dress, but given how often I wear it, it was oh-so-worth it!) I wear it with the jeans, pants, dresses, and pencil skirt . . . year round. The leather should be buttery and thin so you can wear it in lieu of a black jacket or cardigan.

What’s the best overall style advice for women over fifty? We don’t want strict rules, but there are some pretty good guidelines to help achieve a polished, confidence-boosting look:

  • Find a good tailor and make her your friend
  • Wear clothes that define your waist, no matter how big or small it is
  • Use a personal shopper, or a great sales person if your favorite store doesn’t have a personal shopping department  (or try a fantastic online personal shopper: www.what2wearwhere.com)
  • Spend more money for pants, skirts and jackets (especially that “must-have” black leather cropped motorcycle jacket . . . you’ll have it for years)
  • Try discount retailers for basics like tank tops and cardigans
  • Keep it simple and stay away from bling
  • Steer clear of frilly, ruffly, puffy, or overly girly styles
  • Think “cardigan” before “jacket” for skirts and dresses (it’s a softer, easier look)
  • Be careful of loud prints, and lean towards solids
  • Invest in a few great bags
  • Keep your skirt and dress lengths to the knee which is most flattering
  • Have at least two perfectly fitting LBDs (little black dresses) in your closet at all times, and at least one terrific little black cardigan to wear with your LBD, if it’s sleeveless
  • Invest in some good new bras, including one specifically for wearing under a t-shirt or other smooth shirts, and make sure to get fitted by a pro at your local lingerie or department store.
  • Stop wearing Granny panties. Try on a pair of Hanky Panky thongs (or even their boycut panties), and you’ll never go back. Also, don’t wear white panties when wearing white or light colored pants; instead, go with the lingerie that’s closest to your own skin color and they’ll blend right in.

Having a basic wardrobe is essential, but there’s a world of fantastic fashion out there, and your personal style should be your guide. Pick a look that reinforces your confidence and sexiness, put it on, and then go out and live your life.  Don’t worry about what you look like; we did too much of that in our younger — and more insecure — years. Now, we should enjoy ourselves and not waste time overthinking every fashion choice. Forget rules and just wear what makes you feel good about . . . you.

Editor’s Note: Barbara Hannah Grufferman is the author of “The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts’ Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money, and More

6 comments so far.

  1. avatar Carolyn K says:

    I would add that if you’re going to wear snug fitting cardigans and tank tops and you have love handles, you should definitely add a body shaper to your list of must-haves.
    With regard to panties – if you find thongs and boy shorts uncomfortable, there are several lingerie manufacturers making seamless panties with non-elastic waist and leg bands. Some examples – Bali & Victoria’s Secret.

  2. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    The best fashion advice at any age is to wear styles that flatter your body shape. I’ve mentioned before that if you are tall and slim almost anything will look nice on you. That is not true for petite women, those with an hourglass or pear shape or women with extra weight. Cropped jackets or shirts make belly baggage stand out a smoother look is a hip length or looser jacket. Buy the best quality you can afford on the things you intend to wear the most often.

  3. avatar anneh says:

    I must admit that I find these proclamations about what to wear at a certain age kind of ridiculous.  I’m 51 and 5’4 and in good shape and I like to wear my skirts about three or four inches ABOVE my knee – with boots no less!  We need to stop acting like fashion police and allow freedom of expression at any age.  I think most people know what works for them fashion-wise and if they don’t…well, really, who are they hurting?  Enough of these petty attempts to make us believe there is some sort of over-arching fashion rule for over 50.  Frankly, I find more than a few women my own age to look rather “dowdy” because they subscribe to these old-fashioned ideas….and, by the way, that’s fine with me because they are exercising their own freedome of expression! 

  4. avatar J Holmes says:

    So glad Target merchandize was mentioned in the article – Mossimo and Merona both make stylish clothes at extremely reasonable price, my 1st stop for t-shirts, sweaters, jeans, and I always get compliments on my style.

  5. avatar Briana Baran says:

    Sorry, but no. And I do mean no. Cardigans? Pencil skirts? Wrap dresses and sheaths? Are we channeling our inner-preppy-church lady? And why all of the utterly blah neutrals? Darlin’, you are not ready to rock ‘n’ roll. Dance with a polite partner with a telephone book’s width between you to Muzack? That I might believe.
     
    I can’t wear knee length skirts. My legs are bowed enough that a hound dog could run through them without brushing his sides. They are also extremely short, and they are tapered, not one size all of the way down. I am also very long waisted, which means that I cannot wear petites, and I cannot wear high-rise or even some so-called natural rise jeans because I look like I’m walking on stumps. I also can’t do flares or boot-cut, because they don’t fit correctly…and tailors are lovely, but they charge a small fortune to alter the legs of jeans and pants to fit correctly. I wear ultra straights and skinny jeans, and I roll the hems if they are too long. My friends have all tried this look because they love it…and are all convinced that only one person…the one in the Dr. Martens…can carry it off. All of my jeans are low-rise…I have no muffin-top, and the combination of skinny and low make my legs look longer.
     
    I also wear ankle length skirts and dresses…in bright, delightful colors. I have good arms, with muscles not wings, why should I hide them suddenly because I’m over fifty? I love interesting clothing, truly unique jewelry, and fabulous shoes…by Fluevog, Miss Sixty, Dr. Marten, and Sam Edelman…and never in black unless they’re totally special. I never do scarves…but I have glorious bags in an array of colors (and most of my purchases are seriously discounted as I am on a budget).
     
    I’m surprised that in the advice on lingerie section we weren’t firmly instructed to purchase bras that provide adequate nipple coverage, because, heaven knows, after 50 we wouldn’t want to inadvertently acknowledge that we might feel a cool breeze now and again. How embarrassing! And who wears granny panties? Better advice is not to wear those damn push-up bras that too often give that weird double-bubble silhouette. And buy colors! They’re often on sale, and under darker colors, who but you (or perhaps someone special) will know? It’s like having a delicious, delightful secret…daffodil yellow or hot pink underthings. Have some fun, you’ve made it this far, you deserve it.
     
    Over 50 doesn’t have to be about being prim (and these clothes are just about maiden-aunt prim…pencil skirt “but not too tight”…and all). We are alive, and sexy (if we want to be) and still so capable of joy, and vivaciousness, and wonder, and delight, and, yes, having fun! Yes, you want to be comfortable, and not exceed your own zone of what works for you, but limiting yourself to a pallet of black, white, beige, grey, ecru and well…that’s it, with no color or frills or life is making a statement, and a sadly restrictive and somewhat defeatist statement at that. No more exploring horizons for me…I’ll stick to the “classics”…and this is what they can bury me in…as of right now.
     
    I was debating when (not if) to dye my hair blue…as in cobalt blue. These articles are so mind-boggling I do believe I will use that dye this very weekend.

  6. avatar eleanore wells says:

    I read this twice, looking for the “over 50″ part.  To me, both lists apply to grown women of any age.