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Readers, have you ever heard the expression that goes, “If you were old enough to wear it the first time around, you’re too old to wear it the second time around”? (I think this originally applied to mini skirts.) Not very affirming, is it?

Do you think this truism still applies today? I believe that — at least here in the USA — it does not. We are living in an “anything goes” period fashion-wise, where sixty-year-olds routinely dress like teens and teens routinely dress like…well, you decide.

Pictured above: Mamie Van Doren and the late Brooke Astor

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Miley Cyrus

Personally, I do not have a problem with exposed skin — but then again, I’m not a parent. It wasn’t that many years ago that daughters wanted to dress like their mothers (and boys like their fathers), not the other way around.

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Clothing choices are obviously complicated and their meanings can be so subjective it’s hard to make sense of them any longer. A century ago the display of a woman’s ankles was considered provocative. Today, I think we’ve lost our ability to be shocked; we’ve seen it all — literally. It’s also true that historically, women’s bodies and clothing choices were the ones being scrutinized and judged, not men’s. Shouldn’t everybody get to wear whatever they want?

I’m of the “whatever floats your boat” persuasion, but it bothers me that so many styles today seem to be derived from pornography (e.g., hooker-fashion) and prison (e.g., sagger pants). It’s not that I think there’s anything objectively wrong with the garments themselves — super-loose pants and short-shorts in this case — but within the context of our society, I see them as indicators of a coarsened culture, one that romanticizes prostitution (think Pretty Woman) and violence (every action movie). Do I sound like a scold?

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I suspect most of us are of the “if you still got it, go for it” school, i.e, if you can still pull off a look and you feel comfortable in it, that’s all that matters — or should matter. We admire (or are told to admire) performers like Cher, who in another era would have been considered “over-the-hill.” Good for her! we think. Or do we?

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There is something refreshing about seeing an older person dressing formally and perhaps more modestly. It’s an acknowledgment that a) we aren’t young and firm-fleshed forever, and b) we needn’t try to look that way. Style needn’t diminish with advancing age, and fashion doesn’t equal youth.

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Italian gentleman (via Sartorialist), actresses Patricia Neal and Arlene Dahl

So I ask you, readers: Does “age appropriate” mean anything to you?

Are there things you won’t wear, not because they don’t fit well, but rather because they look either too youthful or too mature? If so, upon what do you base your decision: a family member’s judgment, a book on style, or just your own sense of what looks right to you?

Do you think this applies to men too, or just to women?

Are we better off in this “freer” time or rather under more pressure to maintain the illusion of youth longer?

What do you think?

~Peter

When native New Yorker Peter Lappin bought his first sewing machine two years ago to hem a pair of thrift store jeans, little did he know he was initiating a journey that would bring him fame and fortune. While awaiting his fortune he stays busy writing “the world’s most popular men’s sewing blog,” Male Pattern Boldness, and now contributing to BurdaStyle.

“For more than twenty years I’d lived on the edge of the Garment District without even knowing what a seam ripper was. Now I rip daily!”

48 Comments

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    May 13, 2011, 09.23 PMby Peter Lappin

    Loving these comments! So great to hear so many perspectives from people of all ages.

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    May 13, 2011, 07.52 PMby jadedwish

    This is a tricky thing for me personally. I am 30 yrs old but I look like I am under 25 yrs old. My personality doesn’t fit what a 30 year should wear. BUT, I don’t show skin most of the time. I like comfort over fashion, so my wardrobe might not be considered age appropriated all the time. I mean, I do have t-shirts about high-fiving people in the face. :-) If you can rock the look by all means wear it, however, if your legs show signs of your age maybe a mini-shirt might not be the best option.

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    May 13, 2011, 07.43 PMby krricher

    I am 20 years old and I think age appropriate applies to both genders and to ALL ages. I’m sorry but the parent that allows their 10 year old to walk out of the house dressed like a prostitute is extremely wrong. What is that teaching the youth of America? That if you show more skin or let your boobs hang out then you’ll be able to do what you want? Same with young men; pants go either on your waist or your hips NOT your knees! Also jeans don’t have to be 10 sizes too big either.

    As for older generations than myself; it goes both ways. I’ve seen men and women try to dress too old and too young both are tragic sights. It has a lot to do with how the person feels though. If they are trying to relive the “glory days” and they feel young then they will dress like a teen in clothes TOO small for their body type. But if you feel like time is wearing on them and their age is getting up there then they will try to dress like a grandma or grandfather! < I’ve experienced the latter with my mom’s new boyfriend…He wears his father’s hand-me-down sweaters that are just awful…

    Everyone is responsible for age appropriate attire, and I do not think that it’s inappropriate to talk to someone, In love mind you, about the way they dress whether it be too old or too young. And parents especially need to put their foot down on their children’s attire! Sure it’s self-expression, but they can express themselves in something appropriate!

    1 Reply
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      May 13, 2011, 10.18 PMby lila-1

      agree with you whole-heartedly about parents needing to put their foot down on their children’s attire. as far as im concerned it invites attention from the kind of people you dont want anywhere near your kids.

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    May 13, 2011, 07.36 PMby elisabetsy

    I am all for wearing whatever you want at whatever age, but just yesterday I was in a store looking at some ruffle-y baby-doll swing dresses—a style a-la what I wore with combat boots in the 80’s—and thought I may be getting too old to pull off a look that is so “cute-sy”. I still say if you feel like it, go for it! Especially here in NYC.

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    May 13, 2011, 05.06 PMby ck-paz

    I am one year shy of 60 and these days I think…what happened here?!! I find myself opting for comfort, things that don’t bind, shoes that support, things to keep me cool, things to keep me warm. Despite wistful reflection of glorious sassy days of sleek youth and sophistication, I can’t hold on any longer. Frankly, I am at the top of the downhill slide, probably with a good 20+ years ahead of me. Age-appropriate attire is a good subject to reflect upon at every turning point; from youth to adulthood, middle age to old age, work to retired…so many turning points. Someone needs to list the rules of what is considered age appropriate; however, perception is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes, change we must; however, if you like what you see, if you like what you wear when you look in the mirror…well then who’s to say?

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    May 13, 2011, 04.34 PMby Ashkeyana

    There are some fashions that I see people on campus wearing (so mostly early twenties) that I personally think that no one should be wearing. At least, significantly fewer people than actually do wear them. (For example: there are some young women who can pull off wearing leggings instead of regular trousers. Most of the people I see in that style are not the ones who can wear it). So a bit of “dressing your age” from my point of view is that once you’re more mature you’re expected to have more sense. Sure, you could still wear a micro-mini if you wanted to. But at 40 we expect you to know better. It’s not that it looked great when you were 20 and won’t now, it’s that you weren’t expected to know better.

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    May 13, 2011, 03.42 PMby emjay417

    I try to dress my 3 yo daughter in “age appropriate” clothes, which to me means no booty shorts and no midriffs or tube tops. I’m glad I sew, because the retail stores do not share my opinion!

    For myself (29 in a couple weeks) I try to stay from anything my step-sister or her friends who are graduating HS soon likes or that I used to wear when my husband and I lived in Boca Raton pre-kids. Nothing that I wore there is appropriate after you have kids! :)

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    May 13, 2011, 02.26 PMby papa

    If you are under the age of 18, then I think being age appropriate is important because you don’t want to attract the attention of people who are too old for you. Once you’re over the age of 18, it’s more important that an outfit looks good on you. If you are 40 and in amazing shape and can still pull off minis then go for it. On the other hands, there are some 20 year olds that just should not wear short shorts. Before you wear something you need to ask yourself: 1. Does this outfit look good on me? 2. Does this outfit present me to the world in the way I want to be presented?

    1 Reply
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      May 13, 2011, 10.21 PMby lila-1

      agreed. a plus size figure can be luscious and drop dead gorgeous, but in the same hot pants their size 6 friends are wearing, it just looks bad….

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    May 13, 2011, 10.22 AMby carolyn-s

    I think that term “age appropriate” dressing is so stultifying. However, as you get older you do realise that it becomes more difficult to carry off an extreme look like when you were younger; you just start to look eccentric, and not ironic as you hoped! I guess most of would like to think our outfits are attracting glances of admiration when we go out, and not amusement!! I like the casual streamlined look which is supposed to suit older women, but I like “funky” stuff too and wouldn’t want to feel I can never experiment with a new look again. Magazine articles advising on “dressing for your age” always seem to feature some sort of neat classic little suit, usually in black, for my age group(40’s) which I find is the opposite of inspiring and is sometimes just plain depressing! I like The Sartorialist; he is great for featuring older people managing to carry off exciting fashions with flair and panache.

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    May 13, 2011, 09.49 AMby mattmoodie

    “It wasn’t that many years ago that daughters wanted to dress like their mothers (and boys like their fathers), not the other way around.”

    I agree that you often see fathers here in the UK who are dressed the same as their sons: combat trousers/jeans and a t-shirt or hooded top. One theory is that people continue to dress the same way as they did when they were a child (this seems to apply more to men than women in my experience). So children of the 20s, such as my grandfather, dress in tailored trousers, shirts, and jackets as most children/teenagers did in the 30s and 40s. Children of the 50s like my father dress as children/teenagers did in the 60s and 70s, wearing jeans and shirts, with chunky jumpers and leather shoes or boots.

    Children of the 70s (who make up the bulk of fathers just now, I’d say), wear 80s and 90s gear: jeans and t-shirts with trainers. I have days like this, but I also have days where I wear my own sewing projects, which are a bit more my attempt at a look (harking back to a previous Peter article). It’s an attempt to grow a bit older a bit more gracefully; I don’t want to hit 40 and still be wearing jeans and t-shirts, so am trying to find something more appropriate without being tweedy (though tweed does come into it, because you can’t beat tweed).

    It’s only a theory, mind.

    1 Reply
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      May 16, 2011, 05.46 PMby kastanie

      Agree with you on that theory, mattmoodie! We women think we have it tough when we go shopping but at least we generally have choice. Buying clothes with my bloke (who has ‘hit 40’) is a nightmare – in the UK at least, guys’ choice is either the skinny-student-jeans-n-tshirts look, officewear or cosy-over-60s! That’s it. Few manufacturers successfully produce stylish ranges for 30-60 yrs guys who want to look good without resorting to jeans and tshirts. There comes a point where combats n hoodie just looks tragic on a guy the older he gets. For truly stylish menswear, Scandinavia and Italy are definitely where it’s at!

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    May 13, 2011, 09.37 AMby sarahuk4

    ‘If you wore it the first time around, don’t wear it second time around’, ‘Your only as old as you feel’ or the man’s version of ’ your only as old as the woman you feel’. I think men don’t have as much pressure to dress age appropriate as women do. But then here there’s a lot of women who don’t dress age appropriate and some clearly don’t look good. I am 26 this year and have two children so weather my view is from a mothers stance rather than a woman’s i don’t know, but I personally do feel too old to wear some clothing, and want things to suit me other wise i just wear jeans and vest tops. I think my style has gone more conservative since becoming a mother.

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    May 13, 2011, 09.02 AMby Natasha Venzke

    I’m only 25, so I haven’t started feeling I’m too old to wear anything yet. But when I was younger I couldn’t wait to wear grown-up clothes. I wanted to wear formal clothes and not look ridiculous next to the other kids.

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    May 13, 2011, 03.05 AMby sewster55

    Well I ponder this question every year. I live in California & like to wear mini skirts. It’s hot & I feel a little more dressed up in a mini skirt then shorts. I’m 50. *&^&^ I can’t believe it, but it’s true. I ask my friends & family, & everyone says go for it, but if they say the same when I’m 60, we will know they are a bunch of liars! I’ve also always liked conservative & vintage clothes since i was very young. My problem now is that sometimes conservative/vintage clothes can actually make you look old. hmm. It’s a little tricky. But I think all people should try to look the best they can. It shows a love of style, a little personality & self respect. You don’t need money, just a good eye.

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    May 13, 2011, 02.52 AMby alexus1325

    My favourite hat EVER is a slightly-worse-for-wear bridal hat that I wore nearly every day for two summers. Poor thing needs a professional cleaning, so it’s sitting in storage. Oh, the looks garnered! People would literally crane their heads as I walked past, all over a hat! This was before I took myself way too seriously, and started wearing “grown-up” clothes. Eeech, I shudder to think of how monochrome my (admittedly stylish) wardrobe was for almost 3 years! I’ve since abandoned that and live in a combo of vintage t-shirts, bright coloured hoodies, and other random, slightly odd clothing. Not as crazy as during my early university days, but definitely less boring than “adult” clothing!

    Speaking of boring, this mass-culture of generic jeans and t-shirts for teens/young adults is boring to the max, and the “different” clothing is all the same. A drapey v-neck top from WalMart is much the same as a drapey v-neck top from Guess, minus the price-point and a slight increase in quality. The only things different about a whole group of “youthful, firm-fleshed” teenagers is the brand names splashed across their chests and other body parts.

    Style doesn’t grow on trees, and you won’t develop it if you don’t take risks and trust in your own sense of fashion, instead of bowing to the corporate masters of trendiness. Experiment with whatever suits your fancy at the moment. If you don’t feel comfortable after a few hours in an outfit, then you simply won’t be wearing it again. It’s your sense of ease and comfort in an outfit that has the greatest impression on the people who observe you. Style is an essence from within that is merely distilled without. Age and gender have very little to do with that distillation process if one’s creativity is allowed to work freely.

    Oh, and thrift stores are awesome. You can try on wacky combinations in the change room and no one is there to laugh at you except for your shopping buddy :P

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    May 13, 2011, 02.27 AMby urbandon

    Good article Peter. I think I have an equation to explain it all…

    Young= show flesh

    age+ showing flesh=gross

    age+showing flesh+ Cher= super gross

    Young too much flesh stripper shoes= Miley

    Miley+stripper shoes=every tween in the world

    Just glad I have a son and not a daughter in todays world.

    So yes. Age appropriate is appropriate. And it applies to men too.

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    May 13, 2011, 02.24 AMby Timea Schmidt

    Well, there is that other expression! We are as old as we feel:) Except that a lot of people think, we look as old as we feel.(Or young) Nothing is wrong with being and feeling youthful, but a look in the mirror once in a while could help us all. I think everyone gets to a point when it’s hard to figure out where we belong. Being too young or too old for something. Too small or too big. But at some point we have to face who and what we are. Commercials, TV-shows, music industry are all big influences on everybody and let’s face it, family values are not so fashionable anymore. I personally really appreciate the big return of retro. I love to wear a nice 50’ style dress and also like to see other woman wearing it .Victoria’s Secret has beautiful things, but we should keep it a secret:) Mothers shouldn’t dress like their teenager daughters, and the Twins should try to look like young ladies sometimes. And please guys, pull up your pants!!!

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    May 13, 2011, 02.22 AMby Anita Merrill

    As I get closer to 40 than 30 I feel that I want to dress much more classically and elegantly than I used too. I want to wear my clothes, not my clothes to wear me. If you got it flaunt it is a nice thought, but really, can an average person compare themselves to Cher or any other superstar?! I don’t think that a lot of what flies in the entertainment business is suitable for the average individual, male or female. David Beckham may look good in leather pants but that doesn’t mean I want to be stuck in an elevator with a guy who’s been wearing a pair all day. Our youth have just that advantage when it comes to their clothing, but I see a lot of girls especially wearing things that I would so not consider appropriate in any age bracket. I think it all comes down to some yes or no questions. Does it fit well? Is it suitable for the occasion? Is it in good taste? If you can say yes to those I think you’re fine.

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    May 12, 2011, 11.41 PMby minnietheminks

    I am in my mid thirties and I hope that I dress with a little bit more elegance than I did a decade ago. The shorter skirts I used to wear to go clubbing were fun but now I would just feel uncomfortable in them and well I don’t feel like pulled the hem down every 5 mins as I walk along. I think its good to experiment when you are younger and if the fashion is a a little bit risky and you feel comfortable wearing it go for it. You never going to look as good in that muscle shirt or micro mini as you do in your youth.

    I do like when I see mature adults dressed for their age, even better if they have not been near the surgeons knife either. It does not mean to say that you have to stop experimenting with clothing either, it is just an opportunity to explore and express a new time in your life. I don’t know why we are so obsessive about youth, I think growing old gracefully and with style is the ultimate statement, for both sexes.

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