At my age, if you aren’t Oprah or a man, the stigma of getting older starts to take shape. I’m 47. I am seriously and officially middle-aged. Like, deep into it. I'm here, but heck if I know how I got here so fast. I certainly don’t feel it. In a sense, I’ve grown up without becoming a conventional grown-up. Meaning, I’m not married. I don’t have kids, a second home, or a mortgage. I don’t run an office full of employees. I don’t go to the same job every day. And because of this, sometimes people (myself included) find it hard to measure my value without the traditional milestones of a life lived or a collection of identifiable CliffsNotes at the ready.
There are moments when this unconventional approach to aging feels freeing, and I can romanticize it. Not being able to be labeled so easily has its advantages. I’m a curiosity of sorts. I’m a mystery. An enigma. People seemingly want to know more about me, because I haven’t played by conventional social rules. I don’t “act” my age. That was cute when I was the precocious youngest woman in the room. It can be equally as enticing as the oldest. But my point is that I am usually the oldest in the room these days. Almost all my friends are younger than I am. I simply don’t have as much in common with friends my age who got married and had kids. My younger friends haven’t had to make these life choices yet. They enjoy the kind of freedom that I do. But for all my freedom, as I age, I’m not always sure where or with whom I belong. I’m a new classification of person, really. And like anything new, the unknown can feel a bit scary.
Don’t get me wrong. I'm happy with where I'm at. I am very proud of my career and all that I’ve accomplished. I get joy from work, and that probably keeps me somewhat youthful in disposition. But there seemed to be so much time back when I was 32. It wasn’t this “decision” written in stone that I wouldn’t get married or have kids. Maybe I still will. What has happened is I’ve had to let go of the age when all things were possible (32) and started to look at what is (47). I am part of the first generation of women not truly dependent on anyone. My feminist mom was married, had kids, got divorced, and made a career for herself. Does only being able to check the last box make me a pariah or a pioneer? Because in my opinion, they dress differently, I can tell you that.
One thing I am sure of: I didn’t really start to think about my age until I started to feel that all clothes were not appropriate for me. Now, of course, not all clothes and not all trends are appropriate for everyone. I spent years and years telling everybody yes to this, no to that. But when I started to ask myself if a dress was too short or showed too much skin or the eyeshadow I wanted was a little too bright, I realized my style wasn’t in Kansas anymore. (Or maybe it was only allowed in Kansas. Hard to say. Not sure where I was going with this metaphor.) I’ve been dying to wear that LoveShackFancy pink cotton tiered halter minidress that I got at the sample sale. But every time I put it on I laugh, proof positive that my brain has NOT caught up to my age. She (my young girl brain) still loves too much sparkle and skirts that twirl. But at 47, I really don’t want to go for a Suicide Squad-Harley Quinn-looking pouf skirt. (I know, she wears underwear most of the movie, but you get my point.) For me, that dress simply reinforces that I may not act my age, but I can’t avoid aging. I can make choices that allow me connections with people younger than myself, but I am no longer young.
It reminds me of a scene in the movie Knocked Up, which I recently saw for the kabillionth time. Leslie Mann tries to get into a club in her sexy blue dress and is told she can’t come in. She explains that her outfit is totally appropriate for the occasion, and the bouncer tells her it’s because she’s too old. TOO OLD. If you don’t know who Leslie Mann is, please Google her now. She’s stunning — for a woman her age and for a woman of any age. How is it that I never remembered this scene? Watching it, I cried more than Leslie Mann does in the movie. She looked so pretty in that dress. She was feeling herself in that dress. But she was also taking on the style of a younger woman, dressing in a way that no longer aligned with the person she had become.
When I look back, I realize the style I had while I was on What Not to Wear — the pencil skirts and sheath dresses, the floral and ruffled tops — does not reflect who I am now. It reflects the television persona I gave up a long time ago. It no longer “fits.” (Pun intended.) I dress much more androgynously than I did when I was younger. Frilly, girly clothes don’t have enough gravitas for me. I like suits and leather and jumpsuits, and I almost exclusively wear pants. I am pretty sure this change in my style happened quite naturally. But there have been times when I’ve worried this change won’t sit well with fans of my old look, that I’ve ostracized them, that I am no longer playing by the rules I prescribed to countless women over the course of the show. More than anything, I don’t want people who have believed in my advice over the years to feel I’ve betrayed them by no longer “looking the part.” The fact is, my public persona was only ever “part” of who I was to begin with. The Stacy I was in 2002 cannot possibly be the Stacy of 2016. Age is part of time, and does in fact change things.
It isn’t simply that I no longer play by the gender rulebook, it’s that the rules suddenly feel stacked against me. We still live in a culture where men grow more handsome, distinguished, and even trustworthy with age. Women are not afforded the same. Sociobiologically speaking, in caveman days, if we could no longer bear children our use-value dropped sharply and inevitably. And it was rather convenient that our lifespans were short enough that we would generally die soon after childbearing age anyway. So what’s a modern-day woman, who could live to be 120, going to do with all this extra time in the middle? In the middle of the middle? Current culture leads me to believe I’m supposed to attempt to look 25 for the next 50 years. Even if we’re past bearing children, are we meant to look as if we still can? Is that what Botox and fillers and peels and exercising 11 times a week are meant to do for us? Hang on. What?
What’s so bad about growing older when it’s revered in almost every society except ours? (All of you who hate my gray streak because you say it makes me look "old"? I don’t see why that can’t be a compliment.) Of course we want to stay strong and healthy as long as possible, but young? Why don’t we embrace age for all of its positive attributes? Because to value those things above youth and a particular kind of beauty requires a change in thinking (and seeing) much like changing the way we perceive a woman like me. You don’t need to ask me about my feelings on marriage or children. You can invite me over to dinner parties, even when it’s just married couples. (I have a boyfriend, but even if I didn’t!) Really! It’s okay! You can ask me about politics, the stock market, the best movies of the 1970s, what I think of this election, and of course whether or not you should keep the dress you wore once three years ago. (The answer to that is OF COURSE NOT.) I don’t want to be defined by my age. But I consider it to be a great asset. You can ask me about heartbreak and disappointment, about triumph and fear and courage. I’ve had more experience with it because I’ve had more TIME to have experience. And I want my style to reflect that experience.
There’s that Alice in Wonderland quote: “I’m not the same girl I was yesterday.” In some ways, the woman I’ve become didn’t even exist yesterday. I am the first generation of this kind of woman: the kind of woman whose traditions and values are being written right now. The way I dress has become a symbol of that evolution for me. The traditional colors and styles and actual “femininity” associated with a woman’s wardrobe feel as antiquated as the ideas that you can’t be an accomplished woman without marriage or children.
It’s one thing to blaze your own path. (I thank my mom dearly for showing me how.) It’s quite another to blaze a path that few even see, let alone walk, just yet. But truth be told, there's never been a better time to be an “evolutionary woman.” We are more accepting of self-expression than ever before. It’s not my gender I'm questioning, though that's a perfectly valid identifier that many people do question. Rather, it’s the demands society tends to put on the way I (and perhaps even some of the women who appeared on What Not to Wear) look. I have no intention of sliding back into the pin-striped, shoulder-padded pantsuits of the '80s to be and feel empowered. I have no interest in emulating a purely masculine style to have a seat at the table. In fact, the suits I’m starting to wear are bespoke, fit for a woman’s figure, and co-designed with Emily Meyer, a designer who specializes in just that: suits for women only. They are bright and plaid and shiny but tailored to perfection — exquisite, chic, and most of all feel like me now.
In my late 40s, I’m ready for the kind of uniform that empowers and emboldens. Not the me people may know from TV and not the me from 20 years ago. My style doesn’t have to have a context yet, just like my value in society doesn’t. It is all evolving. And it all remains to be seen. But I own who I am when I walk into a room, and it is only age that has given me the privilege to feel that. What 32-year-old me could never have known is that growing older is such a gift. Age has mellowed many of my insecurities because the pressure is no longer on me. At 47, I'm finding that my trouser pockets are filled with fewer and fewer fucks.
I’m not saying all women my age should dress the way I do. But my style is helping me to understand the kind of woman I am now. The point is, no matter HOW you dress, many women my age don’t always own the exciting possibilities afforded them because they don’t feel valued by our current culture. In fashion advertising, the end of 2014 and most of 2015 all of a sudden became the Age of Age. Julia Roberts for Givenchy. Cher for Marc Jacobs. Joan Didion for Céline. Charlotte Rampling for Nars. Iris Apfel for Alexis Bittar. Seeing older women incorporated into the fashion world should feel like progress. But the Age of Age came and went in less than a year. It may as well have been called the Shock of Age. To sensationalize age for the sake of attention isn’t the same as reverence or acceptance. It merely made age a momentary trend. Trends can be escaped. Age can’t.
So what’s this article about? An aging woman who wants to wear suits and not poufy dresses? No. It’s about taking a hard look at the traditional ideas that are associated with women’s inalienable rights, be they wearing skin-baring dresses or having children, and that “having it all” no longer means those rights need to be exercised. As our freedoms change, so too will cultural expectations. It’s hard to think about being 47 when you’re 27. Not that you should feel compelled to. I know I didn’t. I didn’t know what my future would look like or how I would dress for it. I didn’t know I would wind up on TV, helping people develop a style that made them each feel like their best self. I didn’t know I wouldn’t get married or have kids. I didn’t know I would feel caught between the age that I am and the accomplishments that normally define that age. What I did know was that I wouldn’t know. What I know now is that it feels both strange and entirely okay.
I want to embrace my age for the importance that it holds. I don’t need anti-aging products to feel young or to know we are all going to live longer. And with time, we can form a new sense of our identities as useful and productive. I will have more to say and experience and share and love and do. Age is a gift, not simply because we aren’t dead. It’s the gift of time that allows us to change our prejudices and perceptions. We’ll be here longer to preserve history and make history. I want to celebrate that. I want to respect it. And if I’m going to live to be 120, then I’m practically a teenager.
Pariah or pioneer, I’ll be the one in the suit.
September is typically a time when fashion publications definitively tell you what’s in, and what’s out. Fuck that. We’re dedicating the next couple of weeks to celebrate all the iconoclasts, independent thinkers, and individuals with unique personal styles who’d rather say Fuck the Fashion Rules than follow them.