It’s taken me far too long to reach this point, but at 31, I think I’m finally done trying on crop tops in Topshop and making myself feel bad because I don’t look like the 18-year-olds in the campaigns by the register. I never thought 'dressing for your age' was a thing, but suddenly I want to look put-together instead of scrappy, which has been my summer style for the last decade. So I’ve relegated my Reebok Classics, sports logo T-shirts, and bike shorts to a 'youth drawer' under my bed, and now all I’m left with is three outfits that I feel represent where I’m at in life, all from Reformation.
"Dressing in your 30s is a problem, especially in summer," agrees 31-year-old Laura Hinson, communications manager at London womenswear label Marques'Almeida. "You mainly want to be cool, but also a tiny bit sexy, and with an overall effect of looking like you couldn’t care less. You’re over the all-black phase, and you no longer have time to dig through fast-fashion stores or trawl through influencers on Instagram." Ah, the mid-to-late 20s all-black phase — that was a simpler time.
Hinson is right about the dearth of 30-something style icons. Instagram is packed with pastel-haired babes in their 20s squatting by their mirrors in the perfect True Romance cowgirl outfit, looking very cool, more than a little bit sexy, and with the overall effect of caring a lot. But for obvious reasons — like Instagram is relatively new and very youth-obsessed — there aren’t that many influencers in their 30s. Alexa Chung is one of the few style icons I had in my 20s who I still want to dress like in my 30s, and there are a bunch of 30-something fashion editors and models — Caroline Issa, Julia Sarr-Jamois, Elaine Welteroth, and Naomi Shimada — who hit the sweet spot between effortless and put-together, but they’re in a minority.
Octavia Bradford, women’s ready-to-wear buyer at Browns Fashion, references Attico designer Giorgia Tordini and actress Zoë Kravitz (who is actually 29, but we’ll give her that) as "perfect examples of how you don’t have to wear slacks and a brooch when you approach 30." Both women, she says, have an identifiable personal style "but tailor their look to suit a vast variety of environments." Like me, and most of the women I speak to about this, Bradford doesn’t believe in 'age-appropriate' dressing in theory, but acknowledges that it exists for the individual in reality: "The term irritates me, particularly when it’s used in relation to the way people dress. Yet, just two years into my 30s, I’ve realized it is kind of a thing."
For Bradford, the conundrum of 20s dressing to 30s dressing manifested in a single item. "It was denim shorts — I’d look at them and descend into a propriety minefield and end up knee-deep in an existential shorts crisis. As much as I don’t like to admit it, this whole age thing does have the potential to add another obstacle to the insecurity-ridden ordeal that is getting dressed every morning." While she's decided not to pay attention to age-appropriate dressing, she does pay attention to appropriate dressing — i.e. appropriate for your surroundings. "Sophistication and environment are valid considerations," Bradford says. "It sounds like a cliché, but what's most important is being comfortable in your choices and staying true to your personal style."
The problem, then, might be that what I’m most comfortable in, and what I consider to be the essence of my personal style, is bike shorts, oversized T-shirts, and backwards caps, which, regardless of age, are just not appropriate for most environments I find myself in as a 31-year-old woman. Another problem is that my personal style, which in a word is 'athleisure,' has been quite seriously eclipsed by ultra-feminine dressing this summer.
One of the chicest women I know is my best friend Nadia Bean (32), who is so chic she works at Alexander McQueen. Bean has never considered style as age-appropriate. "I’ve always dressed as though I’m in my 30s," she says, "which was uncomfortable when I was 23, and all of our friends — mainly you — were running around in tiny skirts, bike shorts, and sneakers while I was in midi skirts and buttoned-up blouses. But now, to my delight, fashion has evolved, and I’m not the only [one dressing like a] Victorian!"
Fashion critic Lisa Armstrong (43) wrote nearly 3,000 words for British Vogue last year on style and age, outlining a few — but not many — 'rules' for dressing past your 20s: "Lesson one: While revealing too much flesh or clinging to the holy terrors of boho, rock chic, grunge, and girlish fussiness are all no-no's for the sophisticated grown-up, beyond that it’s an open field." Armstrong quotes many fashion insiders in the piece, including Victoria Beckham, who says: "I’m staggered when I look back at how uncomfortable some of the clothes I wore were. But I dressed to be a certain kind of sexy. Now that I’m 43, my idea of sexy has evolved...I don’t feel I have to show it all off in a tight dress. Maybe that way of dressing was a reflection of how insecure I felt."
"Not revealing too much flesh" is also a factor for me in age-appropriate dressing. Beckham’s words about sexy dressing as a way of masking insecurity really resonate, and although my kind of sexy (bike shorts and aggressive logo T-shirts) was very different from hers (skintight pants and dresses), the feeling was the same. While I would defend any woman’s right to wear short shorts and tiny dresses at any age, I just don’t feel the same way wearing them myself as I did a year ago, which could be down to a shift in trends, my age, or both.
Age-appropriate dressing might seem a pretty irrelevant concept in 2018; millennials don’t like boxes, brackets, or rules. But for many women, like me, an internal shift does take place, not just in taste but in lifestyle, ambition, and how we want the world to see us. It’s a work in progress, but the last few items I’ve bought tick my new chic box: a white Topshop jumpsuit and a brown Rouje silk dress. I also bought that crop top I wasn’t sure about from Topshop saying 'It’s cool to be kind' across the front, wore it to a 60th birthday garden party, felt silly, and learned my lesson. (I already knew it was cool to be kind.)