Suited for adulthood

A style expert advises baby boomers to foget about yesterday and get real about how they dress

The Middle Ages

Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

January 28, 2007|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Reporter

No matter how many hours you've put into elliptical training and counting carbs, no matter how well you can maneuver your body into the actual clothes you wore in the 1970s and 1980s, there's no nice way to put this:

The effect just ain't the same.

Allegiance to plunging necklines and '80s tapered jeans is one aspect of baby boomer fashion that Sherrie Mathieson would like to forever banish. Another is wearing a denim skirt, of any length, followed by a scary fondness for heaps of gold neck chains. And as for gold handbags, long floral skirts, cutesy holiday sweaters and oversized bomber jackets?

Give them all the heave-ho, and rethink your sense of style.

The award-winning costume designer wants to help her fellow boomers update - or at long last acquire - hipness with her new fashion manual Forever Cool: How to Achieve Ageless, Youthful and Modern Personal Style (Thompson Peak Publishing, $22.95).

Mathieson's basic fashion message is keep it simple and make it classic.

"I think that's the key to agelessness," she says. "Everything I recommend - an ethnic shirt or a tunic or a jean jacket or white slacks - is classically oriented, updated with the current fashion cuts and personalized accessorizing."

To make her point, Mathieson recruited men and women in their 50s to illustrate some of the boomers' most unflattering, frumpy and dated looks and then how to transform them. The book contains more than 200 before-and-after makeovers of outfits and accessories for sports, leisure, work and formal occasions accompanied by Mathieson's pithy, amusing commentary.

She holds the clothing industry much to blame for a less than attractive boomer landscape.

"It's no wonder people walk around the way they do when you see what's out there," she says. "It's probably the worst it's ever been. There's a horrible fashion atmosphere where Hollywood rules the roost. There's a lot of misguidance, especially for people who are getting older. People are confused - and it shows."

Perhaps that's why baby boomers are spending more money on clothes than ever. Last year, middle-aged women spent $34.5 billion on apparel, according to the NPD Group Inc, a market research company. Male boomers spent $17 billion.

"Boomer men are actually the fastest growing segment of the fashion business and luxury market," says NPD chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen. "They may not spend as much as the women, but

when they do, they spend bigger dollars. ... Boomer consumers are looking for products that make them feel young and act young and stay young - and apparel is very much part of that."

Make an effort

In the rush to keep up appearances, it's often difficult to admit that what fits may no longer work, says 54-year-old Ray Mitchener, manager for Ruth Shaw's, a high-end women's fashion store in Cross Keys.

"A lot of people miss the fact that even though they remain their shape and size, some things don't look appropriate anymore. Often, it's because your skin texture changes. Take a sleeveless dress: What's wrong with putting a little jacket over it?

"Jeans offer a quick fix for feeling young and good. But when you're in my age range, you need to be neater and put more of an effort into the look. For instance, I will only wear jeans with a jacket."

Mathieson, 60, lives in Connecticut and advises clients across the country on their wardrobes. As a costume designer, she worked in films, television, music videos, commercials and print fashion, dressing such celebrities as Susan Sarandon, Gregory Peck, Brooke Shields, Billy Joel and Sugar Ray Leonard for their roles.

Over the years, she has developed keen, and often sympathetic, insights into why boomers choose the clothes they do. Sometimes, she says, it's because they shop with a spouse.

"You need to have certain criteria for your shopping partner. A lot of men assume their wives know what's right for them. The truth is, they may not. And very often, the salesman doesn't either.

"On the other hand, some men will advise their wives to wear things that are too low-cut or too short. My own father was guilty of this. I would buy my mother a skirt at the right length, and then she would have it shortened and tell me `Daddy thinks I should.' Hems should never be much above the knee. If a woman has nice legs, she can wear a skirt at the knee and look great and fashionable and refined.

"A lot of men see their wives as their high school sweethearts and don't see the difference between then and now. Although that's nice, it's apart from reality. You want someone to offer opinions that work for the world at large and not just for your relationship."

Nursing-home look

While Mathieson understands the reflex of dressing as if you were still 20, she's puzzled by boomers who wear white shoes or choose other clothing she associates with retirement communities.

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