Lady in Retirement: How Can I Dress Professionally Now That I Don’t Have a Job?

Suit patterns from Butterick Fashion News, Oct. 1943

Suit patterns from Butterick Fashion News, Oct. 1943. The matador hat is probably not suitable for business.

I have been so inspired by reading the Advanced Style book & blog that I wrote a thank-you note to Ari Seth Cohen. [Cohen blogs about older women — some over 100 —  who dress with a sense of chic or a sense of fun, or, preferably, both.]  I am an “older woman” who simply lost interest in how I look,  but after seeing the lively women Cohen photographs, I have been trying to dress better lately — that is, to present myself a little more vividly and accurately. I have always preferred working “backstage” to being “in the spotlight.” However, that’s different from trying to disappear entirely.

Time to Prepare a Face to Meet the Faces That You Meet. . . .

My lack of interest in my public face is probably due to retirement (The recession didn’t help, but I’ve always had one eye on the budget.) When you’re used to working 60 to 70 hour weeks, and juggling several jobs, once you have no schedule at all, and nothing to do that can’t wait until tomorrow, it takes some adjustment. But I should have been equipped for the change.

As I wrote to Ari Seth Cohen,
“It’s ironic, because I am a retired costume designer. I know perfectly well that the way we dress signals the way we expect to be treated.

“I’ve always preferred being backstage, rather than onstage, but I always tried to dress well enough to inspire confidence in actors [and directors] and respect in my students.

“I imagine that a lot of older people have the same problem:  when you have always dressed ‘professionally’ — how do you dress when you no longer have a profession? Having no job creates an [unanticipated] identity crisis  — best dealt with, I suspect, by finding a new ‘career’ that you make for yourself (artist, mentor, grandma, golfer, gardener, volunteer, blogger, traveler, etc.)”

Becoming an Older Woman Doesn’t Always Come Naturally

Older women in a ad for Naptha Soap, Woman's Home Companion, Nov. 1937.

Stereotypical Older Women as pictured in an ad for Naptha Soap, Woman’s Home Companion, Nov. 1937.  Arsenic and Old Lace, anyone?

I thought of Lynn, who blogs about fashion and American women over 55 at AmericanAgeFashion, and the “older women” discussions she has started. As she has pointed out, being over 55 also means real body-shape changes for women, even those who have always maintained a healthy BMI. (Which I haven’t.) When I’m overweight — which has been too often — shopping is depressing. A few years ago, when I got my weight and fasting glucose results back to where they should be (after months of diet and exercise,) I decided to treat myself to a shopping spree at Nordstrom’s, where I used to buy the backbone of my professional wardrobe. But the year was 2007, and the store was full of retro-hippie clothes! (I wore my full share of paisley prints in the 1960s, but not see-through, sweat-shop-beaded paisley….) I think it’s usually a mistake to wear vintage clothes from an era that you “wore” when you were young — as if you’ve been wearing the same outfits continuously for 50 years. So I headed back to Ross and stocked up on year-old Liz Claiborne slacks and a coordinating jacket. However, now that I don’t have a job to go to, the jacket didn’t get many wearings, even though I live in a sophisticated city.

Some Women Make the Transition to “Retiree Clothing” More Easily

A group of older women wearing their ''nice" dresses -- not housedresses --in the 1930s.

A group of older women wearing their ”nice” dresses — not housedresses –in the 1930s. My grandmother used to attend Whist parties two afternoons a week.

Women like my grandmother, who always wore housedresses in the morning and ‘nice’ day dresses in the afternoon, didn’t have the “who am I, now that I don’t dress for work?” transition to make.

One friend (now 91),  who retired from work at an electronics factory almost thirty years ago, eagerly adopted the bright colored, silky athletic “warm up” suits of the 1980s. She was very active, walking miles each day, and the matching color-blocked jackets made them dressy enough for trips to the shopping mall, too. They were perfect for her new daily routine.

Financially secure women, who have always owned a sportier wardrobe for the weekend and vacations, probably transition easily to wearing an expensive weekend wardrobe most days.

Artists go on dressing like artists — whether prosperous and expensively and/or ethnically dressed, or paint stained, with interesting jewelry….

But what about those of us who aren’t used to staying home, but are used to pinching pennies? I don’t have an audience (actors, producers, students, or even sales clerks) to dress for any more. I used to meet dozens (sometimes hundreds) of people in a day. Now there are days when I don’t leave the house. I don’t need to impress anyone. So, who am I? And what shall I wear?

Oh, Dear, What Shall I Weaer? a 1946 guide to dress for every occasion by Helen Garnell. Photo courtesy

Oh, Dear, What Shall I Wear! a 1946 guide to dress for every occasion by Helen Garnell. Photo courtesy

Trying to Have Fun with Clothes

Part of my image-improvement project is to think of myself as a person who blogs about fashion history, and to start wearing more vivid colors and more vintage accessories — preferably from the twenties, thirties, and forties.

I used to save this black vintage jacket for opening nights. Now, I’m going to wear it out — literally.

Vintage late thirties or forties wool coat, probably from China.

Vintage late thirties or forties embroidered black wool coat, probably from China. I live in a city with a large Asian population. No label.

Dragons bring good fortune -- and these deserve to be seen.

Dragons bring good fortune — and these have turned a bit greenish, but deserve to be seen. The coat is black.

It’s still hard to spend money on things I don’t need. At my age, I’m trying to de-accession, not acquire more stuff that my executor will have to sift through someday!

Besides, instead of spending money on clothes, I have always saved up for travel — living out a of suitcase for months is easy for me. Anything I buy has to work with something I already have. I love scarves because they weigh almost nothing and put some variety into a limited selection of coordinated slacks, tops, and a good “rain or shine” coat.

Seeking a more colorful me, it’s not surprising that I splurged on a turquoise, cerise and emerald green scarf at a vintage store the other day. I was under the influence of Ari Seth Cohen and Advanced Style. (There is now an Advanced Style documentary film. I haven’t seen it yet; click here for more information.)

I don't care about the vintage or whether it's silk or not; it will add some zing to my existing wardrobe.

I don’t care about the vintage or whether it’s silk or not; it will add some zing to my existing wardrobe. Black slacks + any one of these tops I already owned + this scarf = I’m dressed. Colorfully.

I don’t usually write about personal matters, but it occurred to me that there are probably other women of my generation falling into the “I dressed for my job” quandary. The women who always dressed to be sexually attractive probably have a much harder time getting old, but those of us who wanted to be seen as “a professional who happens to be a woman,” can have adjustment problems, too.



Filed under 1930s, 1930s-1940s, Coats, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, vintage photographs

16 responses to “Lady in Retirement: How Can I Dress Professionally Now That I Don’t Have a Job?

  1. Loved reading this. You should not shy away from writing about personal matters as it relates to fashion – I’d love to hear more!

  2. Nancy N

    Thank you! Great and fascinating post.
    I’m still working, but when I don’t have to work, I find myself in jeans, the ultimate comfy woo-HOO for someone whose style got launched in 1970… And I tend to ditch the makeup then, too, probably a mistake. My mom had great style–she wore long a-line skirts and t-s into her late 80s, with flats in winter and sandals in summer. Maybe I will follow her lead!

    • Your Mom sounds like a very “put together” lady. Jeans are classic. I learned one big “don’t” in retirement: Don’t always wear drawstring-waisted pants! They’re easy to wear to the gym and in the garden and for housework, but I put on a few inches around the waist without even noticing! I always used to have to take in the waist on tailored pants because my waist was smaller than the usual hip-to-waist proportion, but before I knew it, the opposite was true! Drawstring waists solved one problem but led to a worse (health) one. So, it’s wiser to buy fitted pants and jeans and take in the waist. You’re right about makeup, too. Same excuse: “I’ll put it on after I do the yard work / go to the gym / vacuum the house, and shower….)” And it never gets put on it all.

  3. I am so glad you have posted about yourself, and I love both the jacket and colourful scarf. Personally I don’t think size or age is that important. It is more about attitude and confidence. I really appreciate these more personal reactions as well as your normal professional blog.

  4. I know what you mean. I’m 51 now. After watching the documentary of Advance Style I started buying lots of sparkly things in the thrift store. I may be laughted at, but I WILL NOT be IGNORED!

  5. I’m glad you are making the effort to dress nicely and wear color! I joke that costumers can dress everyone but themselves because so many I work with don’t really try and often only wear black. I’m a jeans and t-shirt girl for work purposes but I do make the effort to get dressed up at least once a week for church and I look forward to it. It’s definitely a mood booster when you dress nicely – especially when others react well to your appearance. =)

    The scarf is beautiful and cheeful! And I love your dragon jacket!

    • It’s no joke that costumers are not very glamorous or “artistic” dressers — long hours, low pay, and a job where you climb ladders and poke around in costume storage — no wonder! Edith Head said she always wore neutral colors — black, white, gray, navy — so she wouldn’t clash with or distract from the costumes during fittings. Of course, the only time I ever saw her, she was wearing a cream and black Chanel suit — not our kind of “work clothes!”

  6. A really interesting read. I had not really considered this! I am always smart for work and I tend to be very similar at weekends now! It feels wrong to be casual somehow! The jacket is beautiful….definitely one to be wearing!

  7. this is a great post. Im 36 so not near retirement but Im devoted to vintage fashion, I only started two years ago and I love drssing up. I hope that doesn’t change with age. Dressing vintage gives me such a boost

    retro rover

  8. I think retirement is a huge transition for women who have worked all of their lives. Even though I was an academic, which in California means fairly casual clothes, I have a closet full of homemade silk jackets that I now mainly wear to the theater. For me, the standard Advanced Style look is not an option–I am not as flamboyant as most of those ladies. But I am working on a wardrobe of casually elegant clothes in soft fabrics that all go into the washing machine.

    • Keep going to the theatre! Like most costume designers, I also was an “academic” so didn’t wear business suits, but did try for a crisp look, tailored slacks, etc. For a while we had season tickets for the opera, but up in the balcony where we sat, clothing was not dressy. Small theatres — even ones with Tony Awards — are “business casual.” Once, for a special anniversary dinner, my husband put on his tux (he’s a musician) and I did “cocktail” dress — we got great service at the restaurant, but were definitely overdressed. Maybe this is why so many people now focus on elaborate costume events. Where else can a woman wear a ballgown?

  9. I’m afraid I made the drawstring waist mistake as well. Not good.

    When I know I’m going to pend the day at home, I dress in yoga pants and a knit top. That’s good for everything from long walks to an afternoon sewing.

    When I go away from home, even if it is just to our favorite bar/restaurant, I make more of an effort. I like a comfortable skirt over tights topped with a tee and a sweater.

    Except for special occasions, that’s about as dressed up as I get. I’m old-fashioned enough to still believe that funerals and church are worthy of putting on a dress or skirt.

  10. metaphysicalquilter

    I have just retired and looked at my work clothing thinking what a waste! Now that I have started to settle into my new “life” I have been trying to have at least a couple days a week that I do something that I can put on a dress for / even if it’s just going to Costco!

    • That’s a good plan. Why shouldn’t the local stores see you looking “put together?” I need to follow your example. Why wear a hoodie to the grocery store when I have a jacket in the closet?

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