Mutton Dressed as Lamb?

Youthful puffed sleeves, McCall’s pattern 4547 circa 1975.

Last month, I received a letter which posed some interesting questions about fashion and age:

“I would like to ask you a question: In which era did the idea develop
that women after a certain age are not supposed to wear very feminine
designs such as puffed sleeves, slim waists, lots of lace, pastel
colours or patterns with flowers? As far as I know, there have almost in
every era been ideas about what women are supposed to wear at which age.
I know designs from the 1930s and 1940s showing dresses for different
ages, with wider waists for elder ladies. But I guess this just
corresponds to larger sizes, and probably a slim lady of 70 years could
then have worn dresses with slim waists.

“Anyway, it must have been an era when feminine designs were considered
attractive and youthful – perhaps the 1950s?

“I am 39 years old and I cannot imagine myself not wanting to wear these
designs anymore, when I will be older….”

Well, I can start by noting that men have been making fun of older women who didn’t dress their age for a long time.

Padded bottoms from Pinterest. 18th c. cartoon.

Historically, and in cartoons and literature (mostly made by men,) older women who dress as if they were sexy young things are ridiculed. The British expression (going back at least 200 years) for such a woman is “Mutton dressed as lamb.”

(A mutton is a fully mature sheep. Mutton chops have a strong, gamy taste and smell that lamb chops do not have. On the day when Lizzie Borden did or did not murder her parents, her breakfast was cold mutton soup….)

I.e., mutton dressed as lamb is not a good thing to be.

The old woman at left is ridiculed for attempting to dress as a young woman. Note the old man with a young beauty at far right….

The blog “Americanagefashion” is devoted to the topic of clothing for American women over 55.

“Dressing your age” is a thorny problem. The goal of using makeup and dressing to express your personality is always to look like your current self at your best. If we cling to the fashions and hair and makeup styles that made us look our best when we were 18 or 25, eventually we will look ridiculous to people who are actually that age.

Do Adjust Your Makeup

The idea is NOT to look like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Maybelline ad, April 1929. My Aunt Dot still had a marcel wave in 1980.

In the 1980s, I used to see women on the bus who were still applying their makeup as they did in 1929.

Maybelline ad, December 1929.

Thinly penciled dark eyebrows (unrelated to hair color,) coal black eyeliner and tons of mascara (often applied badly, because they couldn’t see well without glasses [I now have this problem, myself,] dark red lips in a Cupid’s bow (extending far above their upper lip line) — these were women who were living in the past, and sadly oblivious to the changes in their faces and to the fact that “the fashion in faces” changes, too.

After teaching so many actors how to do an “age makeup” (including one actor in his 60s who was playing a 90 year old man,) I’m all too aware of the changes that come with age.  Cartilage continues to grow, so old people’s noses are often larger than they once were. Our lips tend to turn in with age, making them appear thinner. The space between the nose and upper lip may seem longer, and our eyebrows get closer to our eyes. The flesh above the eyes gets puffy and sometimes sags until it touches our eyelashes. In some cases, it impairs our vision. Some of us get under-eye bags or dark areas. Uneven skin tones and blotches may appear. (And I haven’t even mentioned how hard it is to apply eye makeup to wrinkled skin….) At 75, I currently need a 15X magnifying mirror to see what I’m doing, and that means I won’t see both eyes at the same time until I finish and put on my glasses. Often, I have to do some correcting to make both eyes look symmetrical!)

In short, we have to take a fresh look at ourselves every few years, and learn to apply makeup to the face we have now, not the face we remember.

Do Rethink Your Wardrobe Occasionally

As for dressing at sixty as you dressed at 27, well, if you always preferred classic styles and modest hemlines, you’ll probably be fine. (And I do consider jeans and shirts or knit tops to be as classic as suits and dresses.) However, extreme fashions don’t always age well.

Really wide padded shoulders from Givenchy. Vogue 2303, 1989.

I had some really flattering clothes in the 1980s & early 90s. But I gained 12 lbs one year, and by the time those clothes fit again, their huge shoulder pads were laughable. I could not possibly wear them to work — not when my job was telling other people —  actors — what to wear!

On the Other Hand

We’re probably lucky to be in an almost-anything-goes fashion era now, when hem length is not rigidly fixed, and mixing vintage and new is OK. Also, a woman with confidence and joie de vivre can often break the rules and look fabulous.

Twenty years ago, I was was waiting for a light to change when I saw a man and a woman walking together with their backs to me. She was wearing a black, brimmed hat (maybe crocheted?) with a black mini-dress, black hose, and knee high black suede boots. Her shining platinum blonde hair hung half-way to her waist. She was the embodiment of prosperous Hippie chic, circa 1967 -68. Suddenly she took a few dance steps, flung out her arms and twirled around. When I saw her face, I realized that her hair was not platinum. It was silver-white. She was a happy, smiling woman in her sixties. She was lively, flirtatious, and beautiful. She was breaking some of the “rules:” ‘dress your age, not younger’ and ‘don’t wear the styles that you wore when you were young.’ She was very attractive — because she was confident and joyous. Ari Seth Cohen would have photographed her if he saw her.

When and Why Dress in Black?

But to get back to the “when” part of the question, I have a lot of conjectures, and allowance for different cultural attitudes must be made. (E.g., are widows allowed to remarry in your culture? Is wearing trousers modest or immodest behavior in your country? Etc.) Also, many people are uncomfortable thinking of their parents and grandparents as sexually active….

Discouraging older women from wearing pastel colors or brightly flowered textiles may go back to Victorian/Edwardian mourning customs. By the time a woman was fifty, there was a very good chance that someone in her immediate family had died within the year. Grandparents, parents, aunt & uncles, possibly her husband…. Since wearing plain, black clothing for a year after the death of a close relative was customary, some women never got out of mourning. First a grandparent, then a parent, perhaps a sister or a child, …. Consequently, many older women just wore black all the time. I attended a church-sponsored Greek Picnic in the 1960s, and all the older women were wearing black. So were some teenagers.

[Lavender was the one pastel worn by Victorians and Edwardians while transitioning from black mourning to normal dress. But “lavender and old lace” were associated with age.]

Poor women don’t have a lot of clothing, so once they dyed all their clothes black after a death, they wore them until they wore out.

As for slim waists, I don’t think older women ever padded them! However, our bodies do change, and a thickening of the waist and loss of height are common. Multiple childbirths will also change a woman’s figure. Lynn Mally at has written a lot about “half sizes” for aging female bodies.

When you’re older and you lose weight, it may come off in unexpected places. Even though I dropped many pounds a few years ago, my formerly hourglass waist is now bigger in relation to my hips and bust than it ever was before age 60 — but I had to alter some sagging trousers in back because my butt had disappeared!

Short puffy sleeves from Woman’s Home Companion, March 1936.

As for sleeves, many older women are self-conscious about our “bat wings:” just read a bit of this blog and you’ll know why older women prefer longer sleeves to sleeves that show our upper arms. When I lost 40 pounds at age 13, my skin shrank to fit immediately. Ditto when I lost weight at 40. But after a lifetime of gaining and losing weight, we can’t expect that automatic skin shrinkage in our 60s and 70s.  Now, if I want to fill out the loose skin on my arms, I need to build some muscles! So — short puffy sleeves lose their appeal. And elbow length puffy sleeves just remind me of the 1980s….

Laura Ashley pattern 8432 for McCall’s, dated 1983.  Been there, done that….

Of course, sex appeal comes into this problem. I’m old, now; but I have never consciously dressed with the hope of picking up a stranger and having sex with him that night. In fact, whenever a clearly intoxicated man “hit on me” at a party or in public, I usually wondered what I had done to send the wrong signal. (I usually concluded that he must have been wearing “Beer Goggles,” because I generally wore clothes that were entirely appropriate for office work or teaching school. My rare low-cut dress was strictly for parties at friends’ houses.)  So, how does a woman in her 60s or 70s dress “sexy” without seeming ridiculous? Well, I didn’t try to dress sexy in my 20s, so I’m not qualified to tell you how to do it at 75!  That said, good grooming, a positive attitude, and a sincere interest in the other person are always attractive…. but those qualities attract friends. Sexual attraction may be a different problem.

A book that helped me adjust to my changing role was Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style. I loved the first book he did, although by the time he made the film, some of his favorites (women with plenty of money) became stars who started to overshadow the many women who looked fabulous on a limited budget. Wearing fabulous and massive jewelry isn’t an option for most of us.

But a positive attitude doesn’t cost a cent.



Filed under 1700s, 1800s-1830s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Edwardian fashions, Late Victorian fashions, Makeup & Lipstick, Musings

20 responses to “Mutton Dressed as Lamb?

  1. Laurie Brown

    I’ve always been annoyed by the “dress your age” rule. I remember 20 years ago there was a woman who was probably in her late 70s, but she always dressed in black and red. She wore heels. She wore bright red lipstick, and black eyeliner. I thought she was the most incredible looking woman, and very vital looking. One day at the farmer’s market, a small group of other older women gathered after she walked by, criticizing her. Her dress. Her hats. Her makeup. The fact that their husbands looked at her…

    I’m 65 now myself, and really haven’t changed my look. I wear black most of the time, but I always have. Black leggings, black shoes/boots, black turtleneck.. red lipstick (or other bright colors) .. multiple ear piercings. Sometimes vintage reproduction clothing. Like you, I’ve never dressed ‘sexy’, other than short skirts (and my legs have held up fine), so there isn’t much to change there, either. But I see nothing wrong with an older woman dressing in low cut tops or short skirts if she wants.

    • Finding fault with other people — I do believe Jesus said something about seeing the mote (speck) in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the beam (an entire piece of lumber) in your own…. Obviously it’s been going on a long time…. and probably has something to do with reinforcing our own group prejudices.

    • Jewel

      Love your comment. I used to see a very petite woman come into our library. Really high heels, jeans that fit her to a tee and a jacket that was beautiful. She had super long hair and it was always done up well. One of our “lurkers” moved in on the seat next to her when she sat down to use the computer, and I guess got the shock of his life as she looked a really good 75 or more. I’ve seen her deal cards out at the casino, and she is as sharp as the young dealers.

  2. very thoughtful piece. I cant remember the Coco Chanel expression of not wearing short skirts past a certain age to pretend to be the young girl….. and at the time I thought it was a mutton dressed as lamb reference. but I now see it as dressing to capture lost youth is a rather futile exercise and who are you dressing for. To me now dressing your age means celebrating your age and not trying to hide it. Getting clothes that fit and you can wear with comfort and confidence rather than trying to fit into the skimpy cuts designed for teen bods (of course if my own body still had a 24 inch waist I would wear them in a flash). Some time back, I asked a friend what she thought of a new dress as I wasnt sure of the cut- I cannot remember how she phrased it but she implied if a person has to get an opinion on whether a dress suits them then who are they dressing for, and if a dress feels right then it the one to wear.

  3. Joyce

    Love this article. Many good points to consider

  4. This was an insightful read. I do love the time we are in now, when almost anything goes. I can decide from a piece of fabric what length and style of skirt it should be. Few ‘rules’ apply. I feel like with age I’m more empowered to steer toward comfort and practical designs that are also attractive (to me). It might involve a mere tweak of a fashion trend otherwise targeted toward youth. I want my clothes to complement my life, rather than complicate it. I like to look and feel radiant and not dowdy.

  5. Thanks for a rare sensible discussion of this topic! Most discussions err either in being too prescriptive or in claiming that “there are no rules, wear whatever you want!” As you point out, what looks best change as you age, and there’s nothing anti-feminist about recognizing that.

  6. Lisa B emailed me some clever observations:
    “I think there are two things happening:

    “1. Our own desire to look youthful and not “give in” to time (or perhaps, as often happens, just stick stubbornly with what we know and are comfortable with, even when it’s long since stopped doing us any favors, objectively).
    “2. Society’s desire to simultaneously sexualize and infantilize women. Girlish styles have, in my opinion, reliably corresponded with imminent or recent gains in equality.”
    Wow: that’s something to think about!

    She also included a link to a related post she wrote:
    The “dress your age” theme wasn’t the main point, but it’s part of the story.

  7. Thank you for your thoughts on this!
    I tink it is a really difficult question, from a feminist standpoint: Of course I try to dress becomingly. I put emphasis on features I like in myself and avoid clothes that would show of parts of my body I like less, and these change over time, just as you said above. Sewing for myself I actually spend quite a lot of thought on this.
    On the other hand I think it extremely important that women free themselves from the unrealistic beauty ideals imposed on them by society and the media. I find it alarming, when my daughter, slender as can be and 14 years old, tells me about her visible belly! This is not what I want for her!
    But, in trying to dress well (as I see myself), am I not helping to pass on this legacy of pressure, prejudices, and all this nonsense?

    • There are really a lot of ideas to exchange on this topic; I’ve been corresponding with another blogger about her teen girls’ clothing choices. I’m happy to see fit, confid

      • … confident young women who don’t seem to suffer the body insecurity I had, but I worry that they seem unaware that not all clothing is suitable for all situations, and that they are being judged by people who don’t share their taste.

  8. Jewel

    Thank you! Although, when history bounding I am trying to figure out how to marcel and not look like Baby Jane.

  9. Love this blog. I too am 75 and find it a challenge to dress the shape I’m in now. Heredity is not my friend. As a recovering Pack Rat, I have my clothes from the 1970s and 80s. I think I hung on to them because I liked my life then and how I looked. I also sewed most of those clothes so I had that attachment too. Fortunately, styles from the 1970s and 80s are becoming popular with the younger set so I’ve been selling this treasure trove of modern vintage on Etsy. They viewers really seem to like those older styles, can’t find anything like them now. When I’m handling those clothes I’m always surprised to see how tiny I was then, but everyone made me feel like I was a fat blob. Sometimes our families are not are friends. Hang in there, I love the blog.

  10. zoedog66

    This is a really great article. As a twenty something, I was firmly ensconced in the black t-shirt and jeans brigade (read, grunge). I LOVE wearing this, even now at 47, as it feels so comfortable. Someone had a shot at me because I was making it my life goal to find the elusive Perfect Pair of Jeans. Well, provided everything else is in order, why not? YOLO! I did like what you said about not only confidence but a genuine interest in other people. That is something I continually have to work on. I should add, at 47 I’m probably twice the size I was at twenty something. Will not let that stop my jeans-quest! Also, I have something of an inner vamp. Boudoir black eyes and red lips fascinate me. I read somewhere that if you grey down the eyes and soften the red lips to a strong pink red, you’re probably doing your post-40 face a favour. I tried it and it works – my head has accepted it, but I think it will take my heart a little longer. Thanks again for a great article. A late-life fashionista🌵💗

    • I have been looking for a charcoal gray eyeliner pencil for a couple of years! With white hair, black is now too harsh, and black with glitter in it is not the same as dark gray. While i was still able to go shopping, I tried a Sephora brand, a cheap one, but it smudges terribly compared to the “liquid pencil” ones from l’Oreal and other brands. I have plenty of those in black… or glittery black that turned out not to be what I needed. Lipstick is also something i hoarde when I find a red with just enough blue in it to make my ivory teeth look whiter. Reds with a brown tinge often dominate the market for a few seasons. Even fresh from a cleaning at the dentist, warm reds, rather than cool reds, are a disaster on me! Of course, no one sees my mouth in public now…. I have also spent hours shopping for black jeans — a classic “city casual” wardrobe essential. Perfect for volunteering at an art gallery in SOMA. I only wear true straight leg jeans, in a size 12 or 14, so no luck on those in years! But the gallery is closed anyway…. It’s been nice chatting with you about trivial things!

  11. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany, November 11, 2020 | The Vintage Traveler

  12. Very interesting, lots of comments from people your/my age. I haven’t changed my style much over the last 50+ years, other than I now do not have to wear something appropriate for a law office. Big relief. I make a lot of my own clothes, very unconstructed things, but very comfortable. I’m 10-15 pounds heavier than I was at 60, I would feel better if I lost a bit, but I wouldn’t look much different. I discovered once that the lighter you are, the easier it is to get up from a squatting position. Good to know. Thanks as always…..
    bonnie in provence

    • Good heavens! I can’t remember the last time I was able to get up from a squatting position. Good for you! Yes, the best thing for arthritic knees is taking some weight off of them. I’m now able to wear some slacks from the back of the closet. That was an unexpected dividend. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy shopping right now!

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