Mutton dressed as lamb?

Death and taxes, Benjamin Franklin once said, are the only certain things in life. I’d like to add one more to the list: at some point in a woman’s life she will be told she should wear a safari jacket. Not when she’s planning to go on safari, but when she turns 40.

She will also then probably be told she should invest in a peasant skirt and something called a ”naval blazer”. Going on safaris, living as a peasant and joining the navy — who knew life after 40 was so filled with adventure?

Disappointingly, these tips are part of what I call age-dictated style: when clothes are divided up according to what is ”appropriate” in each decade of a woman’s life. In your 20s you should be wearing denim miniskirts and colourful sunglasses. In your 30s, you should graduate to a tailored suit. By your 40s, of course, you’re embarking on safaris and when you reach your 60s it is time to get some ”investment pieces”, which usually turn out to mean very boring but expensive plain coats and wide-legged trousers — think Helen Mirren.

Sarah Jessica Parker, on the other hand, has been condemned for daring to wear dresses that don’t make her look like the Queen despite being over 40, while the British television journalist Kirsty Wark was berated for wearing a skirt on TV that ”was far too short for a woman of her age”, according to one newspaper.

Almost everyone who covers fashion trots out these style guides, all of which are notable for their horror of older women. One guide in the London Daily Mail declared that fake tan on anyone over 40 is ”especially offensive”; a miniskirt on anyone over 25 ”oozes desperation”.

In the film version of Sex and the City, Carrie’s planned wedding is to be covered in Vogue’s Age Issue, an annual special that is genuinely produced by Vogue. ”I want you to be featured in the magazine as the 40-year-old — and here’s the brilliant twist — bride,” grins her editor. Get that bride a safari jacket!

Funnily enough, the current issue of British Vogue is called, not the Age Issue, but Ageless Style. Editor Alexandra Shulman has written an article about turning 50 in which she asks: ”How will I dress in another 10 years, at 60, 70 and, hopefully, 80? If previous form is anything to go by, nothing much will change.” But Alexandra! How dare you think that personal taste can dictate your clothing choices, that you shouldn’t completely overhaul your wardrobe as the years pass?

The enduring popularity of these rules about age and fashion can be summed up in four words: mutton dressed as lamb. To dress up is to draw attention to yourself, to think you’re worth it. But when you’re over a certain age, such arrogance is distasteful and delusional. Yet the same magazines that provide ”age-appropriate dressing guides” also promote plastic surgery and Botox. It’s good to look younger — but not to look like you’re trying to do so.

The only time a woman looks wrong in her clothes is when she is uncomfortable, either because she has bought into the idea that once she is over a certain age she should only wear sacks, or because she has been brainwashed into believing that a woman is only attractive when she is 25 and therefore is consciously trying to dress that age. When a woman dresses in a way that makes her feel comfortable and confident — that is when she looks her best.

Fashion should not be some form of checklist: if you are this old, you should wear these trousers. It should be about dressing in a way that reflects the individual wearer, not her age bracket.

But when a fashion magazine is not just condoning ageing but suggesting that it need not be a dictating force in women’s lives it’s hard not to feel just a tiny bit optimistic. —

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