Heavy emphasis is put on appearance, for women. We all know it and there’s no getting round it. I started out prefacing that first sentence with the words ‘in our culture’. Then I deleted that phrase, because I can’t think of a culture where appearance isn’t important for women. Even if you live where the women don’t wear clothes at all, I’ve generally seen the ones in photos wearing earrings or necklaces or with permanent skin decoration. Even in the countries where women have to be covered from head to toe, that’s still an appearance and it’s still mandatory.
So, for women, appearance is of profound importance. Men care what they look like of course, but when I watch TV I notice that rude, socially inept characters played by elderly men with jowls, pot bellies and hair growing out of their noses still sport elegant, slimmed, tanned, depilated young women groomed with dyed hair and make-up, on their arms. And fat women only ever get comic or character parts; no one ever lets them play heroines. The feminist movement has been going since the 1960s but it still seems to have made barely a dent on the media. We all burnt our bras in the 1970s and then along came Trinny and Susanna to tell us where to purchase better ones. Oh, well.
It matters, then. I’ve noticed this.
So I have this in my head, and I also have a permanent internal drift towards Plain Dress like a car that pulls to the left. And minimalism speaks to my soul.
So you put this all together, add in ageing, and what do you get? A problem.
When I was a young woman – let’s say, in my twenties – I was very slim. I am tall, with broad shoulders, big hands and feet and a big head. I was quite bony, then. I also have something funny going with my collagen, in that I’m hyper-mobile – soft joints. And, just to help things along, I have low blood pressure too. This mixture creates something like a mermaid, kind of human seaweed; a person that drapes and flops and bends – good on supple but less great at standing up. I have trouble sitting on chairs. That makes me feel ill. I have to be able to curl up, and be propped.
So what I wore, back then, was long flowing hippy skirts and t-shirts, and on my slim, bendy, supple body, that looked fine.
Then my body changed. Not once, but multiple times. I was pregnant, then breast-feeding, then pregnant again, then breast-feeding again, then wholefood-vegan for a year and vanishingly thin, then pregnant with twins, then breast-feeding twins, then between babies a while, then pregnant again, then breastfeeding (for four years). My body morphed through a bewildering array of different forms, different emphases on weight location. I kept going with long flowing skirts and sweatshirts and t-shirts and flat shoes as before – but with this difference: elastic became my friend.
Then, with the decade of bearing and feeding babies behind me, in my mid-thirties I went on a huge slim, lost three stone, became thin and angular and thought I looked marvelous. Of course, over time I put it all back on again and then some, so that a year or so ago (in my mid fifties) I weighed five stones more than when I did my big slim in my thirties. So I Atkinsed it off and got slim again – though nothing like as slim as in my thirties.
In the meantime, with all this fatting and thinning, I also had forays into Plain Dress, which has no cultural reference points in the UK and just looks weird here. Plus also, my beautiful mama is forever in my head and in fact in my life, with very clear opinions on how women should dress (like her) and what looks good (she does), and my appearance is evaluated accordingly.
And now, I find myself not so much at a crossroads as marooned on the roundabout at the core of a massive intersection, with no idea which road to take or how to proceed from here.
The thing is, in my late fifties, the droopiness, bendiness, floppiness my body always had is now augmented by the droopiness, floppiness and flabbiness of ageing. Just as my joints are hypermobile, so also my weight destabilizes very easily. I get fat very quickly, and thin equally quickly – except the getting thin involves a life regime that drives a coach and horses through all social engagements and removes one of my biggest cheerfulness assets – going out for afternoon tea / lunch / coffee and cake. And life without grain brings peristalsis to a crashing halt, I discover. 'Peristasis', even. Atkins: effective, unsustainable. Sigh. Take it off, put it on, reign it in, try again, oh boring!
Then also, the truth is, I no longer look good in stretchy fabrics. They sag and droop with me and the effect is tragic. But tailored clothes are equally unsuccessful. If I wear a structured ladies jacket with a nipped in waist, with my bendy back and much chewed, saggy old boobs I look like a bag of groceries being carried home from the market. If I wear a skirt or trousers of woven fabric, it might fit me this month, but not necessarily next month. That’s not very conducive to a minimalist wardrobe, is it?
Modest dress should be the answer, but it isn’t. Those floral fabrics and slightly raised waists and puffed sleeves, those crew necks – where my bustline comes perilously near the waist seam and a long way from the neckline – gee! I look like a grotesque travesty of a hideously ageing bridesmaid. Nooooo!
I look at Carmelite nuns in floor length habits, scapulars and veils and think, well, that solves a problem. But not if you aren’t a Carmelite nun, of course.
I could just go with kaftans now from here to the end. But do I want to look like that much of a hippy? And plus, there’s something else I forgot to mention: the lizard neck (to which kaftan necklines offer no favours). Throughout my life, the scoop-necked and v-necked tees that have been my wardrobe staples are no longer doing the job. Collars R us, I realize, as age creeps on. Same with the hair do. As a young woman, my long hair was my glory, just like it says in the Bible. In early middle age, an up-do looked graceful and a short cut, neat and modern. But now – oh, dear. I remember some story I read about India once – written by a man (you’ll see what I mean) – in which the writer described the beautiful young woman with their rippling, glossy black hair, and the old woman with their lank, grey lifeless hanks. Oh, yes. I see what he means. Long hair . . . it’s not the same as the long hair of youth. And long hair with an ageing jaw-line makes you look like a Mystic. I don’t mean like Hildegard of Bingen, I mean The Dark Crystal: I mean one of these. But very short hair with the ageing jawline just creates a jailbird effect. Oh dear, oh dear. So shortish and softish seems to be the way forward. With shawl collars, blouses in woven cotton a size up, underneath something warm in winter, over a vest top or tee in summer. And long enough to skim past the wobbling rolls held in by elastic in stretchy trousers. At least the flat shoes don’t need changing.
It’s like being left in charge of a living, shrinking, expanding metamorphosing blancmange. And oh my goodness, does it cost a lot of money!