Monday, 23 March 2015

Woven, knitted or what? Is the future in kaftans?

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!


Ganeida said...

Age does women no favours. It took me a while [& I own soccer players so certainly should have known better!] to work out that my center of equilibrium had shifted to regions unknown & my unusual clumsiness was the result of menopause, NOT some dread disease! As I have never known how to dress well [as my immaculately turned out mother never ceases to inform me] I have given up & the oddities of my wardrobe are accumulating with the years. So over it. Nothing is going to make me conventionally beautiful but at least I can like my clothing!

Pilgrim said...

I feel your pain, but also got a laugh out of it, by the end. What did the Queen Mother wear?

Jen said...

Oh Pen!

BTW I am getting rid of nome de plumes of knowing the light and darkpurplemoon and just being me now!

I hear you, I hear you! I too am hypermobile, did you know it can cause a great deal more than floppy joints and the other things you said - look at Isobel Knight's book a guide to living with ehlers danlos syndrombe (hypermobility type). You may just be hypermobile or you may actually hae EDS/HMS as I do. It profoundly affects my life.

Anyway, back on track.

I hear you on the clothes thing! I do dress modestly but not 'modest' as I don't do floral.

I mainly wear jeans and a tshirt of some description, the jeans are tailored enough that they good look, but stretchy enough to have some give i them.

I am currently searching for black trousers which are good standing, when I am in my wheelchair and also when I can't wear jeans (when I go into schools and when I play in my concert band).

I am dying my hair again as it was just making me feel so old to have it grey and I have always had funky hair, so red it is. I know I shouldn't but it takes a real mental toll on me nt to have great hair. I figure as I don't really care about shoes or anything else I can justify it.


Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

I know that feeling of everything "heading south" all too well :-)
These days, being based at home, I am mostly seen in jeans, round necked tops and hoodies in various colours, and my sole formal outfit is the one I wear to funerals.....

Pen Wilcock said...

Heheh - hello, friends. The Queen Mother? Chiffon and big hats! xx

Julie B. said...

Reading posts of yours like this makes me all the more convinced you should write an autobiographical book of essays. Wonderful!

Things we have in common: limberness (I'm "bendy" too), tall height, years and years of nursing and the jaw-dropping (yet glad) results, discomfort while sitting in chairs, the acute need for comfortable clothes (although I choose loose-ish jeans with a little spandex in them, and soft cotton knit tops with 3/4 sleeves), large feet, and a couple of other things, like beloved daughters and grandbabies.

Things we don't have in common: You have kept trying to get off the roundabout; I have been driving on it,'round and 'round and 'round, for over twenty years now. I do wish I weren't plump (must use kind words about these things), but fear more the devastation/discouragement of failure if I lose and regain, lose and regain. Plus, my neck has turned into an entity I don't recognize, but I happily show it to the world. Oh, and (long or short) you have good hair. And you don't use as many parentheses as I do. :(


Pen Wilcock said...


Waving! xxx

GerriHultgren said...

Oh dear,you described my struggles! My solution is to learn sewing ( going for my first dress making venture today) and sew my own dresses. Short sleeves with hand knit cardigans,slightly raised waist,long skirts. I am fortunate to live here in Pennsylvania with a large amish/mennonite community,so It's not weird here.I had some dresses made,but it's expensive in the long run. I have some salwar kameez,which are very flattering on any body type ( I am tall, but carry too much weight since menopause...sigh). I think you wrote a post that most women our age can relate to,thank you :)

Pen Wilcock said...



AbiSomeone said...

Yes. Ugh. Gained 20 pounds during my mostly-dead year healing from my puncture wound that I'm hoping to get rid of this year. I'm just wearing what is comfortable. To thine own self be true. ;-)

Pen Wilcock said...


Will do! xx

Deborah said...

Wear what makes you happy and don't worry about how it looks :-)

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Jenna said...

Pen! As usual you do get to the heart of it. I was just thinking to myself the other day that the chic bun that was so ballerina-like on me in my skinny 20's, now in my 50's with my salt-n-pepper hair is just--well--so grandma. I ditched the whole "Menopause Red" hair color thing a long while ago. As for what I wear, I never was one to look right in jeans somehow so giving them up when I went plain wasn't so much of a chore. I've even managed Mid-Atlantic (aka somewhat brutal) winters without even so much as a pair of tights under my skirts--although I might wear two skirts if it's quite cold (human skin "hardens off" if given a chance to acclimate to the cold). I've sort of updated my plain dresses a tidge--shortened the hem just a bit and the sleeves and use them as a canvas for artsy scarves or a necklace--but I do see that simple bodice/gathered skirt thing in more upscale dresses around on the Internet. Otherwise, it's t-shirts and skirts for knocking around. As my friend Angela says, any woman worth her salt can do anything she needs to in a dress.

PS Ganeida--love it. So over it--yep. That says it.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Unknown said...

I think you still have your hormones playing up!just wear what makes you feel goodlook after yourself, and smile! A smile makes up for a lot of defects.I am57 and would not like to be 20 again

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

LANA said...

Yes I am not pleased either with the way my body has gone. My jowls make me look like a bulldog. My hips and rear have enlarged considerably since menopause, which I had a terrible time with and ended up gaining 60 pounds. I keep trying to find clothing that looks good but nothing does. It is just my shape that is the problem. I have turned into my mother, who was an hourglass with a bit more sand on the bottom. So since I live in a warm climate, I mostly wear jeans or capri pants, with elastic waist. On top, tailored shirts or v-neck t shirts. I don't mind the wrinkles at all, it is the sagging I hate. I am now trying to walk more and loss some weight, maybe 15-20 lbs. Not enough to change my size, but just to reduce my girth a little and give me more breathing room in my clothes. It is a trade-off because I love to cook and eat.

L said...

I feel your conundrum. Men can have no idea what we go through.

For my part, (I am 48 with a belly that looks 4 months pregnant unless I suck in tremendously)I have developed a uniform that will take me from now to the end of my time, I hope. Tops are not fitted, collars are neither crew nor V, but straight across, cardigans for warmth, short sleeves for coverage, and flowers or lace because I am feminine and love them. The jeans could be substituted for a stretchy pencil skirt of modest length, or comfy yoga pants at home doing housework. See link below for rough example, though I have many variations on the theme.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi L - yes that looks simple and pretty - clothes you can move in!

gail said...

Goodness Pen, you do brighten my day. Love your hair short, looks so cute. I'm 63 and now am choosing comfort although I still like a bit of elegance. Thinking about it I actually feel comfortable with the elegant older lady look. I hope that doesn't sound prideful. I'm definitely not the floaty caftan type. I remember being willow slim when in my teens right through to my 50s and my brother once said that his girlfriend was not big boned like me!!!!!!!! Well from then on I thought I was a horse and it wasn't till just recently that I was looking at some old photos, that I realised I really was slim and not big boned at all. All those wasted years believing i was huge. I'm quite happy with who I am now and how I look (for an old chick that is) I just keep smiling and then people don't notice what I'm wearing. Thats my secret to this age related problem. Also I try and teach my younger friends to take what some people say with a grain of salt and I'm careful to build them up rather than be critical. This was a terrific post that certainly had me chuckling.
Blessings Gail.
PS How boring would it be if we all really looked the same and how terrific to see an older lady looking just a tad flamboyant. Makes me feel as if I'd like to get to know her.

Pen Wilcock said...

Ah, yes! It's the expression on the face that makes it beautiful. The kindness. and I like the flamboyant old ladies, too. :0D xx

Joy Warner said...

I so enjoyed this post and of course as a 70 year old who is semi bald identified with it. Just re-watched the wonderful documentary Fashionistas about 5 women in their 70s and 80s who are wonderfully inventive when it comes to clothing. You can watch it on you tube I think. Anyway thanks so much for your inspirational blog and your wonderful books of which I have read a few. Peaceful greetings from Canada.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Joy - waving! Thank you for the recommendation of the Fashionistas documentary! xx

Rapunzel said...

Just for the record, few things brighten my day more than the sight of a bag of groceries being carried home from the market. It is NOT a bad look, but a promising one.


That ^ is my typographic interpretation of a flying fig, which is what I do not give for what anyone thinks of how I look.

At work I wear a uniform of polyester, which looks equally repulsive on both sexes and all 13 of our crew's figure types. It makes hot sexy people look just like the rest of us, Ha!
In my private life I tend strongly towards homemade dresses that fit roughly like a sack. I love them. No annoying waistband, no buttons to lose or zipper to get stuck. I've been dressing this way so long people just think of me as a cheerful old peasant lady, which simplifies any number of things.

This essay cheered me up mightily, thanks so much!

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes, your dresses; they look peaceful, beautiful, comfortable. You found your way to an excellent style. x

Rapunzel said...

PS- dying of curiosity about how women should dress and what looks good ie: your Mum!

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh - she favours blouses left open with a camisole underneath, linen trousers - everything in spring shades; beige, yellow green, orange, cream etc. Natural fibres.

Rapunzel said...

Sounds very posh. Not that I could carry it off at all ;)

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx