Book Review: Fashion and Age

fashion and age2

With the recent focus on fashion and aging this year at Worn Through, from suggested readings to documentaries available on Netflix that explore the lives of women and men who remain engaged with fashion and style well into their later years, I thought it might be a good moment to review a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while, Julia Twigg’s Fashion and Age: Dress, the Body and Later Life.  

And with a new documentary on Iris Apfel about to be released, actresses and writers such as Charlotte Rampling, Tilda Swinton, and Joan Didion appearing in ad campaigns for various labels, and media proclamations of “sixty is the new forty” and the like, it appears that fashion is beginning a healthy and robust engagement with women well beyond its youthful ideal of the late teens and early 20s.  And yet Twigg’s study wisely wishes to interrogate such developments further, and asks some very interesting questions in the introduction, including do such changes reflect “the aspirational nature of consumption rather than any real change in the cultural location of age?”, and “What part does age play in the dynamic of fashion transmission itself, and has it replaced social class in the ordering of this”? (p. 1).

Twigg’s interest in women and fashion is rooted in “a concern with questions of embodiment and its role in the lived reality of people’s lives” (p. ix).  This study is intended to address gaps in her own discipline of sociology, which has historically viewed aging “through the lens of social welfare”, or in terms of frailty, dereliction, and inevitability–as though aging and becoming old is solely determined in biological terms and “naturalized in the body”, instead of being culturally constructed like gender, class, or sexuality.  This has begun to change, she notes, with the rise of studies in cultural gerentology. The study of fashion and clothing has also gained respect in the academy with the rise of cultural studies, consumption studies, postmodernist themes of identity and agency, and feminism’s embrace of fashion as a worthy topic of inquiry, and does include in her discussion previous sociological studies of women and their relationship to their wardrobes.

Twigg differentiates between fashion and dress, and explains her use of both terms. Although “fashion” appears prominently in the title, she prefers “dress” for her study, as she sees “fashion” as potentially narrow and exclusionary, leaving out the vast majority of clothing that lacks glamour and does not follow seasonal trends or chase youthful styles.  She also limits her study to women (briefly discussing men, fashion, and aging), as reflective of “the way fashion is constituted as a feminized field”, as well as the societal view that “the female body is unfinished business” (p. 18).  And she is certainly correct that women are far more scrutinized than men as they age, from their changing bodies to what they wear.  She repeatedly notes that there is no male equivalent for the derogatory phrase, “mutton dressed as lamb.”

She points out that most fashion writing and studies are focused on the young, the avant-garde, ultra transgressive, or “edgy”, noting that, “Beyond forty in this literature, there is silence” (p. 2).  There are, of course, exceptions made for ultra fashionable women with a highly developed sense of personal style and performance such as Daphne Guinness, Isabella Blow, Apfel, or the many ladies of Advanced Style.  Twigg strives to illuminate the life of the woman who does not engage with fashion as a strong marker of identity, or as a customer of couture or high-end labels, but rather as a mundane but necessary activity of daily life that nevertheless brings up strong emotions, memories, and feelings of both joy and loss.  While many of Twigg’s interviewees have an ambivalent or distanced relationship with fashion, Twigg does profile three individual women for whom fashion is a force for personal expression, identity, and creativity.  And it is all of these personal stories and viewpoints that are the heart and soul of Twigg’s Fashion and Age.

Before delving into these narratives of women’s personal lives, Twigg discusses in the first two chapters how fashion, the body, and aging have been theorized across disciplines and approaches in research.  It is here that Twigg introduces several concepts to which she’ll return in later chapters during interviews with everyday women, magazine editors, and designers and buyers. “Age ordering”, or “the systematic patterning of cultural expression according to an ordered and hierarchically arranged concept of age ” (p. 25), is still strongly evoked through certain styles and cut of clothes throughout a person’s life. She discusses the similarities between clothing on both ends of the age spectrum–the looseness, easy and simple closures, and pastel colors of clothing for the elderly and for babies–which can be read as either playful and easygoing or can “point darkly to another future” of easy-care clothing found in nursing homes and hospitals.  But she also acknowledges that the increasing casualness and ease of dress is found within mainstream fashion, not only with the clothing that older people are expected to wear.  There are styles stereotypically associated with older women, some negatively (the overly feminine “sweet old lady” style), and others with more positive, flexible connotations (the “mother-of-the-bride” style, often associated with the royal family) (p. 28-29).  Twigg asks, does age ordering or age “coding” in dress–what a woman is expected to wear during different stages of her life–still exist now?

"Age ordering" in dress, from Fashion and Age: Dress, The Body and Later Life, Bloomsbury, 2013

19th century “Age ordering” for women in dress, from Fashion and Age: Dress, The Body and Later Life, Bloomsbury, 2013

The concepts of “agelessness” and “moving younger” are also introduced here.  “Agelessness” is enthusiastically embraced by the designers, buyers, and magazine editors, and this concept is often presented in the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and other high-end fashion magazines.  It simultaneously tries to deflect age ordering by encouraging older women to wear more youthful styles, while still cautioning readers on culturally contingent boundaries that should not be breached. While Twigg acknowledges that the varied choices now available to women are beneficial and positive, she also warns of the potential for the older woman to “participate in [her] own erasure” (p. 46) with the concept of “agelessness” and the denial of the experience of an entire life lived, collapsing these long, rich histories with youth, which of course is the engine that drives fashion’s constant state of change.  She suggests that the diffusion of dress styles may not be “moving younger”, which is an idea more in line with the aspirational nature of consumerism and capitalism, but rather “moving older”, as styles are quickly abandoned by the young as they are adopted by older wearers (p. 49).

She also discusses the double-edged blade of “heroic forms of anti-ageing”, most commonly associated with the baby boomer generation (p. 40).  While offering alternative views of the lives of aging people, a focus on only these narratives can silence the difficulties of the less healthy and affluent aging population and can obscure ageist attitudes that are pervasive and largely unchallenged in the mainstream cultural arena.  Twigg raises the important point that denigration and exclusion of the aged is not naturalized, but the result of social and political policies and processes; she states that breaking down the barriers of dress between the aged and the mainstream can be viewed “as a political project”. She notes starkly, “everyone will get old, but there is no solidarity in this” (p. 34).

Chapters 4 and 5, “The Voices of Older Women” and “Dress and the Narration of Life” are the most compelling of the study.  The demographic information for the interviewees is found in the appendix, which states that 20 women were interviewed, all were at least 55 years of age, most of the interviewees lived in east Kent and all were white.  This information, if included in the main text, would provide an opportunity to directly discuss the limitations of the sample and acknowledge that narratives of women of color are absent from the study. Nevertheless, the stories and quotes Twigg culls from these interviews is valuable and absorbing.  Twigg states that, “Change lies at the heart of narrative”, and narrative “helps to undermine a static concept of age as a fixed state” (p. 75), as well as the “othering” of age that does not take into account subjective views and circumstances of the subject.

These interviews illuminate the complexities of feeling and experience surrounding fashion and getting dressed.  These include feelings of a loss of self, regret, and frustration when shopping, especially during “the changing room moment” (p. 62), when women confront the loss of their younger bodies and their perceived inability to wear styles they once enjoyed.  While “age ordering” in dress and ageist attitudes have been internalized, many women do acknowledge that they dress and look much differently than their mothers and grandmothers, and some vow never to don the markers of “old age” dress, such as Crimplene fabric or pleated skirts.  Some interviewees remark on this change as a cultural shift, while others attribute it to the hard working class life of their mothers and grandmothers, who didn’t have time, money, or energy to devote to their appearance. (p. 57-58). Others note the desire to look and dress well is not necessarily motivated by fashion, but rather by working class values instilled in them from a young age, such as always looking clean and tidy.  Such impulses become significant, Twigg notes, and centered around anxieties of “passing muster”,  as the elderly are scrutinized heavily for signs of “slippage” in tidiness and cleanliness.

One of the most interesting points that Twigg pulls out of these interviews is that these women, once subject to a patriarchal or sexist gaze, are now under “the gaze of youth” (p. 59) and the pressures to live up to a new, more youthful ideal of dress and being. One respondent brings up the value of what is usually viewed as a negative–invisibility. She found that “she was happy to be quiet” (p. 64) and invisible, and could easily observe people and their behavior for her writing projects.  Twigg notes this is in opposition to the “empowerment” narrative of older people participating in up-to-date consumption.  At the same time, other interviewees noted a continued connection to visibility and sexuality through clothes.

For her extended interviews with three women with a passionate engagement with fashion, Twigg frames and analyses their stories from three intersecting trajectories: their own personal histories and circumstances (‘an unfolding of an individual’s life’), the historical moment when they discovered their sense of style, and how femininity and age are defined in the times in which they lived as younger selves and live now as older women (“aged by culture”; “young or old in a particular historical moment” [p. 78]).  Threads of similarities and differences can be found in all three stories, and all are very illuminating and poignant as each woman reflects upon her own personal, still-evolving style. From the woman who refuses to retreat from Goth corsets and lace to join “the anorak brigade” and wear shapeless, sexless clothing, to the woman who defiantly wears her bright, loose-fitting, clashing pattern ensembles as a firm affirmation of self and her own definition of allure, to the scholar who continues to perform an imagined identity with her romantic, Edwardian-inspired clothes, and finds an affinity with her subject of study–James Joyce–in this alter-ego-like performance.

Twigg’s interviews with magazine editors, buyers, and designers explore the presence, or lack thereof, of older women in the pages of three UK magazines with a female readership across age ranges and socioeconomic backgrounds–Yours, Woman & Home, and Vogue.  Twigg finds again that ageist attitudes and “age ordering” concepts have been internalized by editors, and they often picture their reader as being much younger than the reality.  Some interviews reveal that in wishing to constantly imagine a younger customer, opportunities are missed to reach older customers in their 70s who are or would be interested in lines of clothing marketed to younger consumers in their 50s and 60s (Twigg found that some magazines/companies did not want to participate in the study for fear of their products being associated with the elderly; conversely, the label Viyella was very enthusiastic about serving and representing the older customer).

An overly celebratory narrative prevails in the fashion industry, masking over the anxieties and pressures older women may feel to live up to a new standard of heightened visibility and youthful vigor.  Gone is the voice of Mrs. Exeter, the fictional voice of the mature woman in Vogue.  Though definitely a construction of the era of the 1940s and 1950s, she is a woman who is accepting of her age and appearance and does not strive to appear younger–advice that Vogue no longer dispenses.

Mrs. Exeter as seen by Cecil Beaton, 1948, from Fashion and Age: Dress, The Body and Later Life, Bloomsbury, 2013

Mrs. Exeter as seen by Cecil Beaton, 1948,
from Fashion and Age: Dress, The Body and Later Life, Bloomsbury, 2013

Although Twigg conclusively warns against too fond an embrace of the celebratory view (it “bleaches out significant differences between older women, underplays their diversity” [p. 140]), she ultimately, simultaneously acknowledges the joys and pleasures for older women of being invited and courted to “join in” with fashion. The “grey market” is a significant segment of the population that fashion must address; interviewees in this study noted that they were much better off financially than when they were younger–income does not preclude buying clothes, especially with clothing being a staggering 70% cheaper in the UK than in the 1960s (p. 120).  Older women are replenishing their wardrobes more and more often, and designers and editors are paying attention to this.  In Chapter 7, “The High Street Responds”, Twigg looks at the realities of the aging body and how designers are responding to this in adjusting the cut of clothes; she also acknowledges the very real challenge of offering styles that “move younger” for the body that is inescapably moving older (she and some interviewees also point to slimness and strict dieting as a strategy to maintain a youthful body and wear younger, more fashionable styles).

Size UK mature fit mannequin, from Fashion and Age: Dress, The Body and Later Life, Bloomsbury, 2013

Size UK mature fit mannequin, from Fashion and Age: Dress, The Body and Later Life, Bloomsbury, 2013

Throughout the study, Twigg repeats her points strongly and often, which partly may be due to the style of presenting research in the discipline of sociology and social policy. While some portions may seem repetitive, these numerous reiterations reinforce important observations and findings on a conversation that fashion generally does not wish to have, except when it concerns exceptional (and often wealthy) individuals. is where most of Twigg’s research resides, with more targeted articles on such topics that would never be addressed in mainstream fashion magazines, blogs, or photo spreads, such as women’s relationships with their handbags after the onset of dementia. Twigg’s continuing work will undoubtedly continue to shed light on and illuminate this previously much ignored subject in fashion.

All photos provided by the author.


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