Monthly Archives: February 2009

Sleeveless in middle age

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Apparently, Linda Grant has used a very old photo on her book jacket and she is actually in her late 50s! Well done Linda. But you of all people could go sleeveless…

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Armless Women

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Suddenly, it seems the upper arms of middle aged women have become indecent. I am not sure when this happened, but it was somewhere between those hilarious conversations with other women sharing their flab vernacular 4 years ago, and the gloating exposure of Madonna’s gristly arm muscle on the cover of a magazine this year. If you don’t have perfectly-toned upper arms you better cover them up, honey. Showing those old arms is offending someone. Flabby and fat or taut and muscular, the exposure of no-longer-young upper arms has become (in some circles) simply wrong.

It reminds me of when somebody somewhere took exception to older women showing cleavage. The talk was designed to humiliate women over 35 exposing bosom, making it seem indecent and worse, making us seem out of touch with etiquette and fashion. Regardless of the fine examples set by Jamie Lee Curtis and Susan Sarandon at the Oscars in 2007 (or was it 2006?) and the age-defying appearance of Helen Mirren at the 2008 Oscars, there is not much middle aged cleavage to be seen anymore. Hadley thinks it’s just another example of anti-age bias, and although she may be right, that is not the end of it.

Social ideas of decency and modesty are in perpetual flux, it’s part of how fashion itself works: through influence, opportunity, and a process of collective selection. The selection process is a kind of crowd behaviour so it’s unpredictable and uncontrollable, and also the most dynamic part of the fashion equation. This is where those of us with enough confidence and knowledge have some fun, make a statement, and show the way. We are the crowd, we make fashion’s offerings fashionable, not fashion dictators. Fashion buyers and editors gamble on fashion each season, staking their reputation on what will take off. Keeping a sharp eye on what key people are wearing, identifying the trend then presenting their selection to the readership; they do influence the rest of us. But we are all playing inside the same playground: somebody designed what’s in the shops, somebody sourced the various materials which were all produced by somebody else, it all got made, shown, ordered, and shipped before it ever got to appear in that stunning fashion moment, the golden Now. While all those industrial processes are working hard to sell us something, we still have choice about what we buy and wear.

There are a surprising number of people who believe that Fashion is a kind of Law, that there are Rules which must be followed. Therefore the most fashionable people are those who follow most faithfully. But this also makes fashionable people the most stupid “why else would they allow somebody else to manipulate them into parting with their cash season after season while piles of perfectly good clothes pile up in their wardrobes unworn? Just because some capitalist misogynist fashion dictator decrees that this season, pale denim is in and middle-aged women Do Not Show Upper Arms?

I am not that stupid. Are you?

Still, I hesitated when I was getting dressed on this balmy summer morning. I know it is going to be hot today. Can I get away with wearing that lovely sleeveless dress, or do I have to cover my arms? I admit my arms have seen better days, yet plump and un-toned as they are, they match the rest of me. I can laugh at arm jokes (“The wave that keeps on waving”) but I really like wearing sleeveless; it feels great in this brief Dunedin summer. Yet even the doyen of UK fashion writing Linda Grant describes her perfect going-out dress as having cover-up sleeves and is she even 40? Must I be a defiant risk-taker, a fashion rule breaker, when all I want to do is wear my summer dress? I can wear anything I want (or nothing at all) but the part I have no control over is how this appears to others, what people will make of me. And sometimes this matters.

The crude power of social opinion always challenges a woman brave enough to be herself, to display her personal style. It takes a bit of grit. If you have really developed a personal style there will certainly be times you are on your own. Flaunting social expectations often provokes a reaction and a bit of calibrating is required to prevent social discomfort (you have to know your limits) and you must have enough social connectedness to avoid extreme reactions like bullying (you have to know their limits).

But there are times we just have to break on through to the other side. I am not armless, I will show my old arms. I will show my age, my imperfection. I think it’s sexy. Age is only a crime to the death-denying young; imperfection is only a crime to fearful perfectionists, being yourself is only a crime when you think you are more important than you are. Everybody else knows it’s normal and ordinary to get old and to show it, it’s normal for humans to show human variation, and it’s one of life’s great accomplishments to be yourself. The censorship of age, imperfection, and difference is a threat to be resisted or better still, ignored.

For those of us in their mid-40s and older who are not ready to disappear, who don’t want to disavow the pleasures of the body (including sex, food, and sunshine), not willing to become distasteful to ourselves – we can just carry on wearing our armless dresses. In doing so, we influence that process of collective selection and participate in fashion as actor, not imitator. It’s a kind of power, the best kind.

We are the sleeveless women; it is our dresses that are armless.