Boob and bust: over-50s style is complicated territory

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Boob and bust: over-50s style is complicated territory

After a former Vogue editor takes aim at a one-time supermodel, it's time to establish some sartorial truths

Shane Watson


You may or may not be aware of (slash, interested in) the Instagram spat between columnist Alexandra Shulman and model Helena Christensen. But it has turned into the classic “age-appropriate dressing” argument, writ billboard large.
In brief, style watchers are agog at the row, which ensued after Shulman, the former editor of British Vogue, accused the 50-year-old supermodel of pitching up to Gigi Hadid’s 24th birthday party in New York looking tacky, in a black lace bustier. “There’s nothing wrong in wishing to be desirable,” Shulman wrote in her Mail on Sunday Notebook column, this weekend, “it’s just not best achieved wearing a black lace corset in public”.
Adhering to prescribed rules for dressing over 50 is dull she wrote; “you don’t have to condemn yourself to trench coats, navy blazers and a crisp white shirt once you hit the big Five-O. But, even so, surely you should call time on Ann Summers style.”
Inevitably, it wasn’t long before Christensen responded to the slapper slur (my words, not Shulman’s) on Instagram: “Let’s continue to elevate and support each other all you beautiful, smart, fun, sexy, hard-working, talented, nurturing women out there, #oopssheworeabustieragain,” she posted, alongside a picture of herself and two other lingerie-wearing friends, Tali Lennox and Camilla Stærk, at a separate event.
Since then, Team Helena has been gathering a head of steam with interventions from the likes of the current editor of Vogue, Edward Enninful (“You are beautiful inside and out”) and Linda Evangelista (“She should be ashamed of herself. You are a goddess”). With nigh on 10,000 comments on Christensen’s Instagram post, Bustiergate really does seem to be dividing the nation into Team Helena and Team, Well, Alex Has A Point.
In the Don’t Tell Me What I Can Wear corner is Christensen, the supermodel who made her name on the back of being not just beautiful but naturally sexy. If Helena Christensen can’t wear it at 50, nobody can. In the opposite corner – Be Reasonable: Certain Things Must Go – is Shulman, 61 years old, with decades of experience on the fashion front line and hardly a prude or reactionary. She advocates wearing a bikini for as long as it makes you feel good, and wears one herself. Bare arms, sequin skirts, leather jackets, fluffy mules – it’s all normal to her.
So, maybe this clash of the fashion titans is what we have needed to clear the air and establish a few sartorial truths, once and for all. Who is right? Are we living in “wear what you like” times because we’re grown up and liberated and we still look pretty good? Or are there some rules of over-50 dressing, which we wish did not exist, but which do seem to be unavoidable?
This is complicated territory, and not just because of feminism, and the rule that women support other’s choices. What’s really tricky is that one woman’s “mutton dressed as lamb” is another’s “just fine”. Your shape and style and personality dictate what you suit as much as your age. No sooner have you refined your list of things women probably shouldn’t wear over 50 than someone pops up looking fabulous in those very things.
Sandra Redknapp, 71, was pictured recently in a long black organza dress with a deep, plunging neckline. There are at least two Never-For-Over-50s on that list and she looked fantastic. Fifty-year-old Gillian Anderson’s last appearance on the red carpet happened to be in a spaghetti strap dress, top of my list of Just-Say-Nos; needless to say, she looked as elegant as ever. Helen Mirren wears stripper platforms (surely on the No list) and carries them off because she’s Helen Mirren. Nancy Shevell (Mrs Paul McCartney) wears well-above-the-knee hemlines and bare legs at 59, because she happens to have the pins of a woman half her age.
The list goes on and on: women who look crazily good in clothes that, by all the laws of fashion, they shouldn’t look good in at their age. But for all those, there are as many clothes that you can only describe as Instant-Agers.Anyone who saw Nicole Kidman in this month’s Vanity Fair dressed up in a drummer boy jacket with nothing underneath, wide cropped leather trousers and patent brogues, can’t fail to have sighed and taken note of three (four if you count going naked under a jacket) Instant-Agers for the over-50s. The outfit made even Nicole Kidman look like someone’s mum trying to join in the cool kids’ party.Which brings us to the big secret of dressing appropriately in your 50s and beyond: don’t try too hard. Even if you’re not trying too hard – even if what you are doing is wearing the sort of thing you’ve worn time and time again because it suits you – stop and consider: “Does this look like I’m trying too hard?”Helena Christensen, for example, has worn more lacy black bustiers in her day than most of us have had hot dinners. She still looks great in a black bustier. The only difference, now, is that what used to look natural and just typically Helena (she’s never been a big one for make-up and was an early adopter of clogs and flip flops and moth-eaten vintage coats) now looks like she’s “trying” to be sexy.
That’s what happens when you’re in your 50s, unfortunately. Normal clothes can creep up on you and make you look like Hillary Clinton. Glamorous clothes – previously guaranteed to get you out of a hole – make you look like Barbara Cartland. And some cool clothes – Converse high-tops, say – as well as sexy clothes, lace bustiers among them, make you look like you’re trying just a bit too hard for comfort.Still, if trying too hard means looking like Christensen at Gigi Hadid’s party, I’d take that.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)

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