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October 7, 2008

Chicago Manual of Style - 10/7/2008

It’s no secret that fashion fetishizes youth.

Vogue’s annual “Age Issue” (August 2008), which proposes to show readers how to be beautiful from ages 17 to 70, is always a reminder that younger is better. This year’s issue featured profiles of stylish, smart, savvy female staffers whose ages ranged from twentysomething to 70-plus. The self-styled spreads were supposed to help readers learn to cultivate a sense of personal style, the elusive je ne sais quoi of the fashion world. Despite the fact that the editorial focused on personal style, the clothes weren’t modeled by the women who chose them. Instead, models impersonated the Vogue writers, some of whom were former models themselves. The implication that a 40-year-old former model is so over the hill that she has to be replaced by a fresh-faced newcomer was enough to make me queasy.

The ever-growing, ever-younger crop of in-demand models is a symptom of a larger “cradle culture” that covets youth. Many of the successful models walking in shows for Prada and Marc Jacobs appear practically prepubescent. In any given month, fashion magazines dedicate umpteen pages to celebrating­­—and evaluating the relative merits—of a number of miracle serums and portable fountains of youth. Coupled with some sneaky scalpel work, these procedures are able to keep readers looking their youngest.

Maybe miniskirts do look better before varicose veins take over. But in my experience, age, rather than the prevention of it, can also be a beauty secret.

At 75, my grandmother is one of the chicest women I know. Apart from her daily swims, moisturizing regimen, and religious application of sunscreen, she hasn’t taken any pains to halt the aging process. She rarely wears any makeup other than a swipe of plum lipstick but always looks elegant, composed, and self-possessed. I don’t think that she has aged gracefully; I think it’s more accurate to say that as she has aged, she has become even more beautiful.

Since clothing fanaticism runs in my family, shopping trips are a rite of passage. I remember being thrilled when I was finally invited to participate in the tradition my grandmother had long shared with her four daughters. We swap clothes and put together ensembles for one another, but my favorite part of the trip is watching the other women look at themselves in the mirror.

My mother and I purse our lips in the same way when we try on clothes. We scrutinize our bodies in the mirror, sometimes with acceptance, and sometimes with derision. Frequently, we peer incredulously at parts of our bodies that suddenly look bigger – or smaller, or lower, or wider – than we remembered. We grab uncomfortably at seams, trying to fit ourselves into pants that just aren’t right.

It’s a different story with my grandmother. Instead of grimacing, she looks calmly and patiently at her reflection and asks us if we think a shorter turtleneck would be more comfortable. She no longer feels the need to stuff herself into a pair of pants; she understands the value of finding clothes that fit, rather than trying to fit yourself into clothes.

In a way, her aging body beautifully and sensitively narrates the story of her busy and exciting life. Her toned legs and sun-spotted arms are products of her penchant for hiking in Morocco and Athens. Her tall frame can carry off the graphic prints she’s collected on her trips around the world. She doesn’t have time to waste on clothes that are too fussy or constricting. She carries her clothing upon herself with an effortlessness that is only achieved through rejecting self-criticism and self-doubt.

My grandmother has taught me that the secrets to looking good are simple: Don’t try too hard, buy the right size, and find a good tailor. Though some of the outfits she’s tried to coax me into have been pretty outrageous, the advice is sound: Find clothes that let you move, and show off your body without accentuating its less-than-perfect features. She’s always told me to stay away from clothes that hide my shape or fit like a second skin. The idea isn’t to look like someone else, but like the prettiest, healthiest, and happiest version of you.

Maybe by taking some lessons from the worldlier fashionistas in our lives we can all feel more comfortable in our jeans and in our own skin.