We all change shape as we age – and although that does not necessarily mean getting larger, many of us do just that, particularly round the middle. There is definitely a psychological barrier to accepting that you might be a size larger than you used to be, that you are bigger than you want to be, or even that simply because you can just about squeeze into your usual size, you still look good in it – I’m always thinking that I am a size smaller than I really am.
Of course some labels—usually the more expensive—are cut more generously than others, so your wardrobe might already contain several apparently different sizes, although they all fit you the same way.
The fact is, though, that whatever the label says, you definitely look, and just as importantly, feel a lot slimmer if clothes are a bit looser on you – not just trousers, but almost everything; looser clothes disguise the bits you’d rather hide and soften the silhouette. So, never buy anything too tight. Rather than squeezing into a size 12, for example, perhaps you should try on a size 14? And if it makes you feel better to cut out the label, then by all means, do it. Nobody will know except you. It’s just a number, after all. We have all learnt the lesson of buying shoes a size too small, and dealing with the subsequent agony.
Waists and tummies
I think you’ve got to accept that even if you are not overweight, you may be becoming thicker around the waist and there’s not much you can do about that—although exercise can help—since it is an undeniable, if unpalatable fact that our metabolism slows with age and there is also often a change in hormone levels often associated with the menopause.
As far as the tummy is concerned, by a certain age most people have lost some muscle tone —anyone who has had a child particularly—and some of the elasticity of their stomach muscles will have gone.
I always used to hate elasticated trousers and elasticated skirts and most people would shriek at the idea but actually they are often the only practical solution if you want to wear a straight skirt or trousers. Model Jerry Hall, however, famously said, never wear an elasticated waistline because if you do you will never know if you are gaining weight or inches. She does have a point.
Even if you hold your tummy in when you are standing, the minute you sit down, it all comes out in the front; it droops like the dough for a loaf of bread, over the top of the waistband – not a great look. I mean I could starve myself, but the last thing to look better would be the waist, so tight-waisted things are no longer any good for me.
You do need some give somewhere – perhaps just around the back.
The late Jean Muir designed very desirable, well-cut wool crepe skirts that had waistbands that were slightly elasticated – frumpy they were not.
Hiding the upper arms
Whenever I go into a boutique or dress department, I walk around once, very fast, to see how many things hanging on the rails have sleeves. And then I pull it out to see whether it is a jacket or a dress.
If there is nothing with sleeves, I walk out again. You could ask, and I do, why don’t stores always carry dresses with sleeves? And if they do stock sleeveless dresses, why don’t they also stock pretty cardigans that actually go with the dresses on display? So, because they don’t, I buy my cardigans separately – mostly cheap and mostly from Uniqlo, cotton in the summer, cashmere in the winter. Personally I prefer ones that button to the neck – V-neck ones are slightly more difficult to work with the dress necklines; they look better worn with round necks or shirts.
And another thing…
The other evening, for example, I was going to a black-tie dinner and I got out a much-loved Vivien Westwood skirt with a waistband and I couldn’t do it up; very depressing. You think, I’ll lose some weight and fit into it again, but really I knew that I last wore it some years ago and I was never going to be that shape again. You have to do a bit of personal trade-offs—the glass of wine perhaps versus the waistband of your old, favourite skirt—and I think you’ve got to accept that.
Colour and Pattern
Before you begin to be specific about how to dress, this seems like a good place to think about colour and pattern and their pitfalls and pleasures.
I do think that what colours you wear and what actually suits you is even more important as you get older. I really feel that as a broad rule of thumb, you have to go for softer tones of the more vibrant primary shades such as bright reds, yellows and blues. (Of course if you’re very bronzed and on the beach under a brilliant sky and golden sun you can go for any colour you like – no holds barred.) But for day-to-day life I do think that somewhat lighter, softer colours work much better with the lighter skin that seems to come as one ages.
Try not to wear too much black during the day—it is ageing; instead try grey—light or dark; some neutrals (not camel!) And not too much white or cream, other than as a t-shirt or shirt.
For some reason navy blue is seen as a difficult colour, or just another version of black; it’s not of course, it is softer, warmer than black, and I think much nicer. I have worn a lot of navy over the years, particularly as an alternative to crow-like black. I find it very chic and flattering for almost any occasion, day or night. People sometimes feel that too much navy can look too like a uniform, but unless it is a severe suit—which could make you look like an airline employee—then give it a try.
Brown, too, in all its tones, is a much underrated palette — chestut, caramel, chocolate—both milk and plain—these are very pretty, very flattering shades for every skin shade; even the names are enticing.
In the evening, don’t ignore jewel and berry colours which can be very flattering in evening light – sapphire, garnet, emerald; blackberry, raspberry, blueberry and damson for example.
Black, if you really like it and can wear it, can come into its own in the evening and it is always smart. Brighten it up with jewellery, and if it is a short dress or skirt, wear sheer (as sheer as you can find) flesh-coloured tights (black sheer tights are also fine if your legs are good)
Any colour for the evening is lifted with jewellery or even a beautiful pair of shoes in a mad glamorous colour such as red, emerald, saffron or shocking pink for example. Possibly those expensive coloured shoes you bought for that wedding might fit the bill.
Saying all that, I don’t really like too many rules about colour – someone saying flatly that you can’t wear yellow, for example. Do experiment—but just remember—during the day, no brights and definitely very little black. I do feel a bit of a hypocrite saying this, as I do wear black in the daytime occasionally, even in summer. This is because it was the fashion uniform during most of my career and breaking away from a habit is difficult. These days though, when shopping, I am now definitely ditching the black and try to buy only colours and neutral shades.
About the author
Anna Harvey’s career in the fashion world as a leading and authoritative voice has mostly been spent at Vogue, where she has been Deputy Editor, as well as Editorial Director of Conde Nast international. She launched Vogue in India, Russia and Turkey and helped Diana, Princess of Wales on styling. Anna writes a bi-monthly column for the Telegraph based on her book Timeless Style.Last modified: January 8, 2021