Thursday, January 15, 2004

Manifesto for the middle-aged shopper

OK, so I say something in passing to Ken about middle-age, and he laughs and tells me not to describe women between 25 and 45 as middle-aged, and I laugh and say “well what are we then?” and he laughs again and moves the conversation on.

And Ken’s reaction stays with me for the rest of the day, because if, at 35, I’m not middle-aged, what exactly am I? And what are the consequences of denying it?

I have thoroughly enjoyed getting older. A figure that looked overblown and uncontrolled when I was younger now looks curved and comfortable—and that’s despite being two inches larger all over. I know what suits me and pretty much stick to it (barring a few horrendous mistakes we won’t talk about). But buying what suits me? That’s a different matter.

Age has physical consequences. Most of us put on weight, and most of us change shape even if we don’t. I still remember the shock of realising my proportions had changed and that a whole set of styles suddenly looked really bad. I’m actually the same size in trousers as in 1990 but I had to get rid of my Levis and look for something with a lot more room for hips. I do not have a young woman’s body, I have a matron’s body.

But the heart of the clothes market has changed. Even in the 1960s, the mainstream fashion industry designed for adult women. Married women had the most money to spend on clothes so they were the standard model. Today, the industry is geared up mainly to the very young, who have more money than ever and spend a lot of it in small amounts but frequent intervals—a stock purchaser’s dream. So the rest of us are told that unless we dress the same way, and update as often, we are frumpy. It’s a very hard message to resist.

(Aside: the effect of using young women’s proportions to design clothes can be seen almost every time you see a woman in a blouse today. They almost all pull around the bust and under the arms.)

The number of shops that cater for this market is minute and mostly not cheap. Country Casuals , Monsoon and Jaeger are the three that come to my mind and I certainly can’t afford the latter. Forget Marks & Spencer’s. Their Per Una Range are teenage styles in matrons shapes; Autograph isn’t really designed for day to day wear; and their basics seem to have forgotten that today’s forty year olds weren’t brought up to wear pastels. There is nothing in the shop that reflects those who were teenagers in the 1980s, who want style, strong colours, and good cuts with enough room in the hips and bust.

In the past ten years, clothing stores have made one particular change that infuriates me. Most now often provide only one colour option with each style (maybe three if you’re lucky). If you don’t like pink and burgundy, last year’s “fashion” was a non starter. M&S have rather a nice twin-set in stock at the moment, but only if you like beige. The old BT advert in which Maureen Lipman goes through an entire sweater range, asking what colours something is available in, has become incomprehensible. I know I’m at an extreme in wanting only one or two colours, but I shouldn’t have to wait for green to “come round” every three years.

This is why I think it is important to say, quite firmly, “no, I am not young. I’ve entered middle age and I’m enjoying it thank you . I know what suits me and I’m not going to purchase clothing according to the most rigidly prescribed fashion, in only a limited range of colours and with cuts and styles designed for eighteen year olds with no curves.

Only if we identify ourselves as a market will the market cater for us.

Epilogue: the morning after writing the above I tried to buy a black sweater in M&S. It took me almost 20 minutes to find something that was neither frumpy nor designed for an eighteen year old. I couldn’t repress the schadenfreud later that evening when M&S reported their women’s clothing sales as 3% down.

No comments: