When I am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple…or Something

IBC will occasionally feature the voice of a special guest writing a single post. This first one’s courtesy of Louise Rafkin. 

Louise Rafkin is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post Magazine, Forbes, Health, San Francisco Magazine, Salon, Cosmopolitan, and the New York Times Magazine. She’s a frequent contributor to All Things Considered and other programs on National Public Radio.

Even my fashion-compulsive friends and my fashionista niece couldn’t give me a good answer: name a woman fifty plus who wears it well.

I don’t mean simply looks hella younger.  For that, we have Demi Moore.  And I suppose we have Madonna, though lately she’s looking like a harsher Blondie but is still uninteresting fashion-wise. (Unlike the real Blondie who pretty much defined a sustaining style moment in the late ’70s.)

So as a 50 plus tomboy femme, I’ve been trolling the net for inspiration, for women of middle age with style, sophistication, and originality who aren’t squeezing their Spanx-encased post-menopausal skeletons into teenager duds. Because I say hell to the no on ruffles and empire frocks.

Ever since the Gap popularized the notion that male toddlers in the same clothing as their fully grown fathers makes them “little men,” American women of a certain age have embraced a similar notion that wearing clothes from Forever 21 will transform them into hot chicks. Alas, non.  Ask any French woman, not a one who would be caught wearing something remotely  “babydoll.” So, what’s a girl–er–woman to do?  Who’s going to point the way?

My guide thus far: Tilda Swinton.  With cheekbones as architectural as something you’d buy at the MOMA gift shop, Ms. Swinton consistently combines class, strength, and a smidgen of femme sexuality into something fresh.

Here, her swank take on dress-up duds make even Eva Longario look trite:

Swinton looking sharp

I would so want to wear this, though I’m not built like a beanpole:


And here, in Comme de Garcons, on the cover of the August W–sassy and sexy at the same time, and with a intriguing butch/femme balance:

Can’t think she isn’t taking something from Kate Hepburn.  Here, Ms. Hepburn’s slightly girly flavor still says both sexy and confident:


Europeans seem more able to transition with flair.  Here, both Catherine Deneuve and Helen Mirren demonstrate the power of cougars in leopard:

Catherine Deneuve loves fashion magazines

The French do it well, but check out Ms. Mirren:

Helen Mirren cat walks

I like how she is also unafraid of color– a huge faux pas of those in my age bracket because officially one stops being seen at about 40.  Pass 50 and you have to crank up the Crayola.

Crayola Mirren

Though I can’t say I like the Dame’s silhouette here, I admire her chutzpah–red stockings aren’t for the faint of heart.

Splashing with orange, newlywed Julie Christie rocks these flashy trousers; success is coming off as sporty not frumpy:

Julie Christie will not be kept in neutrals

When I was a young lesbian, the book When I am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple was ubiquitous among the lavender crone population. It’s now sold millions, and in Amazon parlance, recounts “the endearing moments of joy–and passion–to be found in the rich and varied world of midlife.”

The title came from a poem by Jenny James.  Aside from lauding the audacity of wearing purple, it claims “You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat/And eat three pounds of sausages at a go.” That is just wrong–and not true. Or, at least, I don’t want it to be.

I do cherish my purple and silver Nike Air-Force 1’s, but I’d like more inspiration: Where are the iconic Boomers, then, that refuse to go quietly into the post-50 dusk?


  1. Wonderful piece. I have always had a problem with the old woman wearing purple poem. In my case, I dislike the concept of waiting until I am old to be extravagent with my outfits. As for old women who dress well- The Sartorialist often features incredibly stylish, confident, beautiful (often foreign) older women on his blog.

  2. patsyt

    This is for an even older demographic, though I think it offers something for all ages: the 70+:


    These not-particularly famous women have certainly inspired 30-something me along the way.

  3. I realize this post is months old but I’m working my way through every single IBC post while the summer hiatus is on, & I’ve discussed the subject of this one many times. I once got a Facebook thread going on the topic of Stylish Older Women that got a ton of people fired up-in a good way. I’m 44, and while I often get told I “look younger”, I’m thinking about all these concepts in a lot more practical terms than I used to. On days when I feel old, tired, & past it, my rallying cry of three words is “Kim. Fucking. Gordon.” Or “Patti. Fucking. Smith.” And let’s not leave out Yoko Ono & Vivienne Westwood.

IBC LOVES your brain, and we encourage thoughtful, lively discussion. We will, however, moderate comments that are abusive or disrespectful. Stay classy!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: