When Janine [not her real name] is out scouring the racks at her favorite department store, the numbers rattling around in her head have nothing to do with sizes or price tags. They began creeping into her consciousness—a whisper at first, then louder with each passing year—when she hit her late 40's. Now, at 64, they're all but shouting at her.
Those "numbers" are Janine's age. And while the Pikesville resident probably looks more fabulous than a great majority of women of her generation, she still worries—a lot.
She worries if what she's buying is suitable for her. She worries that the mirror might lie. And sometimes, when she's feeling particularly doubtful, she worries that people will, with a silent click of the tongue, think those seven words an older woman dreads more than anything:
She's dressing too young for her age.
Style coach Rachael Shayne calls it the "15-51" effect.
"It's when women look 15 from the back and 51 from the front," she jokes, pointing out that she didn't actually coin the phrase, but often uses it to describe women who dress more like their teenage daughters than the accomplished adults they are.
"Everyone wants to feel young and beautiful," the Colorado-based stylist continues. "But [dressing young] is not as attractive as they think it is."
The issue of women dressing inappropriately for their age is nothing new. But in our youth- and celebrity-obsessed culture—one that's more interested in discussing the latest TMZ cellulite sighting than the wisdom and beauty that comes with age—it has become quite prevalent.
Of course, guys can dress inappropriately too: backwards baseball caps and low-slung jeans on a 60-year-old are not a good look. But it's women, much more often than men, who feel the constant pressures of looking young.
And as older women in Baltimore and beyond are taking a multi-pronged approach to defying Father Time—not just diet and exercise, but sometimes personal trainers, nutritionists, and cosmetic surgery—the desire to dress younger becomes a reality.
"Anything that comes in a junior size should not be worn by women over 21," Shayne advises with a laugh. "No polyester and no odd sizes! Women will go to [the juniors department at] Nordstrom and there's this great badge of honor of 'Look what I can fit into!' But it makes you look older than if you just dressed really well for who you are."
The new definition of old, says Shayne—who works with private and corporate clients from coast to coast—"is the person who's just been nipped and tucked shopping the juniors department."
Lisa Schatz, owner of Fells Point women's boutique Cupcake, says there's a fine line between cute and tragic, but deciphering those lines—and figuring out when one's been crossed—can be difficult.
"I think there are boundaries, but defining them is a little tricky," she says.
Schatz doesn't care for "hard-and-fast rules" when it comes to age-appropriate fashion. She recently watched an episode of Bravo's Tim Gunn's Guide to Style in horror as the celebrity style guru declared horizontal stripes on a woman over 40 a huge no-no. The shop owner whole-heartedly disagrees.
"I thought, 'That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard,'" she quips. "I don't think blanket statements are necessarily true, but you don't want to embarrass your kids either. If you can put it on a teenager, it can make you look like a prostitute."
Janine shudders at the mere thought of looking cheap or desperate to be young again. Her biggest nightmare is becoming one of those women—the ones where everything's just a little bit off: Skirt hemlines are too short, shirts plunge too low, and jeans, well, if bending over means revealing your thong underwear, that is never a good sign.
"There's a [distinction] between sexy and trashy," according to celebrity stylist Rachel Johnson. "If it looks good, do it with class."
The stylist—who works with the likes of Gwen Stefani, Veronica Webb, and Jamie Foxx—cites Academy Award-winning British actress Helen Mirren (of 2006 film The Queen) as the perfect mix of sexiness and class.
"She's so chic, and she's a little bit sexy," Johnson says of the 64-year-old actress. "She has her cleavage out, but she always looks gorgeous. There's always some kind of balance."
And balance—both boutique owners and stylists agree—is what women of all ages should be seeking.
If you want to wear a sexier top, "don't pair it with an über-short miniskirt," Schatz says. If you're unwilling to give up the short skirt, then opt for a looser, more conservative shirt.
"Style is all about balance and confidence," she says. The stylist's ultimate goal with her clients is to help them develop a personal style, something "much more magnetic than wearing some really tight jeans that you bought at some teenage store."
If you want to rock a pair of snug jeans, there's definitely a time and a place, says Scott Wable, co-owner of Mt. Washington's Jean Pool.
"I'm all about sex and appeal," he says. "I believe in showing a little skin when it's appropriate, like at a cocktail party. But if you're doing the aquarium with the kids, it's probably not the best place to throw on that sexy little sundress."
Wable also recommends accessories—such as trendy bags, jewelry, and belts—to make the look more polished.
Schatz agrees, adding that a great pair of shoes really kicks things up a notch.
"I fell in love with shoes when I gained weight in college," she says candidly. "Shoes look good on everyone. And, let me tell you, men love platforms."
Rachel Johnson's main recommendation: If you want to do risqué, wear dark colors.
"If an older woman wants to do something daring," she says, "it can still look classic or conservative as long as she does it in black or in a dark color—not hot pink."
It's easy to snicker behind the back of a "15-51." It's even easier to blame her for looking the way she does. But blaming the victim isn't always the way to go, according to Julia Orza, associate professor and coordinator of the counselor education program at McDaniel College.
"In our society, women are bombarded with messages that they should look younger and shouldn't age," she says. "I don't think anyone really wants to relive their adolescence, but our society makes it a terrible thing to age. Everything tells women they should look younger because once you age, you're really no good."
And while she's not in the psychology business, Johnson has outfitted enough people to recognize underlying reasons for fashion choices, whether they're aware of them or not.
"They want to seem attractive to men, and they want to seem attractive to themselves," she states. "A lot of moms want to be cool like their daughters, or sometimes these moms weren't popular when they were younger or weren't cute when they were younger and they look better now."
Cupcake's Lisa Schatz agrees. "I think sometimes they're trying to recapture their youth or live vicariously through their kids," she observes. "Or maybe they're trying to look cool for their kids' friends. They're definitely trying to feel sexy. People may not be looking at them for the right reasons, but they're looking."
Dr. Jack Vaeth, a Hunt Valley and Annapolis-based psychiatrist specializing in adults and adolescents, puts much of the blame on celebrity culture, something he sees as not only fake but harmful.
"Celebrity culture is very artificial." he says. "It's very dangerous. It would be refreshing to see a celebrity say, 'I'm comfortable with my wrinkles and my age and this is the way I am.'"
Suffice it to say, with the notable exception of body-image warrior Jamie Lee Curtis, he's not exactly holding his breath.
Controversy aside, it's refreshing to find a woman about town who couldn't care less what anybody thinks.
Leslie Adler isn't shy about her age, and she's certainly not shy about shakin', as the saying goes, what her mama gave her. The 43-year-old Towson resident has put in a good 25 years at the gym, and is a self-professed health nut. And while she may not be in the "older woman" category yet, when she arrives there, she has no plans on changing anything about herself.
As she sees it, indulging in her own personal style ("form-fitting, a lot of black—and no Laura Ashley," she says with a laugh) is her reward for spending most of her life as a gym rat.
"I've been working out since I was 16, five to six days a week. I was vegetarian for 20 years, and have been a low-fat, healthy eater for most of my life. I deserve to wear things that make me feel good," she says with confidence. "I've earned it."
She's certainly not a teenager anymore—something she's acutely aware of—but it's nothing that's going to stop her from dressing exactly as she wants, now and far into the future.
"My tastes have matured as I have, but I still want to be on the funky, trendier side," she says. "If I want to wear pink high-tops at 70, I'll do it. Hopefully I'll still be in something slick and black and a cute top. Sometimes I wonder, at 55, am I still going to be able to get away with wearing boots and a miniskirt? I plan to. My goal is to get away with it as long as I can without being trashy."
That being said, Adler does not plan on joining the ranks of women who dress decades younger than they should. She does, however, plan on being fabulous her whole life through.
Even at 90 years old, "You're never gonna catch me in a moo-moo and house slippers," she states, completely deadpan. "Not gonna happen."