Wednesday 16 October 2019

Leslie Ann Horgan: 'Am I getting old or are grannies just upping the style stakes?'


Dress to impress: Joan Bakewell
Dress to impress: Joan Bakewell
Leslie Ann Horgan

Leslie Ann Horgan

The instant I saw the dress, I knew that I had to try it on. The cut was exactly my style: no frills, just clean lines, in a heavy crepe that fell to a couple of inches above my knee. It had sleeves (why are they so frustratingly hard to find on dresses?) at three-quarter length, meaning that I could wear it before summer without the need for a cardigan or second layer. And it was a holy grail dress, with two subtle but large pockets at the sides.

In the fitting room, the shape of the dress was a winner but I still dithered over committing to the purchase.

The colour was a striking tangerine - a little out of the comfort zone, even for someone who is happy to stray beyond an all-black sartorial palette. It was the sale price that sealed it; I surmised that the bright colour had contributed to the substantial discount.

A ray of sunshine and a bargain - I went home happy.

Since that day, I've worn the dress twice, to semi-formal occasions where the hue certainly stood out in rooms of more muted tones. It was colourful and comfortable, and felt dressy without being restrictive. I loved it and was intending on giving it lots more wear - until this week, that is, when I spotted that same dress on television. On an 85-year-old woman.

If life is a journey of self-realisation, I've just made a huge and rather discomfiting discovery: I am a fashion ageist.

The OAP in question was Joan Bakewell, writer, Labour Peer and host of Sky's Artist of the Year programmes. She may be the woman for whom the phrase "the thinking man's crumpet" was originally coined, but still I can't pretend that I was anything less than crestfallen to see my dress - my young, vibrant dress - on an octogenarian.

What's worse is that Joan wore the dress exactly as I had, with thick black tights and black shoes (although with a heel height more suited to her age than my towering black boots). She finished the look with on-trend hooped earrings in tortoise-shell resin - exactly like a pair I'd been intending to buy.

The dress, the earrings and the television show are now officially ruined for me.

Admittedly, I was already aware that watching Portrait Artist of the Year is a decidedly senior pursuit. At 37, my TV tastes are tending more and more towards gentle, 'nice' programming: for every Russian Doll I watch, there's a Room to Improve. For every Game of Thrones, there's a Dancing With The Stars.

But while I may be comfortable settling into middle age, I'm nowhere near ready to start dressing like a woman who is older than my granny. The experience has made me look at my wardrobe in a whole new light. Are my clean lines ageing? Are my sleeves dowdy? Are my florals appealingly retro or just plain old-fashioned? Who else is eyeing up Holly Willoughby's denim dress at Marks & Spencer?

When Irish designer Joanne Hynes released her fifth collection for Dunnes Stores last autumn, I applauded as her mother Josephine came down the catwalk wearing a sequinned dress identical to one worn by a teenage model, complete with clompy shoes and bare legs.

I think that I may have tweeted about how empowering it was to see a woman of advanced age not being bound by the rules of 'sensible', 'age-appropriate' dressing.

While I stand by that sentiment, at the time I didn't stop to consider how a younger woman wearing the same dress might feel. The answer, it seems, is lamb dressed as mutton. I'm aware - and somewhat ashamed - that I sound like an intolerant ageist but I'd wager that, in our youth-obsessed culture, no one else wants to feel old before their time either. And who among us hasn't spotted something attractive on a clothing rail, only to be put off when someone elderly stepped in and picked it up first?

I'm aware, too, that my real problem is not that I might look old, but that I might actually be old. No doubt the leggy teen in the same dress as Mrs Hynes thought that cross-generational twinning was fun. It's middle-aged me, clinging to the last hemlines of my youth, who has a problem with being seen in the same outfit as Joan Bakewell. My ageism, fashion or otherwise, is really directed at myself.

Irish Independent

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