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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Local image consultant Leslee Hill sees many older women trying to figure out how to dress for a new phase of life.

  • As a woman’s body changes with age, she may need to consider new sizes and cuts in her fashion choices.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Colorful scarves can help add color around the face and brighten a look.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette A business casual look styled by Leslee Hill is featured at Jophiel.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 9:33 am

Changing body, wardrobe

Rosa Salter Rodriguez The Journal Gazette

If you’re a woman of a certain age, your body likely has seen you through a lot: some combination of teenage angst, pregnancy, motherhood, weight gain, weight loss, illness, menopause.

Wouldn’t you think by now you would know how to dress it?

Well, maybe not, says Leslee Hill, who got the surprise of a lifetime when she began her Fort Wayne image consulting business last year.

"When I wrote my business plan, I thought it would be (clients) anywhere between 30 and 50, mostly career-oriented women who were looking to get into that next step in their career and wanted to polish their image," Hill says. 

Guess who showed up? Women in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. Mature women, in other words, unsure of how to dress for the next phase of their lives.

Hill says her clients want to dress appropriately for their age. But, even though many proudly claim grandmother- and even great-grandmotherhood, they don’t want to look like a granny.

After all, many are still in careers, she says. Or they’re retired but work part-time, or they’ve started a business to pursue in retirement. They volunteer. They serve on boards of businesses, foundations or community organizations. Some, newly single, are dating.

Given all those roles for older women, they’ve got few role models for dressing from earlier generations, Hill says. And that’s even before one gets to one nub of the problem – a changing body type.

Around the time of menopause, she says, changing hormones mean the waist broadens relative to the bust and hips, altering that typical feminine hourglass shape. The breasts get less dense and start to droop; the shoulders start to stoop. 

"You may have known how to dress your body, but now it’s changed," Hill says. "It’s ‘How do you go forward?’ "

But it’s not altogether the fault of older women if they have trouble finding clothes. Kathy Friend, 45, a South Bend personal stylist, says the fashion industry hasn’t been doing them many favors as it chases the wallets of 25-year-old bodies.

Friend says she thinks that’s part of why 80 percent of her clients are older than 60. They have more money for fashion, she says, "But they look in the mirror and honestly say, ‘I don’t know what looks good on me. I don’t know what I like.’"

The industry is starting to notice. Singing icon Joni Mitchell, now in her 70s, appears in ads for Ralph Lauren. Twiggy, 65, is modeling again. Blogs, including www.sixtyandme.com and www.fashionafter50.com, include fashion topics and curate retailers.

Joyce Armstrong-Brown, 68, of Churubusco says older women redressing themselves need to accept change.

Co-owner of a machine shop business, Armstrong-Brown recently lost weight after vowing to stay healthy as she aged. Suddenly, she says, she no longer fit in the clothes in departments or shops specializing in plus sizes – the places she had always shopped.

"It was overwhelming to find things that fit and were, well, age-appropriate, and even know where, what stores, to shop in," she says. "It wasn’t just picking out a few things in a small area of one store."  

With Hill’s help, Armstrong-Brown switched into styles she had never worn before. She bought a jeans outfit. She bought slim-legged pants. 

"That was perhaps the biggest change," she says. "Another thing I had never thought of was having things altered to fit."

Kelley Sillaway of LaOtto, 63, says she changed her color palette after consulting Hill. A Mary Kay Cosmetics consultant, Sillaway had been wearing lots of black and brown. But Hill says they drain the color from the face and emphasize any dark circles or spots in older women.  

Sillaway says she added "blues and greens and wines and purples and lighter browns" and lessened dependence on her "power color," red. "I’m getting lots of compliments," she says.

Friend says many older women must switch sizes to accommodate their new figures. She points out that some might do well to shop the smaller sizes of plus-size stores because the clothes tend to be cut a little fuller or a little longer in the torso than items aimed at younger women.

Then there is the smoke-and-mirrors approach. For stooped shoulders, Hill recommends sharp shoulder detail, such as epaulets and small shoulder pads in blouses and jackets.

For a changing bustline, she advises a professional bra fitting. "Most women are wearing the wrong-size bra," she says.

She also recommends comfortable shapewear and notes that some companies now build it into slacks and skirts. 

To de-emphasize a larger waist, use color blocking, with darker colors at the waist or below, or princess seaming to skim over the waist and hips, Hill says.

Both stylists recommend color around the face, but they shun large-scale floral prints, which can read old-ladyish and "a bit dated," Hill says. "Geometrics are better."

Many older women catch on that their new figure is smallest right under the bust and start wearing tops that have seaming there, Hill says, but some can look "tent-ish."

But if an older woman learns new strategies for dressing, she can make peace with her body and pick out quality pieces that flatter, whether in department stores, specialty retailers or thrift and consignment stores, Hill says.

"A lot of (older women) feel that if you just hide (their figure), it’s better," she says. "But that’s not the way to go."

rsalter@jg.net