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FASHION : The Midlife Mode : Something About Turning 40 Makes Women Question The Way They Dress


"I'm too old to wear that."

The thought creeps into every woman's consciousness at some point in her life. When a woman decides she has to give up short skirts, skin-tight dresses or high-heel shoes, it is the first symptom of an ailment for which there seems to be no certain cure: the midlife fashion crisis.

Mary Kiernan, 39, a computer sales representative for a Santa Clara-based software company, recalls the day last spring when she went shopping for a pair of cutoff jeans. She used to ask herself whether her legs were long enough, or thin enough, for shorts. This time, the question was: "Am I too old?" She bought the shorts, but doesn't wear them outside the house.

"I think about my age all the time," she says. "I question my clothing, my hair. And I've already been to the plastic surgeon to have some work done on my eyes."

What prompted this self-examination? "I'm turning 40 in January."

Jan Bina, an actress in her mid-40s, faced her day of reckoning last summer. She was shopping before a trip to Chicago for a family reunion when a pair of silver studded, black high-tops caught her eye. She had seen Michael Jackson wearing a similar pair in an L.A. Gear ad. "In a weak moment I bought them, then immediately thought: 'Am I too old to wear these?' "

Unlike Kiernan, Bina does wear her purchase in public. It's her way of counteracting a spinster image she often adopts for her work as a commercial actress. The shoes with silver studs are part of Bina's "other" wardrobe, the one she wears to and from auditions. Consciously dressing as the complete antithesis of her character role subtly assures clients that she's not really a spinster. Tight jeans and a black leather jacket are among the clothes she wears to prove the point.

"I love to come to the set in something hip and flamboyant," Bina says. "This is where I get into the crisis, though. I don't want to look like I am 17, yet so much of the stuff that is trendy is for 17-year-olds."

Joni Consroe, owner of Zen Glamour, a Marina del Rey wardrobe consulting firm, says her clients, many in their 30s and 40s, consider anything short of a dress-for-success business suit too youthful. They say such items as spandex dresses, bicycle pants or short shorts are off-limits.

"They make assumptions about what is appropriate for their age," she notes. Stifled by their own limitations, they end up on her doorstep seeking per mission to deviate from their own imposed dress code. Although most of her flock have their insecurity attacks between the ages of 30 and 45, Consroe has heard woeful tales of fashion distress from women in their 20s.

The I-need-an-overhaul attitude tends to run rampant among women 37 to 42, notes Susan Kaiser, author of "The Social Psychology of Clothing" (Macmillan) and an associate professor for textiles and clothing at UC Davis.

It's at about that age, she explains, that women have to face the facts that they are showing signs of age--gray hair, lines around their eyes, a sagging jaw line.

Patricia Mulready, professor of fashion merchandising at New York University, has conducted surveys on self-image and found that women's self-esteem builds until the age of 40. Then, between 40 and 45, it rapidly drops off.

Mulready theorizes that this is so because most women under age 40 look better than they thought they would. After 40, the signs of age are more apparent and difficult to disguise.

Vevie Reynolds, a saleswoman at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, sees post-40 distress all the time. Inside the sanctum of the dressing room she has heard all the complaints: "I'm too old, too fat, my problem is my arms, my legs, my knees. Strapless dresses look awful, sleeveless ones look worse."

She has noticed that women begin the litany of grievances after 40. Until that point they dress in a way that allows them to shop every department in the store. Afterward, they adopt a "can't and don't" mentality about dressing.

There used to be rules to help avoid confusion: wear white between Memorial Day and Labor Day, patent leather shoes should be worn only in the spring and summer, women of a certain age should always wear dresses with sleeves and skirts that cover their knees. But the fashion rule book got tossed out the window during the social revolution of the 1960s.

Now, says Brenda Ferreira, a Santa Monica-based wardrobe consultant, "rules don't apply any more." The upshot of so much freedom: "Women are confused."

In lieu of an official list of do's and don'ts, she finds, women come to her with their unofficial lists, which are usually topped with "no short skirts" and "no pants."

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