Fall 2013 Fashion For Women Entre Deux Ages

This column is about fashion. What’s that got to do with taxation and finance?

First, finance. We see the retail numbersconsistently saying that the bottom is falling out of the middle. The top end is doing okay, and the bottom end is hanging in there.

Department stores like Macy’s are taking it in the chops. Despite being perceived as passé and unfashionable, department stores are where the business of women’s fashion gets done. And they were losing touch with their customers since long before the financial meltdown.

Second, taxation. As this column has emphasized, many multinational corporations—indeed, whole industries—don’t pay significant corporate income taxes. Retail is an industry that does pay taxes because its sales are primarily domestic, even if very little of the merchandise is made in the United States. Retailers wouldn’t benefit from any of the tax reform plans being mooted. And at this juncture, most of them would be happy to have some taxable profits.

Your correspondent and a friend walked past Bergdorf Goodman the other day, without even so much as walking through the first floor to avoid the tourists. This is bad news for Bergdorf Goodman. Both of us are affluent women entre deux ages. My friend was visiting from out of town and ready to drop the bucks.

Bergdorf’s, historically a palace for middle-aged women, has been trying to become edgy over the last few years. At the time of this writing, they sent around yet another edgy catalog out of which they may sell a few bags. Meanwhile, Barney’s, a few blocks away, ceased being edgy and became a conventional department store after an investment fund manager bought it for his wife. (I am a loyal customer of Bergdorf’s sister store Neiman-Marcus.)

Let’s unpack the word edgy. Edgy means mostly black, streetwise attire intended to shock the bourgeoisie and flattering only to the very thin. How many of these customers are there? How many Russian heiresses in need of yet another beaded mini cocktail dress are loose in the world?

Oh, well, surely my friend could use another handbag? Um, no, she had a four-figure bag on her arm and did not appear to be in any hurry to buy another. This is also bad news for retailers, who have been sustaining themselves for a decade by selling women like her pricey bags instead of clothing.

A fashion designer is not an artiste. Indeed, the cult of the artiste has damaged clothing sales. A fashion designer is a dressmaker. The most successful designers understand that they are dressmakers. And the paramount thing they know is who their customer is and what garments she needs to wear.

On to what’s in fashion, with particular emphasis on things middle-aged women can wear:

Grunge. Grunge is a fashion industry word for ‘90s-inspired normal urban attire of jeans, combat boots and biker jackets. Hedi Slimane, the new designer at Saint Laurent, filled his fall runway with expensive, precious-fabric versions of Courtney Love’s old stage wardrobe. The real Courtney Love loved it.

Is there anything from this trend for women her age who are not entertainers to wear? Long cardigans, fuzzy mohair sweaters and Irish Aran sweaters are part of the grunge look. Muddled floral-print dresses, but from other brands in longer versions than Slimane’s mid-thigh numbers.

Minimalism. Minimalism is difficult—every detail has to be just so to make the whole work. The wrong hose or shoes will ruin a look. Many sophisticated older women think that hard, abstract, black-and-white clothes will distract from their age, but the opposite is true. Softer looks and ruffles are better for older women.

Big coats. For a rich Russian, a warm coat is everyday attire. But retailers are wondering who will buy the huge coats that featured on the fall runways—sometimes even to the exclusion of clothes, as in the case of Louis Vuitton. Some coats were stunners, to be sure: Michael Kors’s camouflage patchwork mink, Burberry Prorsum’s giraffe-print haircalf trench, Max Mara’s teddy bear coat, and Vuitton’s dusky plaids with sequined hems.

Funny how these dramatic coats are always photographed open on very tall women. Shorter women who need to close the coat for warmth are better off with simple clutch coats, like those offered by Derek Lam. Many women unjustifiably fear double-breasted looks, but takes on peacoats from Chanel and Michael Kors are flattering. Boxy, bright colored coats straight out of the early ‘90s were shown by Carven, Stella McCartney and Jil Sander.

Green. Older women should go for it. Greens, particularly forest green and teal, are universally flattering. Frida Giannini filled Gucci’s runway with emerald and olive green.

Red. There is loads of red out there, in shades ranging from fire engine to magenta to burgundy. Red can add color or subtract it, depending on the wearer’s skintone. Those with yellow, brown or olive skintones can wear cherry red or fire engine red well. Those with paler complexions can wear burgundy. Everyone can wear magenta.

Grey. A big no-no for older women for obvious reasons, despite its suitability for office attire. Grey drains color from the face immediately. Grey leather bags, however, are a good neutral accessory.

Jackets. Women who wore shoulder pads in the ‘80s have an unreasonable aversion to them. Shoulder pads make the wearer look thinner; Giorgio Armani built an empire on this simple fact. Isabel Marant and Stella McCartney put real shoulder pads in jackets. Other designers showed rounded cocoon jackets that also add volume on top.

Pants. Ankle-length tapered pants flatter most bodies. The pants of the pat couple of years are gradually morphing into cropped versions of the high-waisted, pleated, forgiving Zoot Suit pants of the 1980s, like the ones shown at Balmain. Many women who lived the ‘80s the first time reject those styles, but these are easy pants to wear.

These pants also work with nearly any type of shoe—an important consideration. Some designers showed wide-legged pants, which favor the tall and thin. Wide-legged cropped pants should be left to Man Repeller (a great blog, but not an aspirational look).

Skirts. Skirts are mostly below the knee, in straight and gathered styles. The latter include riffs on Dior’s New Look. Those who want to partake should remember that a small waist is required—the old Diors were worn with full-torso corsets.

Short, flared skater skirts, like those shown by Chanel, suit shorter women, whose skirts should not go past the knees (stylists for short actresses please note). Most women will require a heel of some sort with any of these skirts, but alternatives to stilettos are available.

Tops. Baggy is the watchword. Baggy tops look better with something tight on the bottom. Models can pull off two baggy pieces, but they still look like Les Miserables cast members when they do. The top of the moment is the sweatshirt, like Chrisopher Kane’s colorful brain pattern. Older women should opt for cashmere versions if the intended destination is more formal than the grocery store.

Shoes. Stiletto heels with platform fronts are still with us, but relief is available for women with bunions and claw toes. Chelsea boots with block heels work well with both skirts and pants. There are many choices among oxfords, brothel creeper and combat boots. Yep, even Manolo Blahnik made brogues and Chelsea boots. Bally makes a cute oxford on a block heel for those who want some height.

Jeans. Denim may be every man’s garment, but it is not every woman’s. Alternatives to ubiquitous jeggings are popping up. Boyfriend jeans, which fit like their name, are a better alternative than stretchy boot-leg styles that are trying too hard. Just say no to high heels with jeans.

Handbags. The trouble with recognizable status bags is that eventually they wind up on the wrong people. Had my friend been in the market for a bag, Bergdorf’s might have shown her Myriam Schaefer’s heavy leather duffle bags and totes, with a subtle rows of holes punched in the strap as a signature.

European women carry more compact, ladylike bags, but American women seem to carry all their possessions in theirs. Designers are exhorting women to carry less. They showed mid-sized bags with top handles, like Balenciaga’s lunchboxes, and oversized soft zippered clutches, like Calvin Klein’s fold-over style. Just say no to fur bags.

Leopard, sequins, feathers, etc. Fashionsitas love leopard print, so it comes back every five minutes. It does have the virtue of flattering many skin tones. But ultimately it’s tacky as is the new alternative zebra. Feathers and sequins are dire for those entre deux ages. One does not want to emulate Carol Channing’s stage wardrobe outside of Las Vegas—and then only on stage.

Jewelry. Many middle-aged women make the mistake piling on a lot of jewelry or wearing every precious piece they own at once. Looking stylish starts with wearing less.

Piles of little jewelry and earrings that dangle from wires are over. The purchase for fall should be a bold, plain necklace like Verdura’s curb-link chain (or a cheaper copy) or Celine’s neckwire with a spherical centerpiece. Earrings sit on the ear as studs or clip-ons. Some of the latter are dramatic, like Ana Khouri’s jeweled wings.

Designers are doing interesting things with pearls. Pearls can be mumsy, but they are more flattering that hard-looking diamonds. Wearers whose teeth are not whitened should choose colored pearls or put the white ones on the wrist.

Watches are getting smaller. Give the big clunky sport watch back to your husband. Fashion’s current favorites are the 31-millimeter Rolex Oyster—which used to be a men’s midsize watch—and Bulgari’s ladylike double-wrap chain watch.

Hair. Beyonce had her hair whacked off, mostly likely because her hairdresser told her that her extensions were damaging her natural hair. Women worldwide read this big chop as some sort of message about maturity and liberation. That interpretation has been shown to be nonsense by Mrs. Carter’s return to the stage wearing longer hairpieces.

There’s a lot of attention paid to the hair of women in public life. But a woman of a certain age is supposed to know who she is, and have her own style, at least insofar as her hair is concerned. Plus there are always wigs—women have learned from entertainers that wigs are the easiest way to go when one’s own hair is worn out.

What about skirt lengths as a predictor of economic growth? That theory has been debunked, and the government’s numbers are flaky anyway. Fashion does, however, loosely indicate election results. Fall’s clothes are not conservative clothes. Gerrymandering or not, the runways are telling us that the Democrats may regain control of Congress in the fall.