The French novelist Victor Hugo said, "The forties are the old age of youth, while the fifties are the youth of old age."
In these kinder '90s, however, society's obsession with youth is gradually evolving. "Middle-aged" is no longer considered matronly -- as our latest make-over contest winners certainly demonstrate. A positive attitude is still the cornerstone of beauty at any age.
"When a woman reaches 50, it is time to stop and assess her changing body -- without the changes being too drastic," says Leon Hall, international style consultant and a regular contributor to "The Joan Rivers Show" "fashion police."
"It is a fact of life that as you age, everything you have goes south," he says. "So what you have to do is pick it all up and head north." He suggests "emphasizing the good and de-emphasizing the bad, but most importantly, not falling victim to what is splashed across the pages of Vogue."
"Becoming older has lost the stigma it once held. Women today have much more influence, healthier role models, and are faced with many more opportunities than ever before," says Caroline Miller, editor-in-chief of Lear's magazine. "As the population ages, fewer and fewer women are feeling apologetic about their age, and with this newfound acceptance comes a renewed attitude that influences the way we put ourselves together," she says.
It's common today to find Mom and her 20-year-old daughter reaching for the same jacket in the store. And why not? "The wonderful thing about fashion today is that there are unlimited looks that work for any age," says local image consultant Jane LaRussa. "So unless your body calls for it, don't even think about replacing those sexy heels and knee-skimming skirts for long skirts and grandma shoes. If you've got great legs, by all means show them off -- with decorum."
A well-tailored shorter skirt, worn just above the knee with a semi-opaque leg, is perfectly acceptable as you mature. If your legs aren't your best figure feature, look for a long slim skirt with a knee-high slit and wear it with shoes and stockings of the same color to create a flattering, uninterrupted line.
"Perhaps the most aging giveaway is being stuck in a style time trap," according to Virginia Sullivan, president of Image Communications International. "A lot of women unconsciously hang on to a look that reflects a point in their life that was good for them," she says. It may even be a 50-year-old woman who is still sporting the hairdo she wore as homecoming queen. "If you do not adapt your style statement to move with the times then you become like a caricature -- look at Loni Anderson and Ann Miller," says Leon Hall.
The time-trap concept goes for clothes as well. Face the facts with integrity. Stop trying to squeeze your body into a "better-sounding size." Clothes should be tailored to fit properly, and that includes undergarments. Many women never bother to follow through with proper fitting underpinning that can do wonders for the figure.
And the age-old problem of hair length as you get older needs just as much consideration as hemlines. "Women past 50 have no business with hair below their shoulders -- it's only aging," says Mr. Hall. However, there is disagreement on the length question. Lopping off all of your hair just because you're over 40 is not necessarily the answer.
After all, graying might just be nature's way of softly framing a complexion that is losing its pigment. Sticking with your gray does not automatically retire you to the "blue-haired little old lady category."
"To prevent a dull gray cast, you need to wash with a violet-based shampoo. And forget about trying anything like Grecian Formula, which contains lead that eventually builds up," says Ms. Christensen.
The problem is not about being gray, but going gray," explains Jody Byrne, president of the beauty forecasting service Trends & Sources. "When you're 2 to 25 percent gray, you fall into limbo -- neither here nor there," says Ms. Byrne. "Whereas, shiny, healthy, all-silver hair is spectacular." If you're over 25 percent gray, you need to go to a permanent color. When coloring, beware of do-it-yourself hair dye jobs, which often come out looking flat and artificial. You're better off going to a pro.
Like hair, skin thins out and changes pigment with age, too, allowing the natural production of oils to slow down, causing dryness. And makeup fades more quickly on dry skin. Frosted or pearlized eye shadows except on very dark skin will always emphasize crepiness. "Lids look smoother with neutral matte shadow, because where frost reflects, matte absorbs," says Constance Hamedi, M.A.C. Cosmetics' national technician who specializes in make-overs. "Skin often becomes sallow after 50, therefore, you should compensate with a powder blush as opposed to a creamy rouge, to prevent makeup seepage."
"The most common mistake among maturing women is the tendency to pile on the makeup," says Ms. Hamedi. "Or they go the other extreme and don't wear any at all. When in doubt about makeup application, go minimal."
The inimitable Coco Chanel summed it up by saying, "Nature gives you the face you have at 20; it is up to you to merit the face you have at 50."
Here's how that philosophy worked out for two Baltimore women when they met with our makeover team.
The wild side
Joy Fritsch, a wife of 32 years and the grandmother of three, found that she had slipped out of her once-adventurous style into a matronly mode. Her 50th birthday triggered a resolution. She wanted to look sexy and sophisticated again.
Hair expert Denise Christensen started from the top. Color was key. Ms. Fritsch's mousy brown locks peppered with a good percentage of gray robbed her face of color. "Her warm skin coloring, freckles and hazel eyes make her the perfect candidate for red hair," says Ms. Christensen. Deep conditioning prepped the hair for a natural looking, medium copper followed by a semi-permanent glazing for extra shine. Now, what to do about all that length? Four inches were snipped away, and wispy bangs were added.
Ms. Hamedi of M.A.C. Cosmetics then stepped in to make this new redhead even more radiant. "Usually, women like Joy who have such good skin don't need a lot of makeup after 50 but do need to turn up the color to balance a slight loss of pigment," she says. "I applied a good concealer only into the darkest part of Joy's eye indentation, and then a sweep of foundation over that to blend," she says. Then she filled in the brows and rounded out her lip line; added a beige-toned foundation and a flush of color on the apples of the cheeks. Eye shadow was kept minimal.
Ms. Fritsch had a dramatic streak just waiting to come alive. We addressed her "wild" side with a faux leopard-print jacket and showed off those great gams in a just-above-the-knee slim skirt, opaque tights and a modified platform pump. "I've been revived! And to think, I haven't worn my skirt above my knee since the DTC '60s," says Ms. Fritsch. "Now with my new look, I have the confidence to carry it all off again."
Lady in red
Ireland Hawkins, 51, wanted to rid herself of the haggard aftermath of surgery. Upon returning to work as a counselor at the Baltimore County Detention Center, she wrote for help from our experts. "The increased amount of gray hair, accelerated by her illness, threaded unevenly through Ireland's natural dark color," says Ms. Christensen, "and her set style made her look matronly."
She softened Ms. Hawkins' style by covering the gray and taking the color from black to medium brown -- instantly taking years off of her age. "Next came a more modern hairstyle I call an inverted fringe -- shorter in back and slightly longer and fuller on the sides to soften her longer face," says Ms. Christensen. Makeup tricks concentrated on more definition of the lip line and brows. A warm copper-toned mahogany powder softened the slight ashiness in her skin.
Because Ms. Hawkins is tall and slim, she can wear the new languid and fuller shapes without being swallowed up by fabric. The powerful red balanced by soft ivory drew the eye up to her young hair style. "My daughter couldn't believe it was me, and neither can I!" says Ms. Hawkins. "I don't look haggardly anymore, I feel terrific!"
WHERE TO FIND IT
Hair by Denise Christensen of Denise Christensen Design Salon.
Makeup by Constance Hamedi for M.A.C. Cosmetics at Nordstrom.
"AFTERS" Photographed at Stouffer Harborplace Hotel.
THE WILD SIDE: Leopard print jacket, $240; skirt, $90; earrings, $55, all at Cache.
Pumps, $150, at Cole Porter.
LADY IN RED: Silk jacket, $178; pants, $152; blouse, $138; earrings, $26, all at Saks Fifth Avenue. Boots, $140, at Joanna Gray.