Suited for adulthood

The Baltimore Sun

No matter how many hours you've put into elliptical training and counting carbs, no matter how well you can maneuver your body into the actual clothes you wore in the 1970s and 1980s, there's no nice way to put this:

The effect just ain't the same.

Allegiance to plunging necklines and '80s tapered jeans is one aspect of baby boomer fashion that Sherrie Mathieson would like to forever banish. Another is wearing a denim skirt, of any length, followed by a scary fondness for heaps of gold neck chains. And as for gold handbags, long floral skirts, cutesy holiday sweaters and oversized bomber jackets?

Give them all the heave-ho, and rethink your sense of style.

The award-winning costume designer wants to help her fellow boomers update - or at long last acquire - hipness with her new fashion manual Forever Cool: How to Achieve Ageless, Youthful and Modern Personal Style (Thompson Peak Publishing, $22.95).

Mathieson's basic fashion message is keep it simple and make it classic.

"I think that's the key to agelessness," she says. "Everything I recommend - an ethnic shirt or a tunic or a jean jacket or white slacks - is classically oriented, updated with the current fashion cuts and personalized accessorizing."

To make her point, Mathieson recruited men and women in their 50s to illustrate some of the boomers' most unflattering, frumpy and dated looks and then how to transform them. The book contains more than 200 before-and-after makeovers of outfits and accessories for sports, leisure, work and formal occasions accompanied by Mathieson's pithy, amusing commentary.

She holds the clothing industry much to blame for a less than attractive boomer landscape.

"It's no wonder people walk around the way they do when you see what's out there," she says. "It's probably the worst it's ever been. There's a horrible fashion atmosphere where Hollywood rules the roost. There's a lot of misguidance, especially for people who are getting older. People are confused - and it shows."

Perhaps that's why baby boomers are spending more money on clothes than ever. Last year, middle-aged women spent $34.5 billion on apparel, according to the NPD Group Inc, a market research company. Male boomers spent $17 billion.

"Boomer men are actually the fastest growing segment of the fashion business and luxury market," says NPD chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen. "They may not spend as much as the women, but

when they do, they spend bigger dollars. ... Boomer consumers are looking for products that make them feel young and act young and stay young - and apparel is very much part of that."

Make an effort

In the rush to keep up appearances, it's often difficult to admit that what fits may no longer work, says 54-year-old Ray Mitchener, manager for Ruth Shaw's, a high-end women's fashion store in Cross Keys.

"A lot of people miss the fact that even though they remain their shape and size, some things don't look appropriate anymore. Often, it's because your skin texture changes. Take a sleeveless dress: What's wrong with putting a little jacket over it?

"Jeans offer a quick fix for feeling young and good. But when you're in my age range, you need to be neater and put more of an effort into the look. For instance, I will only wear jeans with a jacket."

Mathieson, 60, lives in Connecticut and advises clients across the country on their wardrobes. As a costume designer, she worked in films, television, music videos, commercials and print fashion, dressing such celebrities as Susan Sarandon, Gregory Peck, Brooke Shields, Billy Joel and Sugar Ray Leonard for their roles.

Over the years, she has developed keen, and often sympathetic, insights into why boomers choose the clothes they do. Sometimes, she says, it's because they shop with a spouse.

"You need to have certain criteria for your shopping partner. A lot of men assume their wives know what's right for them. The truth is, they may not. And very often, the salesman doesn't either.

"On the other hand, some men will advise their wives to wear things that are too low-cut or too short. My own father was guilty of this. I would buy my mother a skirt at the right length, and then she would have it shortened and tell me 'Daddy thinks I should.' Hems should never be much above the knee. If a woman has nice legs, she can wear a skirt at the knee and look great and fashionable and refined.

"A lot of men see their wives as their high school sweethearts and don't see the difference between then and now. Although that's nice, it's apart from reality. You want someone to offer opinions that work for the world at large and not just for your relationship."

Nursing-home look

While Mathieson understands the reflex of dressing as if you were still 20, she's puzzled by boomers who wear white shoes or choose other clothing she associates with retirement communities.

"Teal is a very nursing-home, elder-citizen color that you see all the time in Arizona," she says. "The white shoes thing is this: People in my parents' age range will wear white shoes from Easy Spirit and carry white bags. That look says old. And although I never say, 'Never,' I caution people to stay away from things that contribute to the senior citizen look - like those pastel jogging suits that look like they can walk off into the sunset by themselves because they require no ironing."

Instead, the fashion consultant offers praise for the fashions older Americans used to wear. The looks of the 40s and 50s may have been more predictable, she says, but they were also better tailored.

"Until around the time Jack Kennedy died, there was a certain propriety in the way people dressed," she says. "Men wore hats and suits on Saturdays. There was more formality and a uniformity of style. Today there is such a plethora of things offered that you can get dizzy just going into a department store. There was more refinement to clothes in the past. Even men on the breadline looked better than a lot of men today."

For a quick education in ageless sophistication, she recommends that boomers rent the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's with Audrey Hepburn. There are also lessons to be learned from old family photographs at home.

"I think the world had a better level of taste many, many moons ago," she says. "If you look at an old picture album, you'll see that Uncle Bob is looking pretty classic back then - whereas today he might be wearing a black T-shirt and black leather jacket and stone-washed jeans, not my type of guy.

"I remember my mother wearing beautiful tweed suits, and we were not wealthy - far from it. Even people of modest means used to dress so much better. I'd like to make people aware that we're in danger in losing something valuable."

linell.smith@baltsun.com

A younger look

Fashion expert Sherrie Mathieson (Web site sherriemathieson.com) offers tips for boomers wanting to appear more youthful:

Be as natural as possible, avoiding big hair and lots of makeup. The idea is to look healthy, vibrant and active, not as if you spend too much time in the beauty salon.

Shoes can make or spoil an outfit. They should never look orthopedic unless you have absolutely no choice.

Get rid of the 1980s over-embellished look: Too much gold jewelry ages you.

Educate your eye and sense of style by perusing books on photography, architecture and interior design as well as fashion magazines.

Most important is the cut of a garment and the quality of its fabric. Buy the best you can afford and buy less.

A simple white shirt does wonders for people. Black is tricky. A lot of men think that if they wear a black shirt, they will look instantly hip. Instead, it can make you look harsh.

A neutral palette will give you sophistication, refinement and make you look thinner. You might wear colors related to each other in the brown palette. Or wear charcoal gray with a heather gray with a light gray.

If you keep your wardrobe in neutrals -- dark brown, black, charcoal gray and tan and white -- you will achieve a certain sophistication. Try to do without patterns, or go with a small one, like a small check.

Doing color well is difficult. As you build a wardrobe, add color with accessories.

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