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Cleavage: how low do you go?

By Virginia Ironside

Published 12/07/2008

There's nothing more disheartening than hearing someone complain that there aren't enough designs in the shops for "older people".

The same whine was heard at Marks & Spencer's AGM, when some old bat, trying to account for the slump in shares, declared that "The clothes are not suitable for our age group. The dresses are too low on top and they don't have sleeves. They just show too much cleavage and at our age we can't wear that sort of style." It seems that for M&S shareholders, cleavage is, after a certain age, absolutely out.

No doubt some of their older shareholders would be happier with a lot of trackie bottoms with elasticated waists, voluminous skirts made from wipe-down material, polo-neck jerseys to hide stringy necks and all adorned with strings of beads to clank against sagging bosoms.

But although, as you get older, you may find you have to dress slightly differently from how you used to – very, very high heels are tricky when you've got a couple of artificial hips – I feel that the older you get the more fashionable you must be. If you dress in an old-fashioned way, you are, if you're old, going to look even older. There is nothing more chilling than the sight of a 70-year-old in an ancient Laura Ashley dress.

There are, however, some rules. And let's start with cleavage. Now, if you're young, the floor's almost the limit. There is nothing prettier than a couple of ripe, juicy young breasts bursting out of a tight top (though showing a nipple is perhaps a centimetre too far). And if you're old, there's nothing wrong with showing a bit of chest, if your skin doesn't hang down like an Austrian blind. But the sight of wrinkly boobs are oddly off-putting, I find, to men and women alike. So it's not a matter of no cleavage, but slightly less.

And then there's the sensitive subject of arms. As the owner of a ghastly pair of what are known as "bingo wings" – those pieces of flesh that hang down from your upper arms – I'd always opt for sleeves, even short ones, but some gym-going oldies have wonderfully smooth upper arms, and there's no reason they shouldn't flaunt them.

I wouldn't, however, ever wear white. As my dear mum used to say, they make yellow teeth look even yellower. Not to mention yellow eyeballs.

The pensioner who spoke out at the M&S meeting had a friend who complained about the bras at M&S. Actually the bras are good – but when you're older it's very important to get a new one every six months at least. And keep it well hitched-up. You don't want to be one of those people whose boobs touch their tummies when they sit down. Or, worse, when they stand up.

And talking of getting new stuff, it's frightfully important, when you're older, to be scrupulous about cleanliness. Young people can get away with the grunge look. But an older woman in a butter-stained skirt looks, frankly, disgusting. And when they get old, throw old clothes out and buy new ones. Never let the phrase "Oh, this'll see me out" apply to clothes. When you hear yourself saying, about a piece of clothing: "Oh, I've had it for ages!" you should start to examine it more closely.

The same problem about scruffiness applies to hair. While a young person can get away with the "just out of bed" look, an old person can look quite mad unless hair is properly shaped.

Not that there's a lot wrong with looking mad. You've just got to look mad in the right way. A friend recently complained that after 60 she felt invisible, but there was no need. The ability to look eccentric and get away with it is one thing we share with young people. Remember Jenny Joseph's poem "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple ... with a red hat which doesn't go... and satin sandals..." But go bonkers in an old way, not a young way. You won't, surely, be buying everything in the new M&S collection, which features bondage and leopard skin designs, silver mini-dresses, leopard-print stretch-denim jumpers, "white trash" necklaces, and metallic purple teeny bikinis.

Three final tips: when it comes to necks, don't try to hide them. If you disguise a neck with a scarf or polo-neck, it always look as if you have something to hide. Never wear trainers or any kind of sports clothes. And make sure you possess several of the most glamorous dressing gowns in the world. Because you're going to be spending a lot of time in them over the coming years.

My mother's argument – and she should have known because she was a fashion icon in the Sixties – was that there's no excuse for looking ugly – ever. People are always moaning about their looks as they get older, but I've often seen wonderful-looking old ladies, with deeply interesting faces, excellent make-up and splendid hair and sometimes I've thought, "I bet she looked stunning when she was young!" Then somehow you catch a picture of them as a young girl and no, she wasn't beautiful at all. Rather a blob in fact. But she's grown into a beauty as she's aged.

Remember that you don't want to look young all the time. You can't look young all the time. And yet you don't want to look like some vandalised old Fifties community hall in Hull, either. The best you can aim for is to look like a wonderful ancient ruin, whether it's like a stark and arresting monolith from Stonehenge or a romantic castle from a painting by Poussin. It's a look that a young person will never be able to achieve.

Belfast Telegraph

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