Finding a dress you feel great in and which shows off your best assets is a Godsend, but when you reach a certain age, such a display of your charms seems to attract a backlash of criticism.
Witness the outcry over the sexy gown Carol Vorderman wore to last week’s National Television Awards. While the 51-year-old Loose Women presenter’s Suzanne Neville corseted dress showed off a figure the envy of many women half her age, there was still much muttering that, really, Vorderman should do the maths and cover up. Still, she joins a growing number of older ladies happy to take the plunge on a night out.
Our own columnist Pamela Ballantine often shows off her fabulous embonpoint in glitzy gowns while the gorgeous Tracey Hall wore a daring dress to the recent Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year awards. We talk to them and others about putting on a bold front.
'I'm not afraid to show cleavage'
Pamela Ballentine, (52), broadcaster and journalist, lives in Belfast. She said:
As long as you aren't offending anyone, I think if you’ve got it flaunt it. Carol Vorderman looks fantastic and if I could wear a dress like that and look as good I would.
I am not a fan of nude dresses, but the style of it really suits Carol's shape.
She and I are a similar age and I am not afraid to show my cleavage off. You are after all supposed to draw attention your best assets, so I have no problem showing my legs or my chest off, but never at the same time.
There is a fine line between looking good or mutton dressed as lamb and fair play to Carol she has publicly acknowledged outfits she has been lambasted for in the press, saying they were fashion faux pas.
Of course women get to a certain point when they have to dress in a way that is age appropriate, and that comes with experience. You look back and think certain outfits are outrageous. I have never been really embarrassed by an outfit I have worn. I try to dress in a way that is event appropriate, so I do my home work into the dress code and who is going.
I was going to an event at St. James' Palace last year and I had a great dress too wear, but it was too low cut. It would have been great to wear to the races, but not to hand out Duke of Edinburgh medals, so I wore something else.
It is important for outfits to be age appropriate, event appropriate as well as self appropriate, so you really have to be comfortable in what you are wearing.
I'm not sure if Carol has had any surgical enhancement or is what they're calling a 'squoob job'. Either way I think she looks great.”
‘I say if you’ve got it, flaunt it’
Tracey Hall (44), director of Style Academy, is the Belfast Telegraph Woman Of The Year In Fashion and lives in Belfast. She says:
My most revealing dress is one I bought at MaxMara in London about eight years ago so I’ve worn it a few times. I didn’t wear it for a while because one time the photographer's flash made it look slightly see-through.
I wore it at the Belfast Telegraph Woman Of The Year Awards in December. I needed to be taped into it so it was a nightmare getting ready. I even managed to cut my chest while I was putting it on so I arrived at the event bleeding!
It's not a very comfortable dress to wear, particularly at a dinner where you spend a long time sitting and eating. I had tape and scissors in my bag and had to keep disappearing to the loo to put myself back together.
I decided to wear the dress because, although it shows off a lot, I'm in the best shape I've been in years. I’ve a new personal trainer, Stefan Rodgers of Fitness Matters in Hillsborough, and in the first four weeks with him I lost half a stone and really toned up. Then I was training for a Strictly Come Dancing event which helped too.
I used to think my legs were my best area so now I'm toned it's nice to show off my stomach. My mum was horrified at it though — she told me to cover up after she saw the photos!
Once you reach 35 you really have to work at your figure — it’s harder to lose even 2lbs. Obviously, it can be tough with all the young models around at Style Academy but each of them has one area of their body they’re not happy with too.
I think Carol Vorderman looked amazing at the National Television Awards. Her arms were nicely toned and the cleavage was fantastic. I think if you've got it, flaunt it.”
‘You’ve got to be comfortable’
Brenda Shankey (40) is the managing director of Jason Shankey Male Grooming. She lives in Belfast with her husband Jason and children Lauren (11) and Will (9). She says:
During my working day I have to cover up. I work with a lot of men and I can be bending down to cut hair — it just wouldn't be professional to have my cleavage on show.
I don't mind showing off a bit if you're at a formal event or something though. I think the important thing is that you are comfortable in what you are wearing and happy with it yourself.
My dress can be low-cut but only if I can find a bra that will go under it. The dress I wore at the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year awards in December was backless so I had to find a bra that went around my waist for that one. As long as everything stays secure then I can be comfortable! I learnt the importance of a properly fitting bra a few years ago — it can make all of the difference to your shape.
Carol Vorderman looked amazing but I don't know if would have the courage to show off that much cleavage. I suppose it can depend on how you're feeling about yourself at the time.
‘Carol must be under pressure to keep up with the younger girls’
Lynda Bryans (49) is a television presenter. She lives in Belfast with husband Mike Nesbitt and sons PJ (14) and Christopher (16). She says:
Looking at the pictures of Carol Vorderman, the first thing I think is ‘What a figure she has.’ For 51 she looks amazing, especially how toned her shoulders and arms look. I've seen her wear this dress before and it really shows off her curves, but her boobs look too big for it, like they are going to fall out. It also looks too small at the back. The straps on the dress are off the shoulder, so it looks like she is about to take it off, but I suppose that's the look she is going for. Clearly she has the bottle and the figure to wear it, but it doesn't leave much to the imagination.
There is a fine line between taste and decency and then looking sluttish. As you get older you're meant to become more confident with yourself and your sexuality, and for me that means you shouldn't have to show it all off. In Carol Vorderman's line of work she probably has a lot of pressure on her to keep up with the younger girls, but this is her second time wearing it and I think she should put it away now.
She looks great for her age, but she would look even better in a classier dress. She must be very confident dressing this way and, like Joan Collins, I don't think she will be changing her style any time soon.
I don't have the confidence or the figure to pull of a dress like that, but even if I did have her figure, I wouldn’t want to wear it. Plus, I don't think my boobs would hold it up anyway. I always feel better about my body and wearing low cut or form fitting dresses, when I've been working out. Your whole body image changes and I even find my walk changes.
I get really peeved when women like Carol Vorderman are scrutinized so much and suffer from pressure to look a certain way on television. I think you should be happy with what you have.”
‘Sometimes I think less is more’
Emma-Louise Johnston (34) is a journalist and TV presenter. She lives in Maghera with her husband Jonathan Crawford and their baby daughter Emily. She says:
I hate having too much cleavage on show and looking back I can see how many times I've done it — it's making me cringe slightly. I'm just not comfortable with showing massive cleavage.
There are a couple of times I've shown off a lot. Once was a dress that my husband bought for me at a charity auction. It's a beautiful blue designer dress by Jenny Packham but very low cut. I’ve worn it a few times to get the wear out of it because it's not often I have a designer dress. I have to admit, though, I recently had it altered so a piece of the lining was used to cover up the neckline a bit.
Last year, I presented an awards ceremony at the Culloden Hotel. I was pregnant and bought the dress a week before. I didn't try it on again until the night I was at the Culloden and I was horrified. My chest had got bigger as it does when you're pregnant. I couldn't even wear a wrap over it because I was presenting. It's at awards or events like that that my mum or friend or husband will tell me to put my hand down because I'm covering my chest up — that or take off my wrap which sometimes I don't do.
I've seen the photos of Carol Vorderman and I think her dress and her figure are amazing — she looks gorgeous. I just don't think someone that age should be showing off so much flesh which I know is a contradiction. Sometimes less is more.”
‘Show off the bits you’re proud of’
Holly Sweeney (21) is a dancer and lives in Belfast. She says:
“I’m a big fan of Carol Vorderman. I’ve watched her on Countdown and Loose Woman and she looks amazing — particularly in the dress she wore last week.
I’ve shown cleavage at a couple of awards dos, but it’s not something you set out to do. I look for the most beautiful dress, not the one that shows the most cleavage. If it happens to look like that when you put it on then so be it.
There isn’t an age where you should stop showing off — it’s all about how comfy you feel with your own body. If you’ve been to the gym and worked hard at it then why not show off the bits that you’re proud of. I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t.”
... and the last word goes to our keen-eyed man about town, Jamie McDowell
The line between women of a certain vintage carrying off the plunging bombshell look and denying the local drag community their legacy is fragile and sketchy.
That said, female perceptions of the male mindset tend to be brutally truthful — we like cleavage. If we're lucky, cleavage will like us. A man's denial of liking cleavage is simply a lie tailored to project a false ‘I'm different from other guys' persona in pursuit of getting closer to said cleavage.
Whether executed in the space of an evening, or over several months, this is the truth — it's in our nature. If you don't like it, Outer Mongolia is currently hiring shepherds.
Awards season fills the pages of every glossy magazine with endless pictures of women we'd forgotten that we'd forgotten about. The red carpet is a happy hunting ground for the paparazzi looking for the latest faux pas or the cougar who's just managed to squeeze another year of sexiness into their dress. Yet the pictures are pored over — more so by women — in an endless game of contrast and compare.
But is there a set-in-stone rule to when older women should hang up the plunging dress? And when does the cleavage suddenly become more off-putting than appealing? Carol Vorderman's appearance at the National TV Awards last Wednesday night was a conversation starter. Vorderman has a great body, is ageing more slowly than current economic growth and is still absolutely cracker at maths. So what's the difference between her wearing a plunging dress and current fave model Rosie Huntington-Whitely wearing one?
Nothing, but there is a line some women shouldn’t cross. Take my word for it on this one. For the younger male, the appeal of a 60-plus lady of the night wearing nothing but two paper doilies and a free bus pass to cover her modesty is confined solely to the dark, perverse and unfathomable reaches of Wayne Rooney's dome. And I'm sure young women (and probably old ones too) have the same views on our Peter Stringfellow types. Yet a dander down Shaftesbury Square on a Saturday night will reveal that the Zoolander-in-a-Zimmer-frame species is alive and well.
Vorderman's still got it, but nothing reeks of despondent neediness like a celebrity of days gone by in a last ditch double pronged attack on the gossip pages. Or the hope of a spot on Celebrity Big Brother. As many men well attest to, nothing's unsexier than the look of desperation.
The stars who keep abreast of fashion
- Madonna’s corsetted Reem Arca dress for the Golden Globes last week showed off the 53-year-old singer’s enviable figure.
- Never being one to shy away from a low cut dress, 66-year-old Helen Mirren seems very confident with her body. As her infamous red bikini pictures show, she has a lot to be proud of.
- At 65 years old country singer Dolly Parton hasn’t let her age get in the way of showing off her large chest and recently proudly displayed a new flower tattoo in between her breasts.
- Liz Hurley (46) shows no sign of wanting to cover up her cleavage and regularly wears low cut dresses or ones with plunging neck lines.
- Singing superstar Cher is never afraid of getting them out and continues to dress in an age defying way and at 64 years old has admitted to being a ‘plastic surgery poster girl’.
- Living up to her glamourous persona Joan Collins (78), pictured above with her sister Jackie, had to be rushed to hospital because her plunging purple Oscars dress was so tight that she reportedly fainted.