moulding the female body

moulding the female body
fall palette


“This moulding the female body into acceptable social forms is also found in relation to age. Beauty practices, especially anti-ageing ones, are part of the process of producing an acceptable form of woman in later years—still feminine, still displaying engagement with the disciplinary practices of femininity, yet in a toned-down way that accepts the lesser claims to attention and regard. In relation to clothing this means still wearing feminine or fashionable dress, showing that the individual is still involved, still trying to present a good appearance, and not falling into the dangers of neglect, and potential dereliction. It can involve showing a continuing commitment to fashion in the form of the trends of the high street, but without straying into overly youthful dress.”

—Julia Twigg

I’m reading, Fashion and Age: Dress, the Body and Later Life, by Julia Twigg, the book I mentioned here. It’s an academic book but approachable and full of all kinds of wonderful ideas and insight. Twigg, who is British, can use terms like “old slag” and “mutton dressed as lamb,” and it’s on point when she uses these insults to illustrate deeper, hidden meanings.

The terms used for older women, and how they are often tied to how women dress, is one of the things sucking me into Twigg’s book. “Mutton dressed as lamb,” after all, refers to an older woman trying to dress up as if she were young.

Because sexuality and the erotic are so closely tied to clothing and, hence, “fashion,” it’s almost like the older woman who dresses up to look younger, is trying to fool someone.  

And how dare she? She needs to stay in her lane, the social order says.

Tone down, cover up, and fade away.

And while the young can get away with “sweet disorder of the dress,” a wonderful line by the poet Robert Herrick, the older woman cannot. Sexy, mussed up hair, a blouse, casually slipping down one shoulder, sleepy, smudged eyes are no longer seen as erotic when “worn” by an older woman. Because really, who wants to see…

Clothes are a very thin layer between a woman and the world, but the meanings they carry are much more complex than one might at first think. While clothes tell us a lot about a person, I’m finding that we are often reluctant to decode, out loud at least, what exactly they’re saying.

I’m not talking about whether she shops at Macy’s or Nordstrom, I’m talking about what those clothes actually say about the state of her being a woman in the world.

What’s the meaning behind that thin layer and how it changes over time and into old age? 

We’ll quite happily question the Kardashians and their “look,” I know I do, but are we interested in what that look says? She has a big butt, that might or might not be fake, and it’s a shame that so many young girls are emulating her, and it’s all about sex…  But I want something meatier, and no pun intended.

Why did this “hypersexualized” look appear here and now? What does it have to do with social media? Is it indicative of anything? And what about Kardashian’s thin layer? What is this mould, that’s what I want to know. This, is what I’m doing this fall.


What’s your fall palette, not just the colors you choose for your clothing, but the particular tone your life takes on in at this time of year?

I definitely make a quick change to a different palette in the fall. For me it goes from black and white to browns, and dark greens, and dark blues; I actually become more colorful in the fall!

I made this chocolate-brown, circle skirt in a class at Mood Fabrics. It is chocolate-brown, sorry for the poor quality of the picture. The fabric is 100%, light weight wool, with a bit of a sheen to it. 

The fabric is from Fab Scrap, an organization I have told you about before. Fab Scrap is trying to open a store in Los Angeles in the next year or so, and I’m sure they’ll be wildly successful there.

Given that the “rag trade” is big in Los Angeles, that is a very good thing indeed.  

My one little innovation was to keep part of the hem open and display the name of the company that manufactured the fabric. The white writing, at the selvage,

looks interesting with the unfinished hem, that I’m keeping unfinished. You can see the color of the fabric here.

A quick check at Google, and I found that the company, Altinyildiz, is a Turkish company from Istanbul. It appears that they make “classic” clothes for men. Not surprising, because Turkish textile manufacturing is a huge business and it has been for centuries.

It’s this kind of sleuthing that I can do when I’m given the opportunity to engage with the raw materials of clothing manufacture.

It’s the reason I love Fab Scrap.

My idea to leave the selvage showing, came from Monse, a brand I admire for the way they leave things “raw,” or turn things inside out to reveal the inner workings of the garment, or add ribbons, pockets, or extra garment pieces to their creations, or turn things sideways and upside down, or… you get the idea. They see and do things differently, and I suppose I do too.

Blake Lively in Monse

 Getty Images




  • Leslie says:

    You are doing beautiful work!

    And — here is a real question: in terms of ‘mutton dressed as lamb’…it isn’t always ‘acceptable’ for a woman of a certain age to present sexually as a younger woman. So…what does ‘older woman sexuality’ look like????

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Leslie, I love this question, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out. Exactly that. What does “acceptable” mean though, I’m not being glib. Is it just aesthetics? The fact that maybe no one really does want to look at “crepey” upper arms? (I really don’t care, do you?) Maybe that’s it but maybe it’s something deeper, a kind of negation of the older woman’s existence? And why that…

  • Questions I ponder often, both personally and for my work. The male gaze, therefore the voice behind what older women should and shouldn’t wear, is a Young male. What would a 65 year old man think? Would it necessarily be different? And how might that shape public opinion?
    I don’t tend to worry about appearing too sexual as my dress is fairly conservative. What I might wear in private would be dictated by my feelings and the kind of mood I want to project. But I chafe at the idea of being limited by someone else’s judgment. And by the way I love what you’re doing.

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Walker, I know the male gaze is big big, believe me I do. But you know that I’m always interested in our older, “primitive,” “lizard brain.” For me it’s always mind and body working. I think that we humans are really too arrogant in thinking that we have evolved to such an extent that that old brain has been if not vanquished, then suppressed. We just ain’t that “woke.” A great example of that, of course, is the “flight or fight” response. It just kicks in doesn’t it? I think if we were to acknowledge the animal in us, we would all be better for it. Everything from rape to war could then really be addressed. Denial, as you know, is never good.

  • Mary says:

    Yes — beautiful work, Anita, eliciting such thoughtful comments. What indeed would the 65-year-old or 85-year-old man think? Are older men being ignored when it comes to shaping opinion?

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Mary, And another thoughtful comment: “Are older men being ignored when it comes to shaping opinion?” Amazing question. I wonder if older men are ever a part of focus groups on fashion, for example. And wouldn’t that be interesting if they were. I don’t have a lot of followers, but I’ve got the best. 🙂

  • Barbara says:

    Great to see your blog back!

  • Jackie Goode says:

    Great post and comments! Since Julia Twigg has been quoted, I’m emboldened as a fellow sociologist to respond to the question about older men by suggesting an article of my own for any who might be interested: ‘Still Putting on the Style: fashion narratives of older men’ in Fashion, Style & Popular Culture, Volume 4, Number 3, 1 October 2017, pp. 287-305(19).
    Happy to send a copy to anyone who wants to follow/DM me on Twitter (@JackieGoode)with an email ad.

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