Sherrie Mathieson, style consultant

Press

Does This Make Me Look Chic?

by Christina Binkley
Wall Street Journal

March 2008

Walk into a bookstore these days, and you can’t help but trip over a style-advice book for women who want to look younger.The category is growing as boomers age—and little wonder, since the fashion industry’s tendency to design for people under 35 leaves older women with nowhere to go for style guidance. But with just a few exceptions, these books feed the culture’s already deep obsession with looking youthful, sometimes offering up bizarre beauty suggestions, and more often serving to fuel readers’ terror of laugh lines and sagging body parts.

Looking good is about ‘survival,’ says one top-selling style book.

“For our generation, looking younger isn’t just about vanity. ... Looking good is about our personal and financial survival,” writes the over-40 author Charla Krupp in “How Not To Look Old,” the top-selling fashion and beauty book on Amazon right now.

One rather extreme suggestion she offers: We can ease the pain of our Manolo Blahnik stilettos by injecting poly-L-lactic acid—a substance used to fill in crows’ feet and other facial lines—into the balls of our feet.

As I perused nine style books, some of the best advice I found was actually contained in a reprint of a 50-year-old book with the rather shocking title of “Wife Dressing: The Fine Art of Being a Well-Dressed Wife.”

“The sole arbiter of what you wear is your own judgment,” says its author, a thrice-married career woman named Anne Fogarty, who published the book in 1959. Its wisdom stems in large part from Ms. Fogarty’s refreshing lack of concern with youth: Apparently, back in 1959, it was enough to be smart and appropriate.

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These days, though, age 40 is the magical benchmark that separates young from wannabe-young. Many fashion designers actually prefer to create looks for women younger than 35.To help the rest of us, there is an explosion in style books. Amazon.com lists roughly 525,000 books on “style.” The word “smart” occupies only 266,000 Amazon titles, and “hardworking” ranks as a mere afterthought, with 39,000 books.The customers for the latest style books are typically women between 35 and 55 years old who want to dress appropriately for their professional lives, says Edward Ash-Milby, a buyer for Barnes & Noble Inc. “I do think as our society ages, we’ll see more of these books. It’s a trend that continues to grow.“But many of these style books offer little help with navigating today’s fashions. Instead, they’re part of the giant marketing machine known as the fashion and beauty industry.

Harper’s Bazaar Great Style

Often, these books are really aimed at marketing the author as a style expert or at establishing a fashion brand. Take Paige Adams-Geller, a former “fit model” (whose body was used to fit clothes for designers). She now runs Paige Premium Denim and has just written a book called “Your Perfect Fit.” “I wrote the book for branding—my vision for the brand is to be more than a denim designer. Paige is a lifestyle brand,” she told me last week.

Her book, written with fitness expert Ashley Borden, pairs fashion tips (wear jeans with 2% Lycra to hide “butt dimples”) with exercise advice (do “split squats” for toning). It isn’t a diet book—Ms. Adams-Geller was once treated for anorexia—but there is a heavy emphasis on getting in shape to look good in clothes. I found more in-depth fitness advice in “Fashionably Buff” by fitness guru Sue Fleming.

“Forever Cool,” by stylist Sherrie Mathieson, uses makeovers of real people, including men, to show “how to achieve ageless, youthful and modern personal style.” To be frank, many of the made-over examples looked a bit frumpy to me.

It’s risky to generalize about what styles to wear, of course, particularly when it comes to the office. Several books, including “How Not To Look Old,” suggest that matchy-matchy suits are age-inducing. Instead, I’m told, I should pair a good jacket with contrasting slacks. This assumes that I don’t work on Wall Street. If I do, there is no fashion book that can help me dress for the office.

Eight new advice books

“How Not To Look Old,” despite its faintly panicked tone, actually has solid advice, from making sure your eyebrows match your hair color to choosing a bra that fits. It divides many suggestions by personality: high, medium and low maintenance. If you’re high-maintenance, see your dermatologist every three months. If you’re low-maintenance, try Olay products from your local drugstore.

Another popular seller, “Harper’s Bazaar Great Style” by Jenny Levin, segregates styles for women by age. It’s a fair way to nod to age-appropriate dressing, though I think there’s a world of difference between 20 and 40 that doesn’t exist between 50 and 70.

Some of Ms. Levin’s smartest advice comes in the first pages, where she explains what sorts of clothes are worth investing in—coats, blouses and cocktail dresses, because they are highly visible, as opposed to pants, which get hidden under desks and tables. Some more style advice: Add a big belt to cinch the waist of a suit jacket. Or wear bright blouses under dark suits to jazz them up.

“Forever Cool”

“Great Style,” like its bookshelf rivals, is full of pictures of celebrities looking terrific. In fact, rule No. 1 for publishing a book on style these days seems to be to include as many photos as possible of Sarah Jessica Parker, our modern Helen of Troy, the woman who launched a thousand designers. This makes many of these books feel like versions of In Style or Lucky magazine.

If you want to think about how fashion works, as opposed to comparing your tummy to Ms. Parker’s, I can recommend two volumes with nary a picture. There’s “The Meaning of Sunglasses,” by British fashion columnist Hadley Freeman, who knows how to laugh at the fashion industry, with wry pokes, for instance, at the concept of signature style. “A true signature style has to be fashion aware, consciously cultivated, and either very expensive or very uncomfortable,” she writes. “This ensures that absolutely no one else will dress like you.”

The other is “In the Know, The Classic Guide to Being Cultured and Cool” by Nancy MacDonell. This will explain what the Bauhaus was (“hugely influential German art and architecture school”) and admonish you to maintain your shoes: “Keep heels from getting run-down, polish leather, and brush suede.”

“Wife Dressing” also lacks pictures, though there are black-and-white sketches for chapters like “After the trousseau what?” and “Am wife will travel.” Rosemary Feitelberg, a writer at Women’s Wear Daily, found the original volume at a fashion exhibition. “I expected to hate it,” says Ms. Feitelberg. Instead, she found a publisher.

After getting my gag reflex under control, I discovered that when read through the prism of history, “Wife Dressing” provides laughs and—despite some detours into petticoats and such—is chock-full of sage advice.

It’s still true that bras “probably need more replenishing than any other underwear item” because they lose their hold over time. There is harsh guidance on clearing out closets to reveal the good stuff: “Compress your wardrobe. Be relentless.” And there is the chapter on taste and money, in which Ms. Fogarty reminds us where the buck stops, at any age: your own judgment.

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