My friend Cara posts a photo of a leopard-print skirt on Facebook. “Should I buy it?” she asks. “Or is it too much?”
Over a dozen female friends quickly weigh in. A consensus emerges: Yes, she should buy it—but only because the colors are muted. Were it flashy or wild, everyone agrees, it wouldn’t be “age-appropriate.”
We’re meant to become increasingly undetectable, fading away in boxy blazers and loose slacks in conservative beige and grey.
This bothers me. We “older women”—which, according to the media, means anyone over 40—are, among other things, sternly advised to cut our hair short because long locks that can be sexily tossed are perceived as too youthful. We’re instructed to wear shapeless cardigans and tummy-controlling jeans.
We must never show cleavage that might be—heaven forbid!—wrinkled. We’re meant to become increasingly undetectable, fading away in boxy blazers and loose slacks in conservative beige and grey. Splashy animal prints are unacceptable; they reek of a sexuality deemed past its prime.
Rocking the Cat Prints
These admonitions are very much on my mind as I comment on Cara’s Facebook thread (and her threads): “Yes, buy the skirt—and then buy another feline print that’s really flashy!” I’m gratified that my comment is “liked” immediately by a number of women.
I began to choose clothes—including some that were feline-inspired—that made it clear I wasn’t shy.
Subtle and muted don’t always work for me. Sometimes, I just feel a need to rock the cat prints: leopard, jaguar, tiger, and cheetah. I’ve no desire to stay in the background in quiet tones. The fact that I’m no longer a dewy-eyed size four won’t stop me from roaring when I choose to.
I wasn’t always this assertive. As a child, I often hung back in terror of being called upon in class because I didn’t feel smart. Around the popular clique, I felt unattractive and klutzy. Sometimes, I couldn’t meet those girls’ eyes or say a word in their presence. But that changed in high school when I realized I was passionate about literature and social justice, and that I wanted to share my ideas with others. I began to choose clothes—including some that were feline-inspired—that made it clear I wasn’t shy. Feeling intelligent and respected made me feel good about myself … even a bit sexy.
You Tell ‘Em Madonna
But now I’m told I shouldn’t greet the world looking this way. Instead, I’m to model myself upon “dignified” women like British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, who, off-screen, wears high-buttoned blouses, and Hillary Clinton, who favors those familiar single-color pantsuits.
I love the way Kristin and Hillary present themselves, but I also love Madonna, age 58, who exposes her flesh and dons tight-fitting (and sometimes jungle-inspired) clothes. As Madonna says, “That people … believe a woman is not allowed to express her sexuality … past a certain age is proof that we still live in an ageist and sexist society.”
Recently, I attended a young cousin’s wedding in a snug leopard-print dress. I like to think I struck a blow on behalf of women of all ages that day, even if it was just at a small Jewish wedding in Freehold, N. J.
In last year’s Hanukkah photo of my extended family, I defied the rules again, standing out in a jaguar pattern among female cousins and in-laws all wearing neutral tones. I felt like I was in the middle of that Sesame Street song that begins, “One of these things is not like the others.” It isn’t likely, but I can’t help hoping that next Hanukkah I won’t be the only one thumbing my nose at society’s dress code.
“No, Just No!”
My husband likes the way I dress. He enjoys my all-black days (I’m a native New Yorker, so I do have some of those), and he appreciates—equally—my flashier moments. My teenage daughter is another story. Back when she was a toddler, and thought I could do—and wear—no wrong, she once proudly announced, “Mama loves leopard!” Nowadays, she fusses if my shirt is a tad tight or low cut. “No, just no,” she says, rearranging my top. She also frowns at my deep chocolate lipstick. It’s for “Goth girls,” she says.
I have to smile at her comments, remembering how embarrassed I once was by my mother’s sober outfits, wishing she was one of the “sexy” neighborhood moms who dyed their hair blonde and wore flowery perfume and hot pink lipstick. A fierce political progressive, my mother didn’t believe in frills of any kind. She never wore makeup, kept her hair natural and cropped close to her face, and wore utilitarian shirts tucked into long skirts.
I felt like I was in the middle of that Sesame Street song that begins, “One of these things is not like the others.”
Of course, my daughter has little to worry about. I’m no Madonna. I’m not likely to reveal much of my “bosoms,” as my late grandmother might have said. The tightest dress I wear is still much looser than the ones some of the girls wore at my daughter’s bat mitzvah.
Perhaps one day society will stop dictating what women of any age should wear. Until then, like Madonna, I’ll defy whichever sartorial edicts I wish, and now and then, in leopard garb, I’ll even “…Strike a pose [and] vogue, vogue, vogue.”