Becoming invisible as you age doesn’t rank as a pleasant experience – here’s how to prevent it.
At this point I have to admit to thanking heaven that I live in France. Here, women are considered sexy until they drop off the twig. Even the oldest, fattest French women have access to gorgeous lingerie (the amount of lovely things in the sizes 20 and above that I found in my local lingerie shop last year was quite an eye-opener) and the great French icons of sexuality such as Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve are well into their 60s and 70s.
But we all know that desirability is not the province only of the young. More mature women have more to offer – more experience, more confidence, more earthiness. The problem is, the sexy clothes that worked for you through your 20s, and perhaps even your 30s, may no longer fit the bill – too young for you, too cute and girly, a tad mutton-dressed as lamb, or – conversely – ever-so-slightly frumpy.
So your 40s is the time to think about sexing up your look. Subtlety is the key. Forget trying to draw the kind of man who finds Pamela Anderson attractive – you can’t compete here so this is no longer your ‘market’, so to speak. You need to be far more restrained and sophisticated in your style. Aim at the man with his brains above his waist.
For inspiration, take a look at older women whose style you admire – in my case, it’s women like Charlotte Rampling, Lauren Hutton, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Juliette Binoche. What these women have in common is not only that they are beautiful and in good shape, it’s that their sexuality is on a leash – they don’t put all their goods in the shop window.
What clothing is sexy?
Think for a moment about what characterises men’s clothing. Firm fabrics, crisp edges, dark colours, a lack of pattern. Men’s clothes are practical and hard-wearing first and foremost, they are not made to attract the opposite sex. Other than sportswear, they also tend to hide the body rather than showing it off.
What makes women’s clothing sexy is precisely its difference from this – and the more different it is, the sexier it gets.
For instance, dresses and skirts are inherently sexier than trousers, because men don’t (with certain exceptions) wear skirts and dresses and these are therefore ‘feminine’ garments in a man’s mind. They also offer a man access – or at least implied access – in a way that trousers don’t.
The same applies to items such as high heels, suspenders and stockings – to men, these items are indissolubly linked with female sexuality. And again with certain fabrics, such as lace, satin, silk knits and angora, and certain colours such as feminine pastels.
When you want to buy sexy clothing, touches to look for include:
* Soft or strokable fabrics such as chiffon, voile, velvet, satin, angora and cashmere – anything that feels nice when you caress it. In contrast, tweeds, cotton drill, canvas and flannel are the antithesis of sexy.
* Lace edging – this breaks up the line where the garment meets the flesh, giving a prettier outline. Also look for broderie anglaise, embroidery and crochet, which have a similar effect. Lace detailing on a skirt or top is inherently feminine.
* Transparent edging – contrast or toning chiffon or organza at the sleeve, wrist, waist or hem of a garment.
* Feminine embellishments, such as subtle beading or a line of sequins along a seam. Don’t overdo the sequins, though – not only can this look brassy, it makes you less cuddly and touchable.
* Transparent layers – multiple layers of chiffon or organza, lace, or transparents over solids. This is particularly effective if you combine it with a nude-colour lining, which give the look of flesh without actually revealing any.
* Nude-colour clothing, particularly in camisoles, blouses and dresses and especially when combined with soft fabrics such as silk.
* Bedroom colours such as peach, baby pink, pale blue, lilac and eau-de-nil – these are traditional lingerie colours and always carry a hint of the boudoir.
* Red or black clothing, in lace or transparent fabrics (these colours don’t work so well in solid fabrics).
* Wrapped garments – such as tie-sided cardigans, wrap dresses and sarong skirts. These give a promise that you might be just as easily unwrapped. Other than dressing-gowns, male clothing does not generally wrap, so wrap clothing is inherently feminine.
* Garments that fasten with ties – inherent here is the possibility of those ties coming undone. They are especially effective if the ties are in a contrasting fabric such as satin, chiffon or velvet ribbon.
* Garments that fasten with lots of buttons: the more – and the smaller – the better. A dress with myriad tiny buttons from neckline to hem is particularly effective.
* An element of surprise, such as a deep v-back on a demure dress, or a revealing dress under a cover-up jacket.
* Slits and splits – these don’t have to be crotch-revealing. A four-inch split on a knee-length skirt is more alluring than a mini.
* A touch of exoticism – a jacket with Chinese embroidery, a sari-fabric skirt, a kimono sleeve. Keep your references high-end and you’ll add a touch of allure to your look. Don’t choose democratic references like mompe trousers or overalls.
* Flounces. Important, this – flounces, not frills or pleats. A flounce differs from a frill because it’s cut on a curve and then attached to a straight edge. It therefore ripples in a much more subtle and grown-up way. It’s womanly, not girlish.
* Bias cuts – if you have the figure for this, then make the most of it. Bias cutting causes fabric to cling to the body in a subtle way and makes the most of your curves.
How you wear your clothes is as important as what you wear. To start with, buy the right size. Your clothing should slip comfortably around your body, not weld you into place (unless you’re going for the bondage look, in which case this article is not really for you anyway).
Leave your ties and buttons undone – try a tie-neck blouse left open to the waist over a cami, or a button-down skirt with the bottom few buttons left unfastened. This is reminiscent of Herrick’s ‘sweet disorder in the dress’ – a completely buttoned-up look is offputting, not sexy.
Allow a slash-necked top to slip unconsciously off one shoulder (and make sure that’s a shiny, polished shoulder with no spots or dry skin).
Wear a contrasting top and bottom, such as a soft angora jumper with a businesslike pencil skirt, or contrasting layers, such as a tailored jacket over a lace body. This gives a suggestion that your sexiness just can’t help but slip out no matter how hard you try…
There are plenty of turnoffs and most of them are to do with simply being unsophisticated.
* Allowing your bra straps to show. There’s really no excuse for this. Log onto Figleaves and take a look at the different styles available – halter, deep plunge, invisible straps, no-bra bras. There is something to suit every style of top imaginable. If you really HAVE to show your bra straps, make sure they’re pretty and lingerie-like, and in a nice colour.
* Visible panty line. It might be sexy on a 20-year-old, but on a middle-aged woman it just looks crap. Wear proper, form-fitting shorties, knickers or thongs in the correct size. And avoid thongs if you carry weight or cellulite on your backside – you can see it right through lightweight clothing.
* Very tight, short or low-cut clothes. Even if you have an enviable figure, wearing your clothes too tight, too high or too low-cut smacks of desperately clinging onto your youth, and it fools nobody. The trick is not to try to look younger per se, but to look vibrant, sexy, interesting – good for the age you are now, not the age you used to be.
* Hard-edged looks – biker chick, rock chick etc. OK, it looks right on Cher and Chrissie Hynde, but let’s be realistic about the rest of us who are not stage performers. It’s time to kiss goodbye to the black leather, fishnet tights, scrunch boots and all the other paraphernalia of youth, and start dressing like a grown-up. If you don’t, you risk looking like someone’s grandmother.
Skirts – choose split, wrap, sarong-style or circle skirts in soft fabrics such as low-sheen satin, silk velvet or chiffon. Try a flirty hem, such as a built-in lace petticoat or a fine line of beading. Skirts that fit to mid-thigh and then kick out to the knee are very sexy when you walk – take a look at Boden’s offerings, including their ‘Secretary’ skirt. Also consider standard skirts, such as pencil designs but in unusual fabrics such as low-sheen lame.
Tops – try a deep v neck over a lace-edged camisole in contrasting or toning fabric – this way you achieve a plunge look without risking falling out. Transparent layering or soft, draping fabrics such as chiffon, washed silk or low-sheen satin work well. For details, think of slits in the upper arm or at the cuff, fluted sleeves, which make your wrists look delicate, or three-quarter sleeves that hide beefy upper arms while showing off narrow wrists. Wrap tops can be used to show off your bust and waist (don’t wrap them too tightly). Sweaters in soft knits such as cashmere, silk and angora are great seduction garments, especially when combined with feminine details such as lace cuffs.
Dresses – choose feminine styles such as wrap, halterneck (with a good supporting bra), full-skirted shirtwaists in soft fabrics etc, and – if you can find that rare beast – dresses with chiffon sleeves. Button-down dresses in any style are effective man-magnets, and a sweater dress can also work well, in a thinnish soft knit.
For daytime, keep your skirts at around knee length, give or take a couple of inches. If your legs are in superb condition, your best spot might be as much as 2-3 inches above the knee (but not crotch-grazing). If you have chubby legs, it might be an inch below the knee. If you don’t feel comfortable showing your legs, consider knee-length boots as a cover-up, but keep the skirt knee length – fill the gap with heavy-denier tights or stockings. For evening, skirts can be longer and/or wider and work well in fabrics such as satin or velvet. Avoid business fabrics such as wool.
Shoes – no escaping it here, high heels are the killer shoes when it comes to sexy. If you’re not comfortable in heels, try an evening boot in satin or suede(ette), which gives you more support at the ankle and calf. If you have to stick to flats, go for feminine finishes such as lace, a soft metallic leather or satin in a ballet flat, or a kitten heeled-shoe in a jewel colour. If you can find them, ‘nude’ shoes with transparent heels or straps are very sexy.
Legwear – tights and stockings should be sheer and a little sheen doesn’t go amiss either. Avoid heavy patterns, heavy deniers, matt finishes, and colours other than black or nude. If you can find them, tights with a touch of glitter (such as a butterfly design) at the ankle are very flirty, especially when worn with an otherwise plain garment. For stockings, lace tops are sexier than plain tops, but avoid stay-ups. Not only can these cause allergies to some women (me included), they dig into the flesh of most women’s thighs, which is a profoundly unsexy look.
Jewellery – try long strings of pearls or other beads with glitter or a sheen (ie: not wooden, ethnic etc) and knot them just above your bra line (don’t do this on a full bust). Or try a dangly, shimmering clip fastened at bust level. Long earrings that brush your shoulders as you turn are very sensual, but make sure you wear your hair short or up, so’s not to get tangled.
Trousers are a harder act to pull off, but a full or flared trouser in a soft fabric such as silk velvet or satin can be very sexy, as can multi-layered trousers in chiffon. One wardrobe item that never dates in its pulling power, however, is ‘Le Smoking’, the tuxedo cut for women and popularised by Marlene Dietrich back in the 1930s and again by Yves St Laurent in the 1960s. In black, with a single-button jacket and satin lapels, it can be worn over a blouse or camisole, or just your undies if you’re brave enough, and it lends an air of both perversity and sophistication for evening.
All clothing pictured is available from La Redoute.