Do I smell mutton?

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For all that we like to follow fashion and express ourselves, so much of what we wear is still about looking appropriate.

I hate to be uncharitable about other women, but sometimes you see one that you just really want to take to one side and stick in front of a mirror. It happened to me at the supermarket on Monday.

I saw her from the back first, and my first reaction out of the corner of my eye was that it was a tad over the top for a rural branch of Lidl at 10.00am: long, wavy bleach-blonde hair worn almost to the top of her thighs, four-inch gold stiletto gladiator sandals on which she teetered along. An exceedingly tight belt drew in her tiny waist to minute proportions, revealing a very ample bosom and even more ample derriere below. But I wasn’t really paying attention at this point. 

And then she turned round and I saw her face. Older than me. In fact, 50 if she was a day. It was something of a shock and after my initial reaction, I set about trying to work out why.

The word ‘inappropriate’ was all I could come up with. 

The look was very young – ultra glamorous in a Jayne Mansfield way – and to see it on someone so very much older than I was expecting gave me an uneasy feeling. It reminded me of a old madwoman I used to see on the bus in Ilford, who looked like a teenager from the back but who was probably well over 80 once you got round the front. 

To carry off a look like this is pushing it at 30, but for a generously built woman in her 50s, it really didn’t work at all. For instance, her backside was pretty big, and with the very high shoes and big bust, it resulted in a kind of forward-pitched pouter-pigeon stance, making the back of the skirt several inches shorter than the front. Her figure was superb in a Mamie Van Doren way, but pulling in the waist to tight-lacing proportions like this made her look a bit porn star-ish – it is trying WAY too hard, even on a young woman. 

There’s also something about an older woman wearing very long hair loose like this that creates a sense of unease. Long hair is a sexual signal, and in western culture for centuries, women traditionally put their hair up when they married. You only took it down at night in the privacy of your bedroom and in the company of your husband: long hair, worn loose, was the prerogative of maidens. I think there’s something about those centuries of tradition which is deeply ingrained in our collective memory, which is why it seems almost disturbing to see hair like this on someone old enough to be a grandmother. But it’s a western thing: ethnic groups such as Native Americans seem to be able to get away with it better as it can look quite ‘wise woman’-ish. 

It makes me realise that for all our so-called iconoclasm, so much of what we wear is still simply about appropriateness. And even though I rebel against that, I also realise you have to live with it, even as the boundaries of appropriateness shift and change. My husband doesn’t wear dresses to business meetings; I wouldn’t wear a bikini to see my bank manager; nursery school uniforms don’t include a basque and suspenders.

There are ‘rules’ about what we wear, and where, and they’re all unwritten, which makes them hard to follow. What is ‘wrong’, exactly, with putting your newborn in a black layette? But if you did it, it would be creepy. When a thing is inappropriate, ‘wrong’ is what it feels. It’s almost like a moral issue.

As for our lady in the supermarket, my guess is that the young man shepherding her around the place with such close attention wasn’t actually her son, which might be one clue as to her presentation. I can only hope that back in the bedroom she’s learned the middle-aged virtues of candlelight and pink sheeting. 🙂

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