• Ideas

Grandmothers, Blue Jeans, and Dressing Your Age

5 minute read

Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter. www.JenniferAnneMosesArts.com

It’s sweater weather. Every morning as I choose which of my sweaters to match with which of my half-dozen or so nearly identical pair of blue jeans, I get this little jolt of tingly awesomeness. This is no exaggeration. Because though it looks like I’m standing in my bedroom closet in the New Jersey suburbs, I’m really in a brilliantly disguised time machine, whooshing back over the years to the long-gone days of my youth, during which I wore pretty much exactly the same outfits as I now where, except, back then, I was in college, whereas now my children are.

Even so: I’m young again. Or at least that’s what my blue jeans say. Ditto the sweaters.

But the point isn’t the sweaters. The point is that I, and most of my same-age friends, are still wearing more or less the exact same styles that we wore long before we’d so much as heard of stretch marks, menopause, gray hair, sags, or Spanx. Not to the office, of course. When we go to work, most of us put on some version of Professional Working Woman clothes: skirts, dresses, high-heeled shoes or boots, accessories, the whole bit. But on weekends, or, or if you happen to be me and work at home and spend most of your waking hours walking your dogs, you almost never have an opportunity to reach for the higher-end portion of your wardrobe, and exist instead in variations on jeans-and-a-sweater (or, in the summer, shorts-and-a-tee). And as comfortable, practical, and even fashionable-in-a-suburban-schleppy way as my daily outfits are, I’m frankly a little worried about what my clothing choices will be as I age. I mean, will I still be wearing a big Gap pullover sweater and bell-bottomed jeans with red clogs when I’m seventy? Eighty? Ninety? Or will my wardrobe choices be more in the universe of mauve velour track suits and elastic-waist capris in the p colors: puce, purple, plum, peach, pine, pumpkin? In my family, if we don’t die kind of early from cancer—and I’ve already had my cancer, thank you very much—we live forever, so these are serious concerns.

How well I remember the flair that both my grandmothers insisted on arraying themselves in until they were too diminished to array themselves in anything other than bedclothes. Despite having been present and accounted for during all the long years of the feminist movement, the youth movement, and the Age of Aquarius in general, neither one of them so much as owned a pair of blue jeans. Neither one of them would have been caught dead in blue jeans. Neither one of them could understand why a woman of any class or educational background whatsoever would choose to wear blue jeans unless she was spending time in the fields, perhaps bringing in the harvest.

That’s because fashion is subjective, unique to its time and place, taken in only in the eyes of the beholder, and fleeting—which is why a dress, no matter how stunning or carefully made, is a piece of fashion, rather than a piece of art. Unlike art, clothes do not reflect human yearning, complexity, faith, or fear, but merely the personality, wealth, or social status, of its wearer. But in the age of the ubiquitous blue jean, not so much. And that’s because bluejeans—sturdy, reliable, cheap, and long-lasting—are the ultimate statement of a society that views its members as equals. No pearl-and-ruby encrusted velvet gowns for the fancy-shmancy among us; not just burlap or rough cotton for the hoi polloi. Nope, here in America, we all wear jeans. And according to our jeans, we’re all equal.

Except maybe not. Because as everyone who notices such things knows, the slightest and most minute variation in the cut of an inseam or the way a pocket is stitched could indicate the difference between Wal-Mart and Saks Fifth Avenue—$26.99 for Gap jeggings versus $1,000 for a pair of Earnest Sewn Custom Fits, versus a mere $600 for Roberto Cavalli denim jeans.

The September issue of The Atlantic is largely devoted to essays on aging, specifically on questions related to steady rises in life expectancy. But what caught my eye were the photos of elderly people in hip-young-people outfits and matching attitudes, doing hip-young-people things (getting a tattoo, skateboarding). Though the photos are staged, at first glance I thought they weren’t, that the photographer had merely come across his elderly subjects in the act of aping adolescents. And that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? We no longer seem to know where the line is between the young and the not-so-young is, or if that line even exists.

This of course isn’t news. Youth and sex and glamour sells. Age and illness and poverty, not so much. But from a purely commercial point of view, ignoring the tens of millions in the older-than-forty set is stupid. More Magazine aside, there just isn’t a whole lot out there (prescription meds excepted) for women of a certain age—not in books, not in movies, and most certainly not in fashion. And even in More, a magazine targeted to grownups, the middle-aged women who show up in its pages tend to be dressed in the same fashions shown in the pages of magazines for young women like Glamour or Marie Claire.

And yup, I agree, women’s magazines are designed to make you feel ugly, fat and incompetent in general so you’ll buy the products they push. Even so, for just once I’d love to see a fashion spread featuring women of a certain age in the kind of dignified, elegant, and kick-ass clothes that my grandmothers wore.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.