Invent a New Kind of Femininity

Coloring-book AI image via Shutterstock



There is an article in The New Yorker about Miranda July, whom I have never read. She sounds interesting, so I zip along, half-skimming—then skid to a stop. She is reading the notes she wrote for her new novel, All Fours, to the reporter. Here is one from 2018: “Thinking about what aging means for the trans child…. And how the physical changes of middle age/old age out anyone who is living as more feminine than they were born.”

We are all—those of us who identify as women—living as more feminine than we were born. Personally, I looked like Dom DeLuise, a chubby oldschool comedian with a shiny bald head. When I grew into a toddler, I was adorable for a minute; the next fifteen years were gawky. Twenties—feminine. Thirties and forties, too busy to care. Fifties and sixties? “We find that makeup and cute clothes don’t work anymore.”

Foundation just sinks into the wrinkles or cakes atop them. Cute clothes are defined by the fashion industry as young clothes, skimpy or ruffled, cut low in a way that grows less desirable as one’s skin turns to crepe de chine. I loathed girly even when I was the right age for it—all those pastels and flounces, all that stretchy shiny fabric or floral linen.

July goes on: “It’s not that one wants to be masculine, but the femininity we were instructed in was actually youth.” I am nodding like a wobblehead doll. But now what do I do?

“You find yourself having to invent a new kind of femininity. From thin air. Not based on anything you’ve seen—or if you’ve seen it, it’s so rare as to be part of an exquisite and obscure collection.”

Tacked to a bulletin board in my home office is a black and white photograph of an elderly royal couple, no idea which one or what country or what year. I saved it because they are elegant. Both stand straight, yet carry carved walking sticks that manage to look more like accessories than orthopedic aids. She is wearing a light colored dress with a matching jacket, all of it draped loose with tiny, almost Fortuny pleats. A small jaunty scarf is tied around her neck, more of an ascot than those big, bright loop-de-loops that older women are taught to wear. Her husband wears a long, pale duster over a tweed suit. Both wear hats, set at just the right angles.

They look comfortable but complete, stylish but nonchalant. Still interested in the world but not anxious about fitting into it. Money and royal blood surely helped, but the stance is available to all of us.

Still, the details elude. I read online guides for Dressing After Fifty (which they know we will only bother to search for after sixty, but we will then be relieved by the tactful headline). No more t-shirts with messages, they say. What? No more sharp-tongued, smartassed political commentary? No more universities I never attended but wish I had? I suppose one’s identity is supposed to be established already, and one’s beliefs acted upon in ways more constructive than a T-shirt.

Embrace color, they say. Fair enough; age does fade us. I am like a sofa that sat for years before anybody thought to close the curtains.

“Embrace sleek and shapely and avoid anything frumpy and ill fitting,” a British guide instructs—which would be possible if one’s body remained sleek and shapely. Ah, but there is an accompanying tip: elastic waistbands are fine (because no one in their right mind will give them up) but hide them by “tucking your top in and then pulling out just enough to cover the band (in a cool, slouchy sort of way).”

Funny, how slouchy gets less cool as you grow older.

“Whatever you do,” the guide continues, “don’t wear pop socks.” Not even the ones with a little animal face on the back? I stick them in a drawer to save for my eighties, when clothing will again be a costume—this time to amuse the young.

“Avoid microfleece.” Right. Because it is warm and cozy and comfortable, and God forbid we feel good, I rant, knowing all the while that they are right. Fleece is fine for walking the dog, but elegance would choose wool and cashmere. Structured comfort, requiring slightly more thought and effort. Why does that matter? Because femininity is, has always been, a construct. Whether the impetus flows from one’s hormone levels and anatomy or comes straight from the brain, its consequences are never automatic. We have a vision and find an instruction manual.

The point of clothes, beyond coverage, is that they reflect us. Our mood, our taste, our personality, our place in the world. Are we open or closed, prim or sloppy, sensuous or reserved, eccentric or conformist? By the time we have lived half a century, we know the answers to those questions—but the formula has changed. The days of high heels, a full skirt with a tight waist, bright lipstick and a little decolletage are gone. The need to present as eager and thoroughly female is gone, too. What interests me now is sometimes softness and fluidity, sometimes clean-lined structure. Gender and sidewalk sex appeal are no longer considerations. I can imagine (though it conjures those horrid “I’m with her/him” and paired arrow t-shirts) wearing the same loose top and slim pants as my husband and feeling thoroughly feminine, because whatever it was I was constructing all those years now lives inside me.

So I think only about favorite fabrics and colors and spit on advice like “add feminine details to your outfits. This could include ruffles, lace, bows, or flowers.” I am, like Popeye, who I am, unworried about how I present. There is a danger, though, and that is ceasing to care at all. My elderly couple are dressed meticulously, and I appreciate them for it. That will strike many people as snobbish and old-fashioned, but there is a rationale. People like me can look at that photograph and decide that getting old does not mean forsaking elegance. We can know that it is possible to age without losing confidence and style. That carrying a walking stick need not seem pathetic, and that the stick need not be ugly tubular aluminum with a rubber stopper on the end.

Inventing a new kind of femininity would mean trusting who I am without ruffles or props. Really trusting, so I do not slide into a frumpy, matronly, gave-up-on-trying wardrobe of floral-print synthetics. If I can muster enough current confidence, I figure I will not embarrass myself by wearing clothes that look better on a teenager, because I will not be in denial. Nor will I be dressing on auto-pilot in a dimly lit closet because I cannot face the present reality. Pull it off, and I can throw away the rule books, the gendered formulas, the trying.

And keep my political T-shirts.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.