Blue Stocking

Age inappropriate

Maggie Cheung as Su Li-zhen in Wong Kar-Wei’s “In the Mood for Love” (2000)

There are Big Birthdays, and there are birthdays that loom, terrifying, for months and even years ahead: now that I can see my own most recent of these (60 since you ask) dwindling in the rear-view mirror I can say that I don’t really believe in the fetishisation of the round decade. We didn’t harp on about turning ten, so why get exercised over 40, or 90? Age, with the benefit of modern medicine, really should be just a number – unless. Unless there’s a party on offer.

There are a good few joys to 60 (free prescriptions, bus passes) but the media would have you believe – subtly, with coy references to “age-appropriate dressing”, or rudely, sniggering about “mutton dressed as lamb” – that dressing up for a party is not one of them. Well, bollocks to that (I beg, respectfully, to differ): if you want to stop me dolling up, you’ll have to wrest the ballgown from my cold dead hand. And the lipstick, and the tiaras, and the satin heels.

The contemplation of shopping / window-shopping / browsing for party outfits you can then stroke and drool over is so much one of life’s purest pleasures that we should be encouraged by the NHS to keep at it till we drop. When I turned 50 it didn’t occur to me not to conspire with friends about the purchase (and transportation to Venice where the party was happening, in the flat from which I was married 25 years ago) of a gold-sequinned and corseted Vivienne Westwood gown. Not one of the partygoers failed to dress up to the nines and dance till dawn. A word to the wise: sequins can be very scratchy if employed in a six-hour dance marathon. But would 60 be different?

Ten years on, the same piano nobile in Venice beckoned, a post-pandemic euphoria took hold and the delightful question of what to wear moved to the forefront. There are theories on dressing that are particularly brought into play as women get older: wear clothes to suit your body shape, dress to your best features, don’t reveal both cleavage and legs and, whatever you do, Don’t Show Your Arms. Patronising, irritating and dull, their implication is more or less that we don’t know what we like, and we need to be guided lest we make fools of ourselves. No-one would dream of saying this stuff to an eighteen year-old – imagine the scalding contempt with which such advice would be received – so why say it to a woman who has been dressing herself for three times that long?

The only dictum I have on party dressing is, it’s a waste to wear an outfit to a party that you could equally have worn to lunch or indeed to clean the oven in (although I wouldn’t put it past certain friends of mine to go dog-walking in a ball dress). Shortly after moving to Cambridge from London, I decided to have a “do”: the first guests arrived appallingly early, wearing matching fleeces. I went on having parties, but they never came back.

Come close, then, that I may whisper in your ear: make a fool of yourselves. Folly is freedom. Surround yourself with friends and dress in what you like, in what makes you feel happy, be it mini-skirt, corset or sequinned poncho, because happy people are beautiful people, even if you can see their upper arms. It goes without saying that, whatever it is you choose, make sure you can dance in it.

For the record, I wore an ankle-length (sleeveless!), black, pale green and silver Chinese chrysanthemum-print silk dress, ’60s vintage, with a deep slit in one side and matching cropped jacket with padded stand-up collar and bracelet-length sleeves. Think Wong Kar-Wei’s ineffably stylish wardrobe for In the Mood for Love. Reader, I danced, and that’s where the side-slit comes in.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

Arts & Culture

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