The perfect black dress

“One is never over-dressed or underdressed with a little black dress.” –Karl Lagerfeld

DSCN5066Few things in this world are more fun than shopping with a friend.

Earlier this week, one of my besties asked me to join her on a mission to bag the perfect little black dress. Deb will be attending a fancy wedding in New York next month. While she has a great wardrobe for her job as a school social worker, I totally understood her need to buy some “grown-up clothes” (her words) for this special occasion.

And so, starting with lunch at 11:30, Deb and I ended up spending nearly six hours at Somerset Mall, where we managed to find two gorgeous black dresses — one on sale! — and some killer blingy accessories to go with them. We had a blast.

While I watched Deb model her finds, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is there anything handier than a basic black dress that makes a woman look slim and glamorous?

Of course, the fashion police keep trying to push bright colors on us, especially this time of year when the spring resort lines hit the stores. And I have absolutely nothing against color. Still, you won’t convince me that red or orange or navy (or any other color) is “the new black.” Because nothing out-performs beautiful black.

I could keep waxing poetic here, but instead I’ll nudge you toward a book review I wrote for The Christian Science Monitor. Titled “It’s Black and Chic and Seen All Over”, it also offers a short history of the little black dress — and lists all the reasons why every woman needs at least two perfect LBDs.

Age-appropriate dressing

The key to successful aging is to pay as little attention to it as possible.  ~Judith Regan

Friends, I’m taking time off for a week or so. This essay ran in Strut magazine in the fall of 2007. I’m happy to report that I’ve purchased two military jackets since its publication….

What is hip?

By the time we reach our forties, most of us have discovered that fashion history repeats itself. What goes around comes around – even if we cant button it across the middle.

This occurred to me last week at the local mall, where I was haunted by the ghosts of my high school wardrobe in every clothing store I visited. There were racks of ruffled skirts and gossamer peasant blouses. Rows of knee-high boots lavished with embroidery. Stacks of jeans dripping with beads and sequins.

My inner teenage girl desperately wanted to buy everything in sight – including the spiffy military jacket that must have been inspired by Paul Revere and the Raiders. But the voice of common sense – the voice belonging to my inner middle-aged mom – told me it was time to shop for something more mature. Something “age-appropriate.”

Ever since I turned 50, Ive been grappling with the concept of age-appropriate dressing. I mean, with Goldie Hawn posing for magazine covers in miniscule tank tops, and Mick Jagger prancing around in the same hip huggers he wore back in 1968, what do fashion editors mean when they tell us to dress our age?

In my early thirties, not long after I became a mother, I went through the obligatory matron phase. Obsessed with parenting duties, I schlepped around grocery stores and school parking lots in oversized T-shirts and ankle-grazing denim jumpers – outfits that made my late Grandma Rubys housedresses look seductive. It took years to correct those fashion mistakes, and I have an album of photos to prove it.

Maturity doesn’t have to be synonymous with ugly shoes and frumpy polyester suits.

Not long ago, a stylish friend in her eighties reminded me that reaching maturity doesnt have to be synonymous with wearing ugly shoes and frumpy polyester suits. Echoing the late Coco Chanel, my friend believes that achieving a style of ones own can take a lifetime – and that a woman should never stop trying. I admire her savoir-faire.

As a young girl, I spent hours reading Seventeen and experimenting with fashion accessories. Clothes were costumes, part of my creativity.  Over the years I tried several different “looks” until I found one that came close to expressing the authentic self I was trying to become.

Today I have no desire to revisit my youth. I dont miss the insecurities or the acne or the go-go boots. But I do miss the fun I had with fashion when I was 16. I havent outgrown my weakness for romantic, handcrafted details — and Im still crazy about anything vintage.

During our recent visit to the mall, my college-age son asked if we could stop at one of his favorite clothing stores. Walking the aisles, I pointed out that a lot of the merchandise bore an eerie resemblance to outfits his dad and I had worn at his age. (I didnt even flinch when my son called the style “retro.”) He wandered off to look for a new track jacket while I admired a gorgeous display of hippie jewelry.

“They carry a lot of great stuff,” I told him as we left the store and headed for the mall exit. “But its all way too young for me, and Id look silly in most of it.”

My son rarely has an opinion about womens fashion – mine or anyone elses. But this time he repeated verbatim what I always tell him when he asks for my opinion on his clothes.

“If you like it, thats what matters,” he said, shrugging. And that was all the encouragement I needed. Next week, Im going back for that cool military jacket.

Need some fashion advice from the experts? For excellent tips on dressing with style after age 40, subscribe to “Fabulous after Forty” online.

–Photo of the invincible Lauren Hutton on the catwalk —

Vintage duds

Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  ~Mark Twain

I have a love-hate relationship with fashion — or, should I say, fashion trends? I’m suspicious of magazines that try to dictate what’s in and what’s out. And I resent the fashion editors and “style experts” who make me feel old or uncool or unattractive if I’m not following their advice or wearing what they advertise. (Who the heck are these people, anyway?)

Yet I’ve always adored beautifully crafted and unusual clothes, new and old.

I’m especially intrigued by vintage clothing, and for years I’ve haunted thrift shops in search of one-of-a-kind treasures to mix with my own wardrobe basics. What I enjoy most about vintage pieces is how they make an outfit totally personal — especially when combined with something classic or relatively new.

Among my favorite pieces: A vintage Christian Dior tux jacket; a way-cool military style coat with unusual detailing; and a double-breasted black polyester blazer with big buttons, circa 1975. I also own vintage scarves, belts, and evening bags — always handy for jazzing up an outfit. While some of my evening dresses from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s are collectibles and not entirely suitable for wearing out, I use and enjoy most of my vintage clothing.

Luckily, I have a large attic for storing my finds. And lately, some of the things I’ve collected have come in handy for my part-time work as a background extra in films.  Typically, background actors are given costume guidelines and asked to bring their own clothes to a shoot. The wardrobe department must approve our choices, or provide another option. The more clothing options we have, the more likely we are to make the production people happy — and ultimately snare more bookings. So it helps to keep a variety of clothing at the ready for this type of work.

Earlier this summer, though, Doug and I were cast in a scene calling for western wear, which sent us on a quick search for western-style shirts and cowboy hats. This isn’t the sort of attire we’d typically sport in suburban Detroit unless we were invited to a Halloween party. So thank goodness for the local thrift shops, which happened to have all kinds of affordable options.

A week later, we were booked for two scenes set in 1980s Paris.  As it happens, I own an Ungaro khaki blazer and a cool trench coat (both thrift-shop finds) from the era. I made a quick trip to the Salvation Army thrift store (during their summer sale) and picked up a couple of 1980s dresses for less than four dollars each.  I brought it all to the fitting with my vintage Chanel scarf — and voila! — the wardrobe people were duly impressed.

Whether I’m shopping for a costume or my personal wardrobe, I carefully examine thrift-shop clothing for damage before I make a purchase. I’m not an accomplished seamstress, but I’m handy with minor repairs and stain removal — and always willing to change buttons.

An added bonus: Some of the best thrift shops in my community support local charities, or are run by charitable organizations. It feels good to know that my purchases will benefit others in need. Fashion is fleeting, after all, and I’m glad I don’t have to break the bank for it.  — Cindy La Ferle

If you’re new to “thrifting” or want to learn more about vintage clothing, start with a copy of The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping, by Melody Fortier, which provides a good introduction and is one of the newer books on the topic.