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PUMPING IRONY: A Wardrobe for the Ages

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What does fashion mean to the aging male? New research suggests that we don’t give it much thought.

When I first met Leo back in the ’70s, he was a ubiquitous presence in a quirky Minneapolis neighborhood known as the West Bank. He distinguished himself amid the bedraggled bohemians in their T-shirts and jeans by never appearing in public without a pair of khakis, a slightly rumpled button-down shirt, penny loafers, and a natty sport coat.

Forty years later, my septuagenarian pal shows up for our monthly lunch in a pair of khakis, a slightly rumpled button-down shirt, penny loafers, and a sport coat that once might have been described as natty. In a nod to his now-bald pate, he’s lately taken to topping it all off with a stylish beret. That, and the fact that Leo’s ensemble is now a little worse for wear, is the only element that distinguishes it from his Carter-era wardrobe.

Leo is one of a kind in many ways, but his refusal to bend to the winds of fashion is not one of them. Like most men, he found a look that suited him and stuck with it. Recent research by a University of Kent team led by Julia Twigg, PhD, suggests that older men tend not to worry about such things.

To be sure, Twigg’s conclusions about male sartorial preferences emerge from a tiny sample size; she and her team conducted interviews with 24 men between the ages of 58 and 85. But the results, published in a recent issue of Aging and Society, ring true to this fashion-averse geezer: Older guys tend to dress in a way that values “continuity both with their younger selves and with mainstream masculinity,” she writes. They are “less affected by cultural codes in relation to age,” and they choose clothing that embodies “old-fashioned values that endorse their continuing value as older men.”

One of her study subjects is Henry, a retired businessman in his mid-70s, who boasts of a pair of shoes that are “still going strong” after more than 20 years. For him, and many of Twigg’s guys, quality is more important than style. “I’ve still got a grey suit upstairs, which — it doesn’t fit me now, I had that when I was 17, 18 . . . I wore it right through until the last five years at times, funerals and things like that,” he notes.

But that’s not to say geezers are unaware of the figure they cut in public. Jack, a former miner, worries about how his grandchildren might critique his look. “They wouldn’t want to see me going round, you know, casual and not caring, or not worrying about the way I dress and all that,” he confesses. “Because they’ve got that much respect for me, I don’t think they would allow me to be like that.”

Clothes carry certain meanings for older guys, Twigg explains. It’s about “authority, social status, and the ability to fit in.” Only when “dereliction came into view” did older men begin to worry about what they’re wearing.

I wouldn’t describe my old friend Leo as derelict quite yet — although his stooped and shuffling figure suggests he’s heading in that direction — but I’m always vaguely heartened when he shows up for lunch in his familiar 1970s garb.Good old Leo, I think. Some things never change. And then I notice I’m wearing a T-shirt and jeans.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges and aging well.

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