"An Old Ewe Drest Lamb Fashion", 1810, by Thomas Rowlandson
Madonna has been getting a lot of criticism for her latest surgical attempts to look forty years younger than her driver’s license attests. Aging is a double edged sword – there are endless products available, from moisturizers to hair dye, to help delay the appearance of aging, but if you opt for flat shoes and elastic waists, you have 'given up', and if you go too obviously under the knife, you are 'vain and desperate'.
The phrase ‘Mutton dressed as lamb” first appeared in print in 1811 in a journal of social gossip. ‘Mutton’ (the name for meat from a mature sheep) was a play on the word ‘Matron’, a word that in 1810 was becoming associated with aging aunties and humourless chaperones who wouldn’t let their charges dance the waltz. Fashion in 1810 was being made for young women with slim, youthful figures, small busts and rosey cheeks, and that aesthetic of youthful style is still understood today. In the television series Bridgerton, the costumers dress all the younger women like Jane Austen heroines, while the older women appear mostly as matrons of L'Ancien Régime from the previous century.
The term matron derives from the Latin matrona for married woman. The title Madame and Missus (Mrs.) also denotes a married woman, and by the 1550s, that honorific title was being bestowed upon mature, respectable women regardless of their marital status. Addressing senior-ranking servants like nannies, housekeepers and cooks as ‘Mrs.’ showed respect for their higher position amongst domestic staff. Similarly, a matron of a boarding school and a matron in a hospital were the highest ranking female employees at those facilities.
Until the early 19th century, fashion was not defined by age, children were dressed like miniature adults, and with an average life expectancy in the 18th century of 43 years, old age was not something to worry about, but rather to hope for. Fashions at that time embraced an ageless beauty of Rubenesque figures, heaving bosoms and wigs dressed in white powder.
In the century between 1820 and 1920, fashion developed different styles for different generations. Children no longer dressed like little adults as they got clothes to suit their activities. Younger women wore sportier and brighter-coloured garments, while older women became models of elegance in more elaborate gowns. A younger woman who dressed too opulently was as much a fashion faux pas as the older women who dressed too young. For older women, only widows were expected to limit the ornamentation of their attire for the duration of their mourning.
Youthful styles got another boost during the First World War (1914-1918) when the young soldier was embraced as a hero, and his girlfriend became the fashionable ideal. Navigating styles became tricky for older women who avoided 'flapper' fashions without hanging onto the past like Queen Mary whose wardrobe became stuck in a prewar era of corsetry and long skirts.
The post World War I era was also the age of the designer. A safe way for older women to avoid youthful fads was to embrace classic styles, which didn't become dated after one season, and modified versions of high fashions, from Dior's New Look to Courreges' mini skirt. Vogue even catered to their older readers with a column for 'Mrs. Exeter', the woman of a certain age who chose colours to suit graying hair, and appropriate attire for every social occasion – town or country.
After the youthquake of the 1960s, the younger market rediscovered the chicness of designer style – the Chanel suit for instance, which had become the mainstay of older women’s fashion armour, made younger women look very sophisticated. Karl Lagerfeld summed up his philosophy of modern fashion that he applied to his ever-popular collections when he stated that he made clothes that ‘make older women feel sexy’.