Saturday, September 5, 2015

Women We Love: Joan Juliet Buck

I like her age...

She would never remember me, but I remember Joan Juliet Buck coming through the Glamour art department in my early, 1960s years of working there. She was something of a "wunderkind", a very young woman with a good lineage, good education and a real gift for observation and writing. She went on to many careers including novelist, actress and editor-in-chief of French Vogue. Please enjoy this smart, funny (yes I laughed out loud) and so true piece.


When I was 30, my necklaces were ironic. The single row of baroque pearls with the intaglio clasp that I wore along with my grandmother's double strand were a cheeky nod at Coco Chanel in her late-revival prime, say, when she was 78 or 80. Now that I'm barreling toward my mid-60s, the last thing I want to do is remind anyone of Coco Chanel at 78. Instead of being casually brilliant pieces of irony, the pearls now confer the gravitas of a mother-in-law, while my amber beads from pre-perestroika Moscow, which used to be a river of golden light, make me look like I teach poetry part-time while attempting a second career in hand-thrown pots.

Necklaces age me.
So do black jackets.
So do shoulder pads.
So do earrings. Any earrings.
So, alas, do printed scarves.
So does red lipstick.
So does smoky, sexy eye makeup.
And high heels I can't walk in.

Now that I'm a lady of a certain age, I have to drop the costumes. Everything that put me in the Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1987 must be left in 1987, and the same goes for the Lartigue look of 1972, the dust-colored suits of 1991, and the rest. Fashion is a time capsule and becomes a time machine that only the young should enter. "Vintage" from your own closet carries too many old references. But we get attached to what we wore the day we fell in love, the day we found our style, the days we looked our best.

I hang on to the Saint Laurent smoking coatdress that I wore to a lunch in 1983 because I hadn't slept in my own bed, the Missoni camisole I wore to a magical dinner at Maxim's in 1974, the Hermès chestnut leather dress from 1996 that was the coolest thing in the world. But the world moves on, the Saint Laurent coatdress is a fashion history lesson, the camisole can't be worn with a bra, and the leather dress is oddly tight. I haven't gained weight, but things have moved around.

We find our style in our 20s and hang on to everything that makes up our look—hair, shoes, colors, shapes—through our 30s and 40s, at style cruising speed. But somewhere between 50 and 60, there are bumps in the road. Physical changes, social changes, contextual changes.

The face changes shape. From the age of 23 onward, I wore a particular expression in photographs until I saw evidence that the pensive, dreamy, three-quarter profile had turned grumpy. Now it's full face, with a smile, and as much light as possible.

When Lauren Hutton gave me an array of makeup from her line, she said, "We have to do different things now. Watch my DVD." I told her, a little huffily, that I didn't need to watch a DVD to know how to put on makeup, but she was adamant, so I watched and learned, among many secrets, that concealer now goes under the nostrils. Really? I thought, but it works.

At a certain age, more can be as good as less, but only if used in the right place.

The body changes. Elegance is refusal, elimination, and pitiless self-criticism. No matter how many times you salute the sun, the skin on those fine upper arms will drape toward the crook of the elbow in a gentle valance that would be a triumph executed in chiffon but is alarming in human skin.

Then there's that egregious puff of flesh at the junction of breast and armpit that I call the chicken because it reminds me of the more depressing cuts offered by Frank Perdue. It pops out between strap and arm, it makes itself known under a T-shirt, it wriggles out of armholes, it rises like yeast above a strapless dress.

The torso does odd things. Alcohol, pasta, cheese, and cookies—the basic constituents of sex-free fun—cause it to expand forward, which is why Geoffrey Beene cut his most ladylike dresses with a gather at the breastbone. Even if the waistline hasn't expanded, what's just below it begins to resemble a sofa, even if it's only a small part of a very neat sofa.

The tailored suit belongs in the boardroom, and then only if you're on the board. The pantsuit looks either so masculine that it signals a lifestyle choice, or it puts you firmly in human resources at a midsize Ohio company.

The crop top and the low-cut jeans have to go. So do the shorts for anything but sports, and the miniskirts. It's no use re-creating those cocktails on the lawn in the linen shift, or prom night, or disco dawns sweating to Barry White in tight sheaths, or pioneer strides in the prairie skirt with the wide belt as firm as a man's hands. Or those hot afternoons in ragged denim on the wooden steps of Mike's house somewhere in Florida in the 1970s, what was that place called?

If you're rich, you donate to charity. If you're famous, you sell for charity. If you're neither, you call the resale shop. What now?

The forgiving knitted tunic beckons. Ignore it, especially in tones called pebble, rock, stone, sand, and heathered versions of each. Furthermore, the forgiving tunic too often has bat-wing sleeves, which conjure up the possibility that the arm beneath is exactly the same shape.

The shawl is another temptation—a swath of softness, a bit of bravado for the shoulders, you think, forgetting that every grandmother in every painting since painting began is wearing a shawl. White crochet is to be feared (in general, white crochet should be avoided after graduation), but tensely folded black cashmere can make you look like a Sicilian widow. A shawl draped over the back is granny, but thrown over one shoulder, it's power.

All colors are good except maroon, and if you're Caucasian, yellow. Purple, which should be the color of wisdom, has connotations of witch and madwoman best left alone. Eccentricity is to the later years what vulgarity is to youth: a cheap solution.

Whether it's dyed or allowed to fade to the color of imported French sea salt, the hair on women of a certain age has a strange texture that requires daily professional blowouts to approximate the bounce of youth. You try a turban in the mirror at home; you imagine that it pulls up your features. It actually makes you look like a fortune-teller, but few will tell you that. I happily wore Middle Eastern cotton headbands as wide as turbans until hairstylist John Barrett said, "Good God! You need help," swept me off, and gave me a sublime renegade-priest cut. When it's growing out, I sneak on the turban headbands and resume reading palms.

A truly great haircut makes up for the fact that you're not in spike heels.

The hunt for shoes is as impassioned as ever, only you're looking for a different kind of shoe. As the fat pad under the feet shrinks, the shock of bone on leather becomes unbearable in heels. Some designers add layers to their insoles, but never enough, because it would ruin the curve of the arch. You discover hitherto-unknown brands of shoes lined in cork, Tempur-Pedic foam, inner springs, and angel food cake, and you succumb to comfort, but should you fall for the Velcro-strap Mary Jane, young women will laugh at you behind your back. Fear Velcro.

Even comfort follows the rules of fashion. When you find shoes you can stand in through an entire cocktail party, you must buy them in every color and multiples of black because the more perfect the shoe, the faster it will be discontinued. At a dinner, a beautiful Danish woman my age showed me her shoes; a perfect shape with a good heel, they had a little zip by the instep. She took one off to show me the name—"No one you know," she said—but she'd worn them so much that it had vanished.

Last fall I longed for the Saint Laurent silver boots identical to the gold ones I had in 1973. Missoni makes me as happy as ever, Uniqlo's collections by Jil Sander and Inès de la Fressange are beautiful, and I look forward to what Christophe Lemaire will do there this fall. The wardrobe now comes down to the essentials: black sweaters, good trousers, boatneck tunics, and dresses that are cut, shaped, and fitted to me. A good trench coat, and then a few more good trench coats. I found a silk one at Pamela Barish's shop in Los Angeles, with pleats in the back so that it can be worn as a dress, or thrown—the way I used to throw my pearls—over a plain top and trousers for that abstracted I-just-got-out-of-bed look that signals cool at any age. It's the ideal garment, but the one in my size was snapped up by some 30-year-old movie star, so I'm going to have to wait.

*Originally published in May 2015 Harper's Bazaar


  1. Oh my gosh, loved this! Thanks for sharing it.

    1. Glad you liked it. I plan to re-read it regularly!

  2. I'm a little younger than you. And now I'm totally depressed. Your piece is amusing but not helpful. It makes me dread getting older.

    1. Donna, I'm so sorry you found this depressing. You may be fighting — as we all have— the fact that things change. This piece helped me get a grip on reality. Meanwhile, wear strapless and sleeveless until something tells you "no more". And then accept what you can't change and have the confidence of your convictions. Joan Juliet Buck said that better.

  3. I loved the article. I, too, will copy it to reread often, especially when I get carried away with wearing items I have had for a long time and am trying to get a little more "use" out of them. ----Time to donate!
    BTW, do you have any designers you would recommend for women of a certain age that are still interested in fashion?

    1. I assume you don't mean couture or very high end. I would wear everything from The Row if I could. As far as the rest, it's so much about FIT. Talbot's is a little tame for me, but their pants fit me. Chico's can be overly boho, but their clothes have ease and a sense of style. So it's all up to you and your style. Personally, my go-to is Zara, but I'm an equal-opportunity shopper because you never know...

    2. Thanks, Michelle,
      I agree Talbots is tame ,and Chico's runs too big for me. I will look into The Row. I have good luck with Tahari, Max Mara, and some Layfaette . I wait for their sales.

    3. Yes, I'm a Chico's 00, so that's ridiculous. The Row is couture-pricey, but now that I think I know your style, may I suggest you look into COS (online only unless you live in NYC) and Zara (online but also in major cities). I also like Anthropologie, Banana Republic, Club Monaco and J Crew for some things. Quality counts these days— good fabrics, good fit and of course a dash of style. You don't have to spend a fortune, but you do have to shop around!

  4. You could be right...I see so many pretty things that I know won't work for me anymore yet I don't want to go down that path where black loose lines reign. I think when I wrote that I was just coming from the theater where I saw a lot of women my age looking really horrible in terribly frumpy clothes. Have not found my stride yet.

    1. Donna, At least you are more aware than some and that's good. We all hit our stride at different times. At 61, I'm a late bloomer in defining what I know works for me. There are very few things that I think I'm "too old for"...instead, they become inspiration for adaptation. Stay positive on your journey.

  5. Michelle, Thank you for calling my attention to this. I love the way JJB writes and her topic here is paramount. I look forward to reading what you write. I've finally signed up to get your blog, long overdue.