We may not be able to last all day in heels any more, but a wonderful group of intelligent, articulate and stylish women of the older generation have revealed their style secrets.
At last academics have confirmed what I have always suspected – shoes are evocative, and powerfully so. And apparently an awful lot of us older women secretly skip around our homes in heels – even though we have long swapped them for flats during the day thanks to fallen arches and bunions. We will not be (entirely) defeated!
Favourite shoes are possessed of an almost magical ability to anchor our memories and speak loudly of who and what we are. That we, as middle-aged women, still indulge shouldn't be surprising, and we do indulge – I know because it was one of the questions I asked women at the Royal College of Art last Friday. The right shoes, as we all know, can lift the spirits immeasurably – and ownership of heels does not make you an enemy of feminism.
It was heartening news that came out of the talks about fashion and the older generation. Dressing when you're an older woman usually involves the following: dark colours, greater coverage and sober styles – and avoiding any claims to sexual attention (God forbid). But thankfully, there is a growing "ageing demographic" who want to shake up society's assumptions – and our wardrobes.
As I listened to the speakers at (a)Dressing the Ageing Demographic, I duly paused and assessed myself – black jacket, black trousers, black T-shirt, black trainers. Hmm … Professor Julia Twigg had a point. Well, in my defence, this was a Friday at the end of a hectic week and I had expended no more than 30 seconds (possibly less) on deciding what I would wear that day. Then, lest I was in any doubt, it was confirmed that I am indeed "an older woman" when I learned that the official age for this depressing demographic is 55-80 years. I wonder what comes after that, apart from death? Freedom from being told what I should wear?
But surprisingly, the day spent in a basement lecture theatre near Hyde Park in London turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking I've spent this year. I was fascinated and not just because I fit the demographic, but because it was a real treat to be among intelligent, articulate women sharing a common purpose – to change the way we approach age and what we wear when we're old(er) – and, yes, how we feel about fashion. Fashion is important to us, although I'm tempted to substitute the word "style" because the two are intertwined. Style (or fashion) is an area of pleasure and a means of self-expression; what it is not is the exclusive preserve of the young. Forcing older generations through an ever-narrowing funnel of "greige" is to deny part of what makes us individuals and human, no matter our age. No one is devoid of expressing some element of personal style – although we might wish some were. The way we look tells people we meet what to think about us, which I agree can be superficial but is nonetheless true. The way people look plays a large part in our decision to get to know them better, and vice versa. We like to be able to pigeonhole people and there lies the problem because what, for God's sake, are old(er) people expected to look like?
What used to happen was that, depending on your stage of life, there was an agreed kind of uniform to be adopted. That's no longer the case. Had my mum survived to 58, I doubt she would have looked anything like I do now. Hers would have been a middle age of skirts and cardigans, sensible shoes and perms, because that was what you wore then. It is with a large degree of pride that I see my generation busily reinventing middle age and extending it. Hopefully, when we get to "old", we'll reinvent that, too. Not that it's an easy nut to crack.
One startling fact to come out of (a) Dressing the Ageing Demographic was that although a number of bigger brands normally associated with a younger customer base are researching the older market, they'd rather no one knew that they were. In other words, they're embarrassed by it, by us, and fear that their brand might be tainted by association, which is nonsense and awful. But not as awful as the "onesie" with a padlockable rear zip – and this drew an audible gasp from the audience – that one company suggests is appropriate wear for people with dementia by an audible gasp from the audience. Dr Sonja Iltanen presented the session that depressed and alarmed me most, suggesting a worrying trend towards functional, stigmatising and infantile garments at the expense of the individual. Yes, I appreciate there are practical issues when the body starts to misbehave, but if this is all I've got to look forward to then I'm chucking myself into the Thames at the first sign of stress incontinence.
My day in the RCA basement delighted and concerned me in equal measure but I learned so much. I loved the diversity of age in the attendees (from students up to and beyond retirees) but was disappointed not to see more men – there were four – but it was a thumping good start and, if enthusiasm for the subject is anything to go by, an indication that greater things lie ahead. We just have to keep shouting until we get what we want.
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