My late Aunt Margaret was notoriously choosy about clothes. Legendary are the stories of those who accompanied her on shopping expeditions about the many hours Margaret could dedicate to searching for the perfect item, blisters and frayed tempers notwithstanding.

Jane Caro: “Older women are expected to fade into the background.”

Jane Caro: “Older women are expected to fade into the background.”Credit: Hugh Stewart

Her discerning eye for colour, shape and cut paid off; until the day she died, in her 80s, Margaret was never less than beautifully turned out. She had a tomato-red shirt and a multi-coloured, nip-waisted jacket I hanker after to this day.

Margaret’s sister Catherine, my own mother, is similarly beautifully dressed. At 92, she is not as exacting as her older sister was, but her clothes are timeless and perfectly proportioned for her short, roundish figure (an attribute most of the women in my family share). She has a huge collection of brooches and – like the late Queen Mother – is rarely seen without one. Unlike the Queen Mum, my mother is not a fussy dresser. She likes clean lines and structural shapes.

Their mother Eva, my grandmother, was also a lover of clothes. To my parents’ wedding, in 1955, she wore a brown suit with a contrasting blue beaded trim, her hat a matching and eye-catching sky blue. She still looks spectacular in the wedding photos. In her 80s, to another family wedding, she wore a long-sleeved pink dress with discreet ruffles at the neck and wrists, set off by a perfectly placed black bow. When she died at 92, I called my eulogy: “My grandmother always wore high heels.” She was my height, 155 centimetres, so I relate.

As Anglo-Saxons like me get older, our colouring fades. Not just our hair; our skin tone and even our eyes become pale imitations of what they once were.

This could be depressing, but the stylish older women I admire understand that good dressing is all about using clothes and accessories – special mention to glasses and earrings – to best effect. Far from retiring into neutrals, pastels, muddy florals or grandmotherly black, they grab red, hot pink, lime green, orange, aqua, cerise, purple and cobalt blue with both hands and put them together in ways that are startling and exciting. One of my favourite poems encourages old women to wear purple with a red hat – especially one that doesn’t suit you. I once saw a riotous group of older women wearing variations on that theme at Darling Harbour in Sydney. It was all I could do not to cheer.

The stylish older women I admire understand that good dressing is all about using clothes and accessories – special mention to glasses and earrings – to best effect.

Older women are expected to fade into the background. The only thing I didn’t like about the record-breaking, glass-ceiling-smashing Barbie movie was its portrayal of older women. Where was comedian Rhea Perlman’s legendary spiky wit, I wondered, as she wafted about playing Ruth Handler, the woman who invented Barbie?

Spiky wit is also absent when Barbie turns to an older woman waiting with her at a bus stop and says, “But you are so beautiful.” The older woman gives the wrong answer. She agrees. But the gift of getting older and bolder is that you no longer care whether anyone finds you beautiful or not. You know that beauty is no standard to aim for. Being at ease in your skin, wearing what you want and not caring what others think – that’s worth shooting for.


Like our patron saint of all things colourful, dramatic and age-inappropriate, 102-year-old Iris Apfel, older women are free to wear what we want, in whatever colours we want, to whatever occasions we want. Think of Kathryn Greiner in her round, red glasses; Wendy McCarthy in her shimmery, sparkly jackets; Mehreen Faruqi in her bright pashminas and scarves; and Ronni Kahn from Oz Harvest, who combines all of the above, all at once. And don’t forget Maggie Beer, whose clothes and earrings are so bright it cheers you up just to look at her. Oh, and Linda Burney, elegant in just about anything.

Much as you want us to, older women do not become merely an audience for the young. We’re happy to cheer you on when required, and we love and admire you very much – we brought you up, remember – but we remain stubbornly, colourfully, assertively at the centre of our own lives. And when we do go to our graves, many of us will go in brightly coloured jackets, statement necklaces, earrings that clash with our dresses, dramatic glasses, hot-pink/acid-green/cobalt-blue/sunflower-yellow nail polish and far too many bracelets.

And always – but always – a very strong lip.

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