STYLE TILL YOU DIE: On The Ageless Style of Helen Gurley Brown

Next time you get dressed, be sure to ask yourself, "What would Helen wear?"

Aug 14, 2012 at 10:30am | Leave a comment

By the time you read this, hundreds of thousands of words will have been written on the death yesterday at age 90 of Helen Gurley Brown, (in)famous editor-in-chief of the legendary Cosmopolitan magazine.

Brown was a largely un-credited force in the great wave of feminism that occurred during the 1960s and 70s. She was responsible for the ushering in of frank discussions about sex in magazines aimed at young women. She practically invented the modern women's magazine, and xoJane.com is carrying the torch into the new millennium.

Most of the obituaries I’ve read have focused on her role in the loosening of bra tops and sexual mores across the world, as Cosmo now has 63 editions printed in 32 languages  in 100 countries, but I am way more fascinated by how she worked her singular fashion sense right up until her death.

Brown thumbed her nose at the notion that women of a certain age should be condemned to shuffle around in flat shoes and colorless clothing for the rest of their lives. She straight up wore what made her happy right to the end. 

Check those rings! Here’s a description of what Brown was wearing while being interviewed for a magazine at the ripe age of 81: “Black fishnet stockings, three-inch stilettos, black mini skirt and pink silk shirt unbuttoned to reveal more than a flash of lacy cream bra. A gold cobra bracelet snakes around her wrist and her lips are daubed in fuchsia lipstick.”

Some may have written Brown off as dressing like a “crazy old lady,” but I am so inspired by the fact that she wore what she loved and appeared not to care who judged her mercilessly for it.

 
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Pucci, bare legs, and a Chanel bag? Helen Gurley Brown is 82 years old in this photo.

The idea that you are too old to wear certain items has been on my mind a lot lately. I am an eternal teenager, and love to wear funky dresses with ankle-breaking platforms, cut up rock T-shirts, junky jewelry, cowboy boots, miniskirts, and carry handbags that I’ve scribbled all over.

Sometimes I wonder if the day is coming when I’ll have to pack it all in and buy some sensible pantsuits. But looking at photos of Brown throughout the years has made me start to think that maybe that time never has to come for any of us.

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There is harsh criticism out there for women who don’t “act their age." A quick Google search lead me to this horrifying list that helpfully broke down at what age women should stop wearing certain things:

Mini skirts, 35


Knee High Boots, 47


Leggings, 45


Ugg boots, 45


Swimsuit, 61

Bikini, 39


Long hair, 53

Ponytail, 51

I can't put my hair up in a ponytail at a BBQ on a summer day or during a workout at the gym after the age of 51? Oh yeah, I'm not supposed to have long hair after 53 anyway. And it looks like I won't be swimming in public after the age of 61.

Let's just be honest here: the truth is that no woman over 50 should ever allow herself to be seen out of the house. You can't try to be sexually attractive past 50. If you do, it's gross! You are supposed to be a hot, carefree young sex object until middle age, then stoically become the picture of modesty and propriety.

I can't imagine a similar list being drawn up for men. Men look distinguished and women look old, right? I never see a dude being asked to "put it away."

Here are the thoughts of a “top fashion editor” (her words, not mine), giving advice as to when you should stop wearing: cork wedges (mid 40’s), white tank tops (age 40), hair accessories (age 30), hobo bags, (age 50) and "loud accessories" (age 35, and mind you, she’s counting glitter nail polish as a loud accessory).

The idea of what’s "age appropriate" mystifies me. That’s not to say I advocate the wearing of belly shirts and booty shorts to church when you're 80, but if something is quintessentially you, and you feel good wearing it, then why not?

Then there’s this:

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Image, Amazon.com.

As if it’s a state of original sin to look your age. Hey guys, here’s how not to look old: Die young and leave a good-looking corpse! After all, looking young is far more important than any career achievement or enjoying life or changing the cultural collective consciousness like Brown did. 

Really? Aging? A thing we are all going to do, if we're lucky? The message in this: Women, you will never be good enough. You are going be judged no matter what your choices. 

I say we all practice being crazy old ladies right now, no matter what your age. Be like Helen. Wear what you want, regardless of if it suits you. That way nobody will be shocked or surprised when you are suddenly old. Why wait until you really are old enough to be featured on Advanced Style to dress how you really want?

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I look at all these pictures of Brown in her crazy clothes and just think she looks happy. Beauty is ageless. Screw the eye of the beholder. It totally makes me want to pick up a Cosmo and take a quiz. I hope I'm as cool as Brown when I'm half her age. Next time you get dressed, be sure to ask yourself, "What would Helen wear?"

I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison