SNARK WEEK: Why Are Old Ladies Decades Out of Date?!?

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As the eldest on Frock Flicks’ staff, and creaking halfway through a century on this lil’ planet, I admit I’m personally peeved when historical costume movies and TV shows fall back on the trope of “old women must wear out-of-date fashions.” Is Miss Havisham to blame? C’mon, we’re not all pining over a lost love and wandering around in clothes from our faded youth! It’s a cliche, it’s trite, it’s dumb, it’s boring, it’s definitely ageist, and it’s a bit sexist.

There aren’t as many older men portrayed onscreen as wearing ridiculously out-dated clothes (trust me, I looked). The most you find are 18th-century powdered wigs that kept being being worn by certain professions past when the general populace wore them. The best example are the wigs worn by judges and barristers in British and Commonwealth courts. Those have ossified into a uniform.

But frock flicks aren’t as fond of showing old men in decades-out-of-fashion clothes as a plot point, it’s reserved for old ladies. Fie, I say! I shake my virtual cane at them! No more!

Helen Mirren twerking 2014

If Helen Mirren can twerk like this at age 69-ish, she and her compatriots shouldn’t be stuck wearing old clothes in costume dramas!

And before you say “my grandma wears outdated clothes!” yes, it happens, but that doesn’t mean it is now or ever was universal. Cliches can have an element of truth to them. People don’t like changes, and especially a radical fashion change can be hard to adapt to or outright rejected. But consider how this trope plays out today — every time the Rachel from Friends haircut tries to make a comeback, it doesn’t work. That’s a 1995 hairstyle, folks. A quarter-century out of date, and it’s the butt of jokes. Same thing with the looks here.

Rachel, Friends - No

Here are some places the cliche annoyed me and how I think these frock flicks could have done it better!

 

 

Maria Thins in Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003)

The most noticeable thing is that the mother-in-law character wears a large ruff but nobody else does. These big ruffs were fashionable in the Netherlands through the 1640s-50s, but this film is set in 1665, so she’s hanging on to a formerly fashionable style until the very end of the film.

Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003)

I loves me a ruff, but I’d prefer to see ’em when it’s appropriate for everyone to be wearing them.

Instead, Maria Thins could be wearing linen and lace collars like this:

1667 - Françoise of Lorraine as a widow by unknown artist, via Wikimedia Commons

1667 – Françoise of Lorraine as a widow by unknown artist, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Aunt Agatha in Poldark (2015-8)

Great character and one of the better costumes in the series, but she’s been wearing a sack-back gown for a decade or so two long. Kendra excused it in her initial review of the series, and I will admit that it’s not half as bad as some of the others here. But I’m still including it, so there!

Agatha daytime ep6 Poldark (2017)

Poldark (2017)

 

Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton (2020)

I hesitate to include the queen because I love how she looked in the series. The costumes and wigs were spectacular and visually reinforced her unique and powerful status. If this cliche hadn’t been so overused, then this usage could stand out as a singular example of how to bend the rules for theatrical effect. But it gets diluted when everybody does it.

Bridgerton (2020)

Bridgerton (2020)

Besides, there were other historically accurate ways to set the queen and her court apart visually.

Queen Charlotte by William Beechy, 1796, Royal Collection | (right) Queen Charlotte by Peter Edward Stroehling, 1807, Royal Collection

Queen Charlotte by William Beechy, 1796, Royal Collection (left); Queen Charlotte by Peter Edward Stroehling, 1807, Royal Collection (right)

 

 

Lady Catherine de Bourg in Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice (1995) doesn’t resort to the cliche for Lady Catherine de Bourgh — she wears dark colors but the cut of her gowns are contemporary with that of the Bennets and the Bingleys. Yet the pig fiesta that was the Pride & Prejudice (2005) version put Judi Dench‘s Lady Catherine de Bourg in a 1770s-ish dress that’s earlier than the supposedly 1790s of everyone else.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Lady Catherine de Bourg in Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)

Another Lady Catherine (played by Penelope Keith), dressed in 1780s, so 20 years out of date? Plus, her dress doesn’t fit, WTFrock?!?

2013 Death Comes to Pemberley

You think that’s just a bodice wrinkle, but no…

2013 Death Comes to Pemberley

It’s a too-small gown worn split in the front in a shitty is attempt at a mock “zone” front gown, which is noticeable because the points that should meet neatly are splayed out sloppily.

Both of these productions are inventing stuff that Jane Austen didn’t have in mind. Lady Catherine is rich and snooty but not cluelessly old-fashioned. It’s a relatively new idea that she should be outdated — 19th-century editions of the novel showed Lady Catherine in clothes contemporary with Elizabeth Bennet.

Lady Catherine de Bourg as illustrated by C.E. Brock for the 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice

Lady Catherine de Bourg as illustrated by C.E. Brock for the 1895 edition of Pride and Prejudice

 

 

Sanditon (2019)

This series had so many problems, but this one really irritated me. Lady Denham (Anne Reid) was a stock villain in shitty old dresses that didn’t fit (with bad hair too).

Sanditon (2019)

Let’s try to cover up a dress that doesn’t fit with a sheer lace fichu!

Sanditon (2019)

Obvious view that Lady Denham is wearing a gown of a different era than the other women.

Sanditon (2019)

Then she goes even further back, say, 50 years! Without decent stays & no panniers, which adds to the look.

Sanditon (2019)

Bust support & hemming would help this (if it were in the right period).

Sanditon (2019)

But lordy, nothing can help this hot mess!

Attention, everyone costuming Regency dramas, not limited to but including Jane Austen! Here are some examples of what older women actually looked like in the 1800s-10s. Note the empire-waist gowns, filled-in necklines, and caps. Jazz it up with fancy fabrics and trims if the character is rich, but if these non-royal, relatively simple ladies can wear clothes of their times, so can fictional charaters!

1800-10s - older women

1801 – Portrait by Alexey Venetsianov (top left); 1805 – Lady in a Mob Cap by Benjamin Greenleaf (top right); 1807 – Christina Elisabeth Hjorth by Per Krafft the Younger (bottom left); 1812 – Anna Katherina Magdalena Krafft geb Donné by Johann Peter Krafft

 

 

Cranford (2007-2010)

Here’s one that doesn’t make sense AT ALL. The town of Cranford is chock filled with little old ladies, either spinsters or widows — the Jenkyns sisters, Matty (Judi Dench) and Deborah (Eileen Atkins), Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton), Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie), etc. The series is set in the early 1840s, and these ladies dress in a mix of 1830s and early 1840s fashions. They frequently shop for new lace, ribbons, and whatever new bits the town’s haberdashery might have to add to their wardrobes as well. It’s only the younger generation characters who wear distinctly up-to-date 1840s clothes.

Cranford (2007-2010)

Yet the rich lady of town, Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis), is stuck in clothes that are about 50 years out of date. Why is this the only way to show she doesn’t like change? All the other little old ladies of Cranford are shown as conservative and not fond of changes either, and their clothes show a realistic incorporation of slightly older styles.

Francesca Annis, Cranford (2007-2009)

Cranford (2007-2009)

While Jenny Bevan‘s costume designs here, as always, are always fantastic, I do think Lady Ludlow could be dressed more updated and still show her ways are set in stone. How about having her just a decade off so she could wear more of the wacky 1830s styles, still posh, and also removed from everyone else.

1830s - older women

1830 – Elisabeth Waldmüller, the artist’s mother, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (left); 1830 – Mette Sophie Fuglsang, the artist’s aunt by Wilhelm Bendz (center); 1834 – self portrait by Ursula Magdalena Reinheimer

 

 

Enchanted April (1991)

Pick out the stuffy old biddy! It’s not hard, she’s the only one stuck in the previous century’s fashion. Poor Joan Plowright :(

Enchanted April (1991)

Enchanted April (1991)

Joan Plowright, Enchanted April (1991)

This is full-on Edwardian, but the movie is set in the 1920s.

 

 

Somewhere in Time (1980)

The most egregious version of this cliche is when the 80ish-year-old version of this guy’s lover shows up in the 1970s wearing 1900s clothes. She hasn’t time-traveled, nope, she’s just aged. So y’know, she could have bought new clothes!

Somewhere in Time (1980)

Somewhere in Time (1980)

 

 

Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986)

Now we’re getting to some real people, and sure there aren’t always photos and evidence of how they looked in their elder years, it’s also the 20th century, when fashion changes faster, clothes are mass-produced, and people will notice when someone (even, and maybe more when, someone super-rich) dresses wildly out of date! Having Olivia de Havilland play the Dowager Empress wearing elaborate Edwardian evening gowns in the ’20s is such an affectation.

Olivia de Havilland, Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986)

Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986)

Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986)

Compare & contrast!

I scrounged up one photo of the Dowager Empress in exile towards the end of her life, and I’m spotting a dropped-waist on that velvet dress, plus her coat looks like a 1920s cocoon shape.

1924 - Empress Dowager Maria Feodorovna in Copenhagen

1924 – Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in Copenhagen

 

 

Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt in Little Gloria … Happy at Last (1982)

Bette Davis, we love you! But this is the same deal as the last flick — why would the matriarch of the richest family in the U.S. be stuck so far behind the times? There’s conservative dress and then there’s eccentric dress, and unless a person is known for the later, this is just weird.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Little Gloria (Vanderbilt) … Happy at Last (1982)

Alice Vanderbilt was very fashionable as a young woman, so it seems likely that she’d keep up with the times a smidge more than the TV biopic shows.

1925 - Alice Vanderbilt and Henry White - Bettmann / Getty Images

1925 – Alice Vanderbilt and Henry White – Bettmann / Getty Images

 

 

Downton Abbey (2010-2015, 2019)

Maggie Smith wore lovely 1930s gowns in Richard III (1995) and Gosford Park (2001), but the 1920s was a no-go when Downton got there over the course of six seasons (and a movie). OK, being old, sounding old, and therefore looking old is kind of the Dowager Countess‘ thing, so the costume works here from a design point of view. Still.

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

Dowager Countess, season 1, starts in 1912. Fine, whatevs, old lady.

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

Dowager Countess, season 2, softening a little?

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

Dowager Countess, season 6 — no significant change even though the show is now set in 1926!

Downton Abbey (2019)

Then in the movie, set in 1927, the Dowager Countess looks like she’s circled right back to 1912 again!

The contrast is obvious between the old-fashioned Countess and Cora’s nouveau riche American mother Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine). She’s allowed to wear 1920s fashions, which look great, btw!

Martha Levinson, Downton Abbey

Martha Levinson, Downton Abbey, season 3-4

Martha Levinson, Downton Abbey

A fabulous 1920s evening look too, including the updated hair.

 

 

Death on the Nile (1978)

Is Davis 100% fabulous here? YES. Do I want every part of her wardrobe? HELLS YEAH. But I am still compelled to point out that she’s wearing more Edwardian than 1930s. Like Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton, if the trope wasn’t overdone, I wouldn’t have to point it out.

Death on the Nile (1978)

Very 1910s, lovely, but old!

Death on the Nile (1978)

The droopy doily gown & the hair all look very previous century.

Death on the Nile (1978)

YAS QUEEN!! But just because you’re 70 doesn’t mean your clothes have to be 20-30 years out of date.

Not half so fabulous, but more realistic, these older women in 1930s movies blend right in with their contemporaries.

1930s - Marie Dressler

Marie Dressler, age 62, in a promo photo (left) & in the 1930 movie Chasing Rainbows (right).

1933 - Jessie Ralph in Cocktail Hour

Jessie Ralph (center), age 63, in the 1933 movie Cocktail Hour.

 

Ladies of a certain age, does this cliche bug you too?

 

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

42 Responses

  1. Katie O.

    I feel like I’ve read some books written in the 20’s and 30’s where a point is made of saying that a certain little old lady is like a relic of the Victorian era or something and they point out that she dresses old-fashioned. But even then it’s like “her hemlines are longer than normal” or “she uses too much lace” not “she has owned this dress for 40 years”.

    It’s a shame when tropes like this get overused to the point of absurdity. I thought that about the other trope article the other day – sometimes there is a valid reason to do something like that, but when it’s done constantly, it loses any meaning.

    Reply
    • Addie

      That makes way more sense than the alternative. Maybe she still wears many layered underwear because she doesn’t want to invest in modern radiators since the technology was new and dangerous when she was young, or she covers up more skin out of older modesty standards+a different understanding of comfort, or the way she wears her jewelry is more Victorian than Edwardian, or she prefers a corset to a bra+girdle.
      Or she adopts some new things and leaves some alone, which seems far and away the most common to me. Changing your hairstyle and adopting that newfangled 1890’s asymmetry dress style seems like an acceptable change even though you grew up in the froofy 1850’s, but you won’t get caught dead in a cycling suit. Or maybe you will and you’re a cool older lady storming into town on a velocipede- I’d love to see that sometime.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Exactly — a longer hem & generally dressing a bit more conservatively than the 20-year-olds is common for an older lady. But the extremes that movies/TV shows go thru are just wacky.

      Reply
  2. Tanya Stewart

    I turned 64 a week ago, and I will not wear conservative—or just plain frumpy—“old lady” clothes! Ageism, especially regarding older women, is still omnipresent, and needs to be retired—permanently. Why would anyone consider fine older actresses like Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and others only fit to wear the costuming of—and thereby promulgating society’s prejudice—“old ladies”—when they perform period roles or modern ones?

    Reply
  3. Addie

    I think the further back you go, the less the old-lady-doesn’t-update-clothes trope makes sense. Since most people would either be making their own clothes or at least have a tailor/seamstress if they’re richer, fashions were constantly being updated. If a dress is an investment (and it was) you’re going to re-tailor or at least re-accessorize it with the new fashion. Maybe not as quick a turnaround as more modern (read: 19th c.) fashion trends of spring vs. fall collections but if you have the sewing skill and want to appear put-together and upstanding, not standing out in a crowd with wacky old clothes is going to make sense. Likewise if you’re rich, you’re going to want to display that by accessorizing and changing the fashion. (Even if you’re differentiated by an outdated style, like wearing 18th-century pannier-having court gowns in the 1810’s, you interpret those styles with the 1810’s high waistline, 1810’s hair, etc.) People buying clothes and wearing them out without mending or tailoring is something that happens more when you have post-Industrial Revolution textile production and cloth isn’t so big of an investment.
    I feel like there are ways to do this well, and it is something that is somewhat grounded in real life, but it’s so overused to such an odd degree. I think one thing is that since clothes took so long to make you wouldn’t have as many of them total, so you wear them out a bit faster (but mend them more often) because you wear them more times in a row, so it’s far less likely that a jacket or shoes you bought/made 30 years ago would even still be around. I don’t know if that’s really true or is provable though.
    Granted my observations only work in an era when you have fashion trends that change noticeably every few years, so let’s put the early cutoff date in the 14th century.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yup, & there’s so many examples in museums of older gowns being recut into new fashions — 18th-c. robe a la francaises were recut into narrower empire styles, for example. An older lady of means wouldn’t just keep wearing the old gown, she’d have her modiste remake it to look less outdated.

      Reply
    • Aleko

      Actually clothes could last an amazingly long time, though not necessarily with the same person or in the same social class. Here’s a fascinating item:
      https://www.amazon.com/Dress-Revolution-Northern-Society-Textiles/dp/B00N297QV2
      This jacket-and-skirt combo was bought from a Seine riverboatman’s wife as a disguise by an aristo fleeing the French Revolution; it is made of a silk-cotton brocade dating from the first decade of the 18th century and had been remade multiple times. When new it must have been very high-end informal wear; seventy or so years later it belonged to a working-class woman (perhaps her Sunday best?) and was still in good sturdy condition.

      Reply
      • Addie

        That garment had one heck of a life story! I wonder then if my theory about wearing out quickly becomes more true with the boom of cheap factory-made clothing, or if it was ever true at all (and if so, to what extent).
        If your point about clothing lasting longer than expected is the case, the emphasis on mending and keeping up with the times might well be the sole causes of the conditions of clothes from this post-fashion pre-Industrial period. Specifically clothes having longer lives but each person having fewer clothes total. (Barring the upper-class tendency to switch clothes for different times of day/events)

        Reply
    • Anna Held

      In the 70s my mom worked in a costume shop, many of which were 19C gowns and suits used by theater groups. They all were worn out under the arms. No deodorant, less frequent bathing, and no shaving took their toll! You’ll get wear patterns where you expect on anything that’s worn regularly.

      Reply
  4. Michael McQuown

    I think this is a case of “you can’t fix stupid.” Someone — probably producers — got the idea that you have to identify older women by their clothes to make the point that they are part of the past. Most of the women I know of any age wear what’s comfortable, but not out of date.

    Reply
  5. Anna

    One of my grandmothers always dressed impeccably in whatever was up-to-date for women her age (in the 90s and early 2000s, I remember some very nice pantsuits). The other does not take to change very well, and one of her blouses that she wears frequently, I can’t remember her not having, so she’s had it at least since the mid-80s, but the style looks a little more late 70s. Her newer things area bit more up-to-date, but she hasn’t done fashionable for a good forty years (she’s 93).

    Reply
  6. Susan Pola Staples

    One of the reasons why I LOVE Bridgerton is that they didn’t frump Lady Danbury and Vicountess Bridgerton. They dressed with style and set the fashion.

    Reply
  7. NuitsdeYoung

    In early 20C, I think some older women took a while to get used to the shorter skirts in mid-late 1920s, but that didn’t mean not accessorising in a modern way, even if they were still wearing longer (1918-early 20s) hemlines.
    For elegant mature woman in High Society, I suggest looking at the wardrobe of Queen Maude of Norway in 1920s-30s. She was very elegant into her later years (died at 68).

    Reply
  8. Boxermom

    IIRC, in “The Cat’s Meow”, Joanna Lumley’s character was of a certain age. She didn’t try to look like one of the young chickies, but she looked so damn fashionable!

    Reply
  9. Marie McGowan-Irving

    I’m 51 and recently cleared out a load of things that had come into fashion again as they didn’t fit me any more. I could easily make the wardrobe of my 20s, 30s or even 40s but I just don’t want to. Some things I still like, narrower cut trousers, very long skirts, high necked blouses, I find ways to make them more up-to-date – for example, the bishop sleeve is having a fashion moment again and I really like them, so I wear them. Other things, not so much. Dungarees came back into fashion and I refused to wear them first time round!

    I think you care less what other people think and are more fixed in your ways, and you know what you like and what suits you. This doesn’t mean you just abandon any notion of fashion or style. It means you adapt.

    Even if you wear ‘classic’ styles the trouser suit of the 1980s is going to look pretty laughable in 2021 (unless I missed a memo and they’re back in fashion).

    I also think that in the past, being fashionable and well-dressed was more important than now as it informed people about your place in the heirarchy, your marital and working status, etc. What film makers in particular don’t see to get is that while there were not laws per se, there were certainly excuses the police (in the UK for sure) would find to arrest women who looked ‘disreputable’ for things like vagrancy and under prostitution laws. Now if you went full Rachel from Friends in your 40s and wandered to the shops, people might think you were a bit eccentric but you wouldn’t be getting a virginity test from a police surgeon! If you’d been wandering about, say, London in 1880 dressed in 1850s fashions, the balance of your mind would be called into question and a trip to a mental hospital might be insisted upon. And really, that’s what this trope does in a lot of cases – it makes the older women less credible by making them look like they have mental health issues, but everyone’s so nice for tolerating them rolleyes

    Royalty might fossilize a bit (Megan Duchess of Sussex in particular railed against some of the rules, like always wearing tights/ pantyhose, not showing your shoulders or cleavage in your wedding gown) but even so, they still look stylish within the limitations.

    I really hope that passing 50 doesn’t mean I have to stick to what came into fashion this decade because we’ve all spent most of it indoors in loungewear and it does not suit me!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      The point about fashion showing where you belonged in the social hierarchy (moreso in the past than now) is SO important. The older women characters that are shown in movies/TV shows as out of date in fashion as a trope of “they’re old-fashioned in their ideas” wouldn’t work in the period — they’d be considered at least a bit unstable & of unsound judgement, which really undercut some of these characters in their stories.

      Reply
      • Terry Towels

        I agree. I think old ladies in old clothes is just a lazy movie-maker way of saying “Stuck in the past”. Exceptions can be made, like Bridgeton, where the Queen is in the most magnificent clothes in history, emphasizing her fabulousness.

        Reply
  10. Margaret George

    Not precisely a historical observation, but the older women I knew at church tended to dress in a particular manner, They did it with care, and attention. Under no circumstances could I imagine a woman in her 20s dressing like them. But the sort of uniform that they adopted was ALSO definitely not the clothing of their own youths. I think that what is fashionable is, of course, influenced by your peer group, and it is possible for multiple peer groups to exist at once. So I think Frock Flick designers may be rightly getting that older woman and younger woman don’t dress in the exact same way. The mistake is not understanding where to find that older lady style because they may only be looking at fashion plates aimed at young woman.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Not the exact same way, certainly, & period images show that. Often older women dress more conservatively / more covered up — the Regency portraits I included here are a good example. These women’s clothes are in the same general lines as were popular at the time, darker / more subdued colors, fichus tucked around so there’s no cleavage, they’re wearing caps & simpler hairstyles, but they aren’t 20-50 years out of date. The 1995 Pride and Prejudice shows older women (Lady Catherine, Mrs. Bennet) in the same empire-gowns, but not as dewy, light, & filmy of attire as the young ladies. It can be done ;)

      Reply
  11. Miriam Lewis

    Pig fiesta, ha ha. That is my take on the 2005 P&P exactly. I think they spent their screenwriting money on the livestock.

    Reply
  12. Saraquill

    Reading this reminds me of two things. One, a passage from “The Age of Innocence” where Wharton describes posh New York society’s love of wearing outdated clothes. A pair of sisters in particular have been wearing their late mother’s things for the past 20 years.

    The second are costumers and costuming groups who look down on middle aged or older people wearing period fashionable attire. They don’t explain why it’s bad past “mutton dressed as lamb”

    Reply
  13. Nora

    I think that what the film portrayal of older women and fashion/style is missing is that before the emergence of youth culture (roughly in the late 1950s), adult women would’ve set the fashion. Not teenagers. Adults. In almost all of these examples the mature/older women are wealthy or stinking rich and living in society where they have an image and status to uphold. The obvious way to do that would be through fashion, not dressing in decades old styles, but showing that they have the money to follow the fashion.

    Reply
  14. Shashwat

    The dressed-back-in-time trope,in my opinion,doesn’t make sense for people who might have been making their clothes themselves.Still it would be more logical for the characters to recycle out of date fabrics and trimmings(like excessive lace on Regency apparel,overturned tight cuffs and centre front opening in Tudor era,Greek key in bustle era,lace chemisettes to go with 30s gowns,smooth satin for 40s etc)than literally wearing old clothes.Headwear is a great way to convey the idea,if they do it right.Of course it requires other characters to be dressed very accurately to evoke the difference,but productions are lazy.

    Reply
  15. Kristina

    Mrs. Musgrove in the 1995 Persuasion is wearing fashions that look like they belong in the early 1790s, at the very latest. The setting is explicitly 1814-1815.

    Reply
    • Lynelle Tarter

      She does wear more up-to-date clothes when they are in Bath, I believe. And none of the other older women wear out of date fashions (Lady Russell, Mrs Croft, Lady Darymple). I think it could be argued that she wore her older, more comfortable dresses while at home in the country. Or, in her case, it’s more of a way of showing the Musgroves as country people?

      Reply
      • Kristina

        It depends on what you mean by “up-to-date clothes.” Persuasion 1995 is the greatest Jane Austen adaptation of all time, with costuming that is bested only by the 2020 Emma, but it still contains an example of the trope mocked in this article. Yes, it was undoubtedly an artistic choice rather than a “mistake,” but I notice that Alexandra Byrne didn’t repeat it in Emma with the poverty-stricken Miss Bates, even though most costume designers probably would have.

        Reply
  16. Lily Lotus Rose

    Even though I’m by no means a costume expert, I spot this tired old trope and am annoyed by it. Minor Spoiler Alert: This trope was tweaked to weird effect at the end of Atonement in which an elderly Vanessa Redgrave was wearing the same style clothes, hairstyle, and maybe jewelry that her character wore as a pre-pubsescent girl (portrayed by Saorisie Ronan). I think one of those elements would have been sufficient to convey that her character became frozen in time based on the trauma of her past, kind of like Miss Havisham. But employing all three–dress, hairstyle, and jewelry–was overkill in my opinion.

    Reply
  17. Gill O

    Queen Mary and, in later life, the Queen Mum did look a bit frumpy, and their evening wear did sometimes seem like it was of a different era, in part because they used the tiaras and pearl chokers of their youth. But any woman of means would have had her dresses recut, not to look like the most extreme of fashions but something dignified. Even Queen Victoria changed her silhouette, even when hiding out in deepest mourning.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      And when you look at Queen Elizabeth II today, she may dress frumpy but she’s not wearing the same 1950s styles as she did when she ascended the throne.

      Reply
      • Ann

        Because her figure has changed – duh! I don’t agree with you on any of this – clothes were handmade and extremely expensive hence older ladies would more than likely have re-worn gowns from an earlier decade once they had found a cut that suited them. I‘m sure the mutton dressed as lamb saying was as true then as it is now. Older women don’t want to dress like their daughters, unless they’re Madonna.

        Reply
        • Aleko

          Yes, they were hand-made and extremely expensive – but virtually all the expense was in the material, which was (in the days before power looms) relatively speaking far more expensive than today, whereas even the most skilled dressmakers’ labour was relatively speaking dirt cheap. With this in mind, gowns were made in the full expectation that they would be repeatedly made over. For example, no shaping at all was put into the skirts of gowns: where the centre front and centre back of the gown bodice dipped to a point, or the front needed to be shorter than the back, the extra material was simply folded back, not cut off. So you could detach the skirt from the bodice, press it, and have a complete length and width of fabric to re-use.

          And several of the 18th-century gowns in the V&A, when first purchased by the museum, were found to have been altered for wear in the 1790s by detaching the skirt and reattaching it a couple of inches higher up on the bodice, to get the now-fashionable higher waistline. This one, for example: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O13815/gown-unknown/),But, significantly, the bodice itself wasn’t cut short or in any way tampered with; clearly the owner foresaw the possibility of waistlines coming down again and wanted to retain the option of altering the gown back. Which the V&A did – and I bet they’re sorry now, because it would have made for a really interesting example of historical garment adaptation if they had displayed it as donated.

          And as for minor adaptations to keep up with the mode, there’s the famous example of Mrs Papendiek’s repeated re-trimming of her puce satin:
          https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=od1EAQAAQBAJ&pg=PT230&lpg=PT230&dq=mrs+papendiek+puce+satin&source=bl&ots=X1XIfEK28M&sig=ACfU3U2DhkI_9J4qhmudATmlinjHgoThGA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjDz9TV38XuAhVFtXEKHWCdAGwQ6AEwA3oECAcQAg#v=onepage&q=mrs%20papendiek%20puce%20satin&f=false
          Charlotte Papendiek would have been around 47 when she first had that puce satin made, and kept revamping it for at least seven years.

          Reply
  18. Charity

    I agree it’s a trope intended to show that the previous generation is ‘out of touch’ with the ‘modern’ generation who is highlighted on the screen. But if Grandma is content to dress 20 years out of date, why would it only be 20 years? If a person really hated change, why not 40 years out of date? If my aunt has kept her beehive hairstyle from her favorite point in time (and she has), her teen years in the 60s, but updated her wardrobe, wouldn’t a more accurate representation be a modern-dressed older woman with an old-fashioned hairstyle? Or are we to believe that these rich old ladies who can afford to update their wardrobes insist on wearing something they bought 20 years ago until it wears out? And why hasn’t it?

    Sometimes I rather suspect it’s a cheap trick by the wardrobe department, who can’t be bothered with attempting to dress an older woman’s body — they have gowns available in that actress’ size from a previous generation and just decide to use it.

    Reply
    • Charity

      PS: Also meant to add that I first saw Anne Reid play a blood-sucking (literally with a straw) alien on Doctor Who, so I find it impossible to take her seriously in anything else at this point. The instant I hear her voice, I flash back onto the Moon and see her with the straw.

      Reply
  19. Aleko

    I have read (but I can’t remember where, sorry) that in the late 18th century there were some parts of Continental Europe where it was acceptable for ladies at a certain time of life to cease following fashion and continue to appear in decades-out-of-date styles, but that this was not the case in Britain. Here’s a quote culled from Norah Waugh, a letter written by an English lady in 1754:
    “One thing is new, which is, there is not such a thing as a decent old woman left, everybody curled their hair, shews their necks, and wears pink, but your humble servant. People who have covered their heads for fifty years now leave off their caps and think it becomes them.”

    Of course, that may have been more a question of what fashions were felt appropriate to different ages and marital statuses (unmarried girls vs married ladies vs widows/old ladies) than whether it was appropriate for older ladies to follow fashion at all.

    And there are scraps of evidence of women deliberately not following fashion. Here’s a silk jacket in the Snowshill Manor collection, which has been drawn and described by both Norah Waugh and Janet Arnold: http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1348744
    The silk cannot be earlier than the 1760s (flowered Spitalfields silk is very easy to date closely as there are so many surviving dated pattern-books), by which time those pleated cuffs were already about a decade out of vogue. That jacket was made for (or even by) a woman who could afford the finest fabrics but simply chose to use them for an outdated garment. Maybe she found the fashionable fan-shaped cuffs just trailed in her morning tea and buttered Sally Lunns?

    Reply
  20. Miriam

    Completely agree with you. Whilst older women (and men!) can often be seen to have their “own” peer-group style / interpretation of what is fashionable (e.g. longer skirts, higher necklines, darker colours) it generally is congruent with the current fashion.

    As for everyone saying “oh, but remember, clothes were so expensive back then!” in refutation. Yes, clothes were. However, what most people don’t realise is that it was in general the cloth that was expensive, not the sewing that turned it into a garment. The sewing was not at all the valuable part (indeed, was frequently the least valuable part) of the garment. Hence, re-trimming and re-making garments was an expected part of a garment’s lifecourse. Indeed, 18th C dresses in particular appear to have been sewn in a way to facilitate remaking. See: https://themodernmantuamaker.wordpress.com/2018/05/04/1-nightgown-new-made-a-practical-investigation-of-eighteenth-century-clothing-alteration-part-1/

    Reply
  21. Rose Hart

    Yes!!! This annoyed so much in Downton Abbey; good to see this trope highlighted. My mother and mother-in-law are 69 and 78, respectively, and they don’t dress in clothes from their youth in the 1960s through 1980s.

    Reply
  22. Vintage lady

    My grandma still wore 1950 style clothes in 1980. My sister hair are still like Melanie Griffith’s in Working Girl. I still consider “trending” some of my 90s clothes.
    So yes, sometimes we “old ladies” are a bit confused about what fashion is hehehehe

    Reply
  23. Beck Laxton

    Well, I fit this trope. I’m 55 and buy all my clothes secondhand, and I ignore fashion completely and buy what I like: narrow trousers with high waists; shirts that button all the way up; chunky woollen jumpers, and in summer very long dresses. I like natural fabrics and bright colours, and I never wear heels or make-up. So it does happen!

    Reply

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