“You’re wearing that?” my friend Rachel asks me.
She’s come to pick me up, and we’re standing in the foyer of my house. I look down at myself, feeling as if I’m 15 and my mother is calling me out on wearing something skimpy, but it’s January, in Wisconsin, and I’m wearing jeans and a fitted black merino wool turtleneck and boots, and now I’m the mother of an almost 15-year-old. Skimpiness can’t be the problem.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“What if you have a” —she leans close to me, although no one else is around — "hot flash?”
I laugh. “I don’t have those,” I say.
Her eyes widen. Rachel is 48. It’s only now that I notice she’s wearing a tank top underneath a flowy cardigan underneath her winter coat, which is unzipped. “Aren’t you freezing?”
“Believe me,” she says dramatically, “no, I’m not.”
Flash forward to one year later, and I know exactly what Rachel meant.
Menopause is defined by a woman’s not having had her period for one year. Perimenopause is the time before that, when estrogen declines, one’s periods become irregular, and symptoms such as hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia, and weight gain around the mid-section can set in; perimenopause typically lasts around four years, but can last up to 10.
Thus, if women in their 40s and 50s didn’t have enough to think about when getting dressed before they experienced perimenopause — appearing professional at work, finding clothes that fit well, feeling comfortable, and so on — many of these women can now add two more factors to their list: accounting for hot flashes, and a meno-pot. (A meno-pot is the fun name for that stubborn "spare tire" pot belly that many women begin to develop around this time of life.)
But there is hope. After interviewing numerous women, perusing fashion blogs and Instagram feeds, and searching (fruitlessly, I might add) for photographs of middle-aged celebrities with telltale flushed cheeks or belly bulges (which has led me to believe that no celebrity has ever gone through menopause; I now will personally not be at all surprised if Helen Mirren or Tina Turner announce their pregnancies at any time), I have come up with the following fashion tips for perimenopausal women who want to be comfortable, look cute, and be cool (in both senses of the word).
1. Dress in layers.
As my friend Rachel demonstrated, dressing in layers (especially in seasonal climates) is essential. Her shock over my fitted wool turtleneck was real: No perimenopausal woman would start with that as a first layer; another friend of mine says she hasn’t worn anything she’s had to pull over her head in ten years. Start with a tank top, or a short-sleeved tee-shirt, or a thin cotton long-sleeved shirt. Add from there.
2. Choose fabrics wisely.
And speaking of cotton: wear natural fabrics. When you have a hot flash, you’re going to sweat. When you sweat, you’re going to want to be wearing cotton, linen, rayon — fabric that “breathes,” so you can, too.
3. Flowy can be functional.
Confession: I have never worn clothing by Eileen Fisher. I’m just not that into flowy as a personal style. (Nor do I have $498 to spend on an “artisanal brushstroke silk cap-sleeve tunic,” for example.) But some middle-aged women swear by the company’s iconic, well, flowy lines, natural (often organic) fabrics, muted (often undyed) colors, and now, I can truly see why. Not only do these clothes undoubtedly look lovely on “women of a certain age,” but I can now understand that with their elastic waistbands, drapey skirts, boxy blouses, and natural fabrics, they are absolutely made for women with meno-pots having hot flashes. (And one friend assures me the clothes travel beautifully as well.)
4. Don't fear skirts and dresses.
Skirts and dresses (especially stretchy dresses, which one friend describes as “basically big t-shirts if you think about it”) are cool, comfortable, and stylish. Some women in seasonal climates wear them year-round with tights or, for a more casual look and more comfortable feel, with high-waisted leggings.
5. Embrace yoga pants, if you're willing.
The philosophical argument over whether or not yoga pants are pants is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, for some women, yoga pants are wonderful for yoga (and for writing articles on their laptops); and for other women, yoga pants are wonderful pretty much every second of every day. The latter camp seems to increase in number during peri/menopause. Perhaps it’s the hot flashes; most yoga pants, unlike leggings, flare out at the ankles, creating ventilation. Perhaps it’s the stretchiness in the mid-section. Perhaps it’s just that yoga pants are so darned comfortable, and if they’re a good brand, made from a nice, thick material, and if they’re worn with the right top and sweater, they can make one look stylish and put-together. (Or maybe it’s just that middle-aged women — as the saying more or less goes — no longer “give a duck” if other people think yoga pants aren’t pants!)
6. Grab a jacket...
Many women going through perimenopause and menopause work outside the home, and when tank tops and flowy sweaters don’t cut it at the workplace, jackets and blazers are essential. These can be the top layer of a workplace outfit and can be easily disrobed; or they can dress up the aforementioned yoga pants. And if you live in a warmer climate, or it’s a warmer month, or if you just think that a wool blazer or a leather motorcycle jacket (wait—where do you work?) sound awfully hot, even for a top layer, many women find that blazers and jackets in linen, cotton, and flax are practical as well as chic.
7. ...Or a scarf.
Women in this age group often have a thing/obsession/whatever about their necks. Perhaps this is the reason we see so many women over 40 wearing scarves. Or perhaps these accessories keep us warm in between hot flashes but are easy to take off when, as one writer friend puts it, we become “enraged with heat.” Sharon Mesmer, 58, of Brooklyn has found another use for them: “If you’ve got a really long scarf, you can jettison your sweater during a ‘power surge,’ and the scarf can still hide your belly bulge!” Pretty genius, actually.
8. Get a new bra.
If you haven’t gone to a real bricks-and-mortar department or lingerie store and had yourself measured for a NEW BRA in the last six months to a year, do so now. (Or tomorrow. But soon.) Eighty percent of women are wearing the wrong size bra, and it makes an enormous difference. You don’t know it, but you are probably walking around right now like a stooped-over babushka when you could be walking around like a sexy goddess, and all that’s keeping you from going from here to there is a really friendly woman with a tape measure and a commission, some overpriced material, and a fantastic fit. I could talk about many other undergarments here — sure, you know about Spanx, but did you know about arm tights? — but I’ll save that for another time.
9. Wear white.
A perk of menopause (if not perimenopause, when one’s irregular periods can come out of the blue, at any time, just as if one were 15 all over again) is that one can wear white jeans, white skirts, white everything: One friend even wears white bikinis. Imagine!
10. Say hello to "menocore."
In July 2017, fashion editor Harling Ross of Man Repeller wrote an article about a new fashion style she coined menocore, basing it on Diane Keaton's character in Something’s Gotta Give, on middle-aged women on a beach vacation, on retired massage therapists, on her and her friends’ moms — in other words, it’s based on stylish women going through menopause. The aesthetic is drawstring linen pants, button-down shirts, and breezy skirts in either head-to-toe white and ecru, or mismatched bright colors (or what one friend calls “looking like a parrot.”) As a part-time college professor of English and Creative Writing, I am constantly learning from 20-somethings, but the irony of learning how to dress like a middle-aged woman from one while wearing skinny Free People jeans, a striped-Forever 21 tee, and a vintage cardigan I could take on and off all day was not lost on me.
11. Keep a sense of humor.
Maybe that’s why the most important thing to wear is a sense of humor. Julia Lee Barclay-Morton, 54, of New York City, says that she wears layers, long cardigans, tunic-length anything, a streak of teal blue in her hair to "cheer her up," and a sense of humor. She describes hot flashes as being “basically like living in NYC with steam heat radiators that blast on periodically,” and that’s about as good of a description I’ve heard as any. It’s important for us to keep a sense of humor during this time, and also to remain true to our personal style. If drawstring pants and boxy tops aren’t your thing, you shouldn’t wear them just because you’re going through menopause, no matter how cool and practical they seem. As Accidental Icon Lyn Slater, 64, says, “Age is irrelevant. My biggest piece of advice is to spend time really knowing who you are and then thinking about clothes as expressing that... I don’t consider age when I’m getting dressed.”
And perhaps that’s the best piece of fashion advice anyone can give. Well, that and dressing in layers.
This article was written by Kelly Dwyer, a novelist, playwright, and freelance writer. Visit her website.