Wanted: fashion for the 'mature' woman

'I have nothing to wear" may be the world's oldest lament, traceable all the way back to that fig-leafed couple in the Garden of Eden. These days, the complaint can sound outdated, given the abundance of clothing available everywhere. But for some midlife and older women, dressing stylishly remains a challenge as designers relentlessly court the young. Ask a random sampling of women in their late 40s and beyond about shopping for clothes, and the floodgates open. It's confession time.

"I'm 48 with a 12-year-old daughter," says a publicist in Oklahoma City. "I'd like to look like I've got a few miles left in me without looking like I raided my daughter's closet." With the exception of a few designers, she adds, "the clothing industry just doesn't get it."

A New Yorker in her late 40s says, "I'm 5 ft., 2 in., and no longer the skinny young thing I was in my 20s. I don't want to wear low-slung jeans, and I don't want those 'Sex in the City' long pointed-toe shoes. But I don't want to look like a dowdy frump, either."

"Frumpy," "dowdy," "matronly." The dreaded words sum up everything these professional women don't want to be.

A woman in Columbus, Ohio, outlines her frustrations. "Manufacturers that do target 'middle-aged' women must believe that they want appliqués, beads, sequins, and embroidery on their clothes," she says. "Color palettes tend to an unfashionable range of jewel tones or pastels. I am constantly amazed by the size bias from buyers. Who is buying all the size 0 and 2s that they have on their racks? They usually don't have a size 14 or 16."

But a size-2 customer in her 50s from Kansas City, Mo., finds the opposite challenge: plenty of clothes for larger women, but not much for those who are small. "Petites are outrageous," she says. "I am not interested in puffed sleeves and bows. Much of the available clothing right now - especially the boho chic styles - makes me feel like I'm going to a costume party dressed as myself in the 1960s. It's a big problem when you can't find simple, elegant, well-cut clothing."

The good news is that retailers are starting to pay attention. Following the lead of Chico's, J. Jill, Eileen Fisher, and Talbots, which cater to a range of ages and sizes, the Gap is launching a chain called Forth & Towne. Its target audience is women 35 and up, a group it calls "mature" and "underserved."

Women over 35 will make up the largest consumer segment by 2010, according to a Forth & Towne spokeswoman. Already, purchases by those in this category account for 39 percent of all women's apparel expenditures. They also have the highest average income of any age group of women.

The opening of the stores - four in Illinois and one in New York - is producing generally enthusiastic comments on blogs. But the chain's description of its customers as "mature" leaves some women wondering: How did they pick 35 as the starting target age? As one blogger writes, "I am past 35 and wear trendy stuff. I don't want old woman's clothes. That's for the 50+ crowd." Adds another blogger in her 40s: "Most 'women's' fashions are geared toward the older generation, and I'm not ready to dress like a grandmother."

But here's the secret designers need to understand: The 50+ crowd doesn't want to dress like stereotypical grandmothers either. As more women hold jobs and stay in the workforce longer, they need stylish, well- fitting clothes. They also have cash to spend.

Some progress is already evident. One 65-year-old plus-size shopper describes herself as "short and round and delighted at the wonderful selection of clothes available to me as a mature and fashionable woman."

More change may be coming. Natalie Weathers, a professor of fashion apparel management at Philadelphia University, expects more stores to mimic Forth & Towne. "Other retailers are waiting to see how Forth & Towne does before they stick their necks out," she says. "They'll find out what works, and they'll build on that."

In a youth-oriented fashion world, shoppers who weren't born yesterday look forward to the time when they'll no longer feel quite so invisible and forgotten in stores. They're waiting eagerly, if a bit impatiently, to find a better match between the styles on the rack and the clothes they want on their back - for the day when they can finally say, "I have plenty to wear."

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