Whether you’re someone who’s always loved clothes or could never be bothered to think about fashion, when you hit your middle years you might find that what used to work for your body simply doesn’t anymore.
When I reached my late 40s, I finally came to appreciate the joy of an elastic waistband, but I was also sad not to feel as confident in what I wore. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost the fun of shopping and getting dressed.
That’s when I enlisted the help of a professional stylist. I asked her to be brutally honest in assessing what was in my closet and to put together a few outfits that weren’t my usual palette of black, gray and blue. Her advice was invaluable — and eye-opening.
Here are some pro style tips to get you started on your wardrobe refresh:
Edit, edit, edit. Start by really thinking about where you’re going and what you’re doing, whether you want a style overhaul or just a few tweaks. “Are you at the office a lot? Do you work out a lot? Are you transitioning into retirement?” asks Rachel S. Dickerson, stylist and owner of Golden Style Consulting in Chicago. “That clarity will not only help you know what to buy,” she says, “but also what doesn’t need to stay in your closet.”
Do a five-minute visualization. “Women should start by understanding what they really do love to wear,” says Maegan Watson, founder and CEO of the Watson Style Group in Los Angeles.
Think back to a memorable outfit: Why did you love it? How did you feel? What colors were you wearing? “Use that as a filter for everything else in your closet,” she says.
“Many of our clients have a closet full of stuff that’s decades old. They may have felt great in an outfit, but they are a completely different size,” Watson explains. “I encourage them to ask, ‘what is my version of that now?’”
Balance the belly. If there’s one body part most midlife women would love to conceal, it’s a thickening middle. “Right-fitting pants are the best way to address that,” says Watson. Choose flat-front trousers with a little stretch. “The waist should be mid- to high-rise; that’s going to feel good and also help contour that area so you can still wear the tops and blouses that you love,” she adds.
Wrap blouses, softly draping peplums and tops with an empire waist are best. “Something that has light, delicate seaming above the natural waist will gently rest over the belly,” Watson says.
Add wisely. If your closet (like mine) is already packed with jeans, black pants, T-shirts and black dresses, you probably don’t need a lot to spice things up, say the experts. “I want my clients to have what I call an SSS: a style signature statement piece,” says Dickerson. For her, that means a great jacket. “I love my white bomber jacket; it expresses who I am. … Everyone should have that one piece that they feel amazing when they wear it.”
Watson agrees. “Every woman should have a leather or faux leather jacket and a tweed jacket that fits her body type well,” she says.
Look for wardrobe workhorses. Los Angeles stylist Alison Deyette likes her clients to have four key pieces that offer instant impact without a lot of money: a beautiful dress in a print; a wide black suede belt; a larger, more dramatic earring; and sneakers in a solid color. According to Deyette, “a cute pair of trainers that aren’t your gym sneakers can add a youthful energy to a dress or a pair of slim pants.”
Try a tailor. “I have taken many long-sleeved dresses and turned them into short-sleeved and sleeveless dresses,” says Deyette. “I took in a maxi dress and had the hem taken up, and now I’m wearing it much more often.” Consider whether something you love that still fits could have a second life for the small cost of some tailoring.
Consider what lies beneath. “One of the biggest things people forget about is getting a new bra. One of the best ways to fix the pieces you’re wearing is to fix what’s underneath,” Deyette says. “A good bra can lift you up and a wider band will smooth out back fat,” she explains, adding that she recommends clients choose black bras and nude bras closest to their skin tone: “Avoid white bras; they do nothing for you.”
Ask for help. While you might get sound style advice from a friend, a stylist with good credentials and plenty of experience will offer guidance according to your goals and personal style — not theirs. “Check a stylist’s testimonials, reviews and portfolio,” advises Dickerson, who, like most stylists, charges an hourly rate. “You want somebody you’re comfortable with who you allow to push you and also fits your budget.”
Give up thinking in absolutes. When Dickerson said to me, “A-line is not always the answer,” a light bulb went off: I don’t have to follow a bunch of rules, including the myth that comfort and fashion are mutually exclusive.
Or, as Watson puts it, “don’t assume you have to wear yoga pants and a tunic.” Midlife, she adds, is “an amazing time and an invitation to opt in and a make a new discovery about who you are and what you want and need. … Women are at a crossroads where they choose not to settle, not to be invisible. It’s easier to write yourself a permission slip now.”
For me, that has meant adding a pair of bright pink pants, a lushly embroidered kimono jacket and a sparkling aquamarine ring to my wardrobe. I may not wear them together — but I could.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Need a wardrobe refresh? Pro tips for women over 40