Expressing yourself with style: fashion over 40
“I’ve been dressing myself since I was four. Why is it suddenly so hard to do?”
Changing bodies, changing priorities, outdated notions of what’s “acceptable” to wear after 40 can all make it feel surprisingly difficult to dress yourself. And whether we like it or not, people do judge us on our appearance.
We can use that very human habit to our advantage, says Mellicia Marx, personal stylist and founder of the very cool Poplin Style Direction. Our clothes can be a tool to express ourselves and project the image we want to the world. You just have to know what that image is and how to achieve it.
What do you want your clothes to say about you?
Mellicia asks her clients for the three words they aspire to in their style – “confident, edgy, and feminine” or “boho, earthy, and relaxed,” whatever they may be – and from there they can build a closet that’s like a “boutique curated just for you.”
Sound good? Listen in to Mellicia’s ideas about fashion, body image, staying on budget, and feeling good enough to take on the world.
For more great information from Mellicia, check out her tips on how to buy a better bra.
Are you comfortable in your clothes, both in fit and in fashion? We’d love to hear about how you make buying decisions. Do you, as Mellicia suggests, buy the dress, then find an event to show it off? Or are you a “dress for what’s next” kind of person? Fill us in on Facebook!
Talking about confidence, style, and fashion over 40
Jill: Mellicia, you’re a personal stylist, and if anyone hasn’t visited your website already, it’s Poplin Style. Explain what you do for your clients.
Mellicia: Yeah, I have an amazing job. I’m very fortunate. Basically, I listen to a woman, and I help her express herself through her clothes, and make sure that she’s communicating what she wants to, and she is seen. That’s really important to me, is really seeing her. We mesh that with her budget, her body type, her lifestyle, and we put that all together into a strategy for her to help her get ready every day.
Jill: The thing that really pops out for me, in what you say, is you want a woman to be seen. Explain that a little bit more, because I think that’s a really important point, especially as women age.
Am I invisible? Being seen when you’re a 40+ woman
Mellicia: Right, that’s a really important to me, I think, that’s very true, in midlife, but really, kind of at all times in your life. What’s kind of funny, I was thinking about this and thinking about what we were going to talk about today. Really thinking about, you’re younger, and you don’t have the confidence, you’re trying to kind of figure out your body, and who you are, and what’s going on with the world. And you get a little more confidence, then it comes, and goes, and as things keep hitting you, and then at midlife, something happens, and you’re kind of coming and going with the confidence, and it ends up being really challenging for someone to feel like they’re able to communicate who they are, and to have the world see them and hear them, in a way. You know, like you finish a conversation and say, ‘Were you even listening to me?’ You know what I mean? So, being able to have an impact on the conversation without even talking, I think is pretty awesome and powerful, and I find that the better you feel, the more confident you are in what you’re saying.
Jill: I think the essence of fashion, in our clothing, and how we identify, happens at really an early age. When you sit down with a woman for the first time, how do you start to talk about her relationship with her appearance, and her fashion, as a result?
Defining your style
Mellicia: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s funny, because I have this very in-depth consultation process. We talk for about an hour, and I ask all these different questions. It’s funny, because a lot of the times, it will feel like I’m asking the same question, but I’m asking them in different ways, because it brings up different answers for people. And what’s also funny is sometimes I ask them a question, and I’m like, ‘It’s okay if you don’t have answers,’ but if I don’t ask, I don’t know what your answer is. I find that it’s pretty common for us to have this aspirational view, and it could be, with my client base, it’s not often a celebrity. If I ask them, ‘What celebrity do you identify with,’ they’re like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t follow that.’ But it’s often someone in their office, or a friend that they have, or a friend they say, ‘She always looks amazing, and I just want to look like that.’ It’s not necessarily the same clothes, but projecting the way she projects.
It’s more digging into those visuals to get that sense. You mentioned being younger, and having that how you connect with fashion, and really your presentation. I do find that this doesn’t come up in the initial conversations, but throughout the process, it’s very common that a lot of us have really internalized messages from someone in our life, at some point. I will have women where I’m like, ‘This is your body type,’ and they’re like, ‘No, no, no, I carry my weight here,’ and I’m like, ‘No, you don’t.’ It’s because their mom, or their friend, or their aunt, or someone told them when they were 14, that that’s where they carried their weight, and they can’t see themselves any differently.
I think it’s really important, I find, for us to challenge the assumptions we have about ourselves, and how we look in our bodies, but I also have found that that’s a real life lesson in how powerful our words are when we’re talking to someone else, and these kind of offhand comments can really stick with people for years.
Jill: What do you believe has given you this discerning eye for what works, or what doesn’t work, or the look that a woman wants to achieve? How does that flow into the honest conversation that you have with the women that you work with.
What makes a good stylist?
Mellicia: I have noticed, oftentimes, that when someone works in this industry, … before I started being a stylist, I actually interviewed several women who had worked with stylists. What did you like, and what didn’t you like, and what was that experience, and so on and so forth. A lot of times, it was, “I felt like I couldn’t identify with her, and I have kids, and she came in in these stilettos, and that’s not my life.”
All these things, they were really struggling in that first place. I find that, for me, I have been very fortunate to – my background is actually in philanthropy, and I spent 20 years or more speaking in offices around the world, like, all over the place. I’ve worked in public sector, private sector, nonprofit – I’ve been everywhere. That’s ended up being an incredible strength for me with this job, because whenever I go to meet someone and it’s like, ‘What do you do?’ And they’re kind of mumbling; I say, ‘Oh, I’ve been there. I know what that office culture is like, I know how people interface,’ it’s not like I’ve been hidden away in a retail environment, and am watching the latest trends. Which is not a bad thing, if someone is doing that; it’s just a different need.
For my clients, I’m able to relate to them in that, and also, see what they see. Additionally, I’m not projecting my style onto them, and I think that’s really important. I tell them from the very beginning, I’m not trying to dress you like me; I don’t dress all my clients like one another, so if you look on my site, you will see that they have very different styles. Really, what I’m trying to do, is figure out who you are, what you want to project, and help guide you and give you some filters, so you can do this on your own. I feel that providing filters makes a huge difference.
Essentially, with every client, and women can do this at home, you don’t have to be a client of mine. I say, think of three words, that, when you walk into a room full of strangers, and it should be aspirational, so not what you look like now, not what people would say about you today, but when you’re going to a room full of strangers, you look amazing, you love what you’re wearing, you look great. What kind of words would they use to describe your style? So once you have those words, we have what your body type is, and we use those as filters, every time you go shopping by yourself, every time I do something for you, every time you look at something in your closet, and if you’re trying to say, ‘I’m confident, and a little bit edgy, and feminine,’ and you’re like, ‘Okay, does this say that to you?’ Most of the time, I’m not actually telling them that that doesn’t say that. It’s really, does it say it to you? And they’re like, ‘Well, no.’ Okay, so do you want to have it? That’s really up to them to decide.
Sometimes, they’ll say, ‘But I love it!’ And then I’ll say, oh, you love it? Let’s talk about that. It’s not edgy or the things you’ve said. Are you telling me that those words actually aren’t accurate, and we want to add in something that’s kind of, boho, because that’s what I’m getting from this? Or, is this nostalgia, or a comfort zone thing? So, let’s look at that.
Really, it’s all driven by the client. I’m sort of just an impartial observer. There’s that about the process.
Where do I get the discerning eye? I have just always been like this. I’ve always been the kind of person that, of course I would know all my friend’s shoe sizes and mail them shoes, like, why wouldn’t I do that? And of course, when I go to a family event, every person there has been dressed by me, like, who doesn’t do that? And, sort of, discovering that, that’s not a standard thing is really helpful.
Jill: It’s a special talent, yeah. Why is it that women need help in finding the clothing that makes them feel the way they want to?
Why do women find personal style difficult to define?
Mellicia: I think there are several different scenarios. One, I think is very common, and speaks to your readers, too, is your body has changed. So, oftentimes, it’s when someone has had a baby, or their weight has changed, or in midlife, I have clients who are going through menopause, and all of a sudden, they’re super busty, and have never been before. They’re just, kinda perplexed. Another thing that happens is when, ‘Oh, I’ve always felt very stylish. I’ve always felt like I know what I’m doing, and then all of a sudden, I feel like I’m too old for those clothes, but I’m too young to wear these clothes, and I don’t know what to do,’ or, ‘I’ve become bored, or uninspired.’ And something I see a lot, because I’m based in Seattle, we have a very educated population, so a lot of the women here have prided themselves on not caring about clothes, and shoes, and handbags. It’s like, ‘I’m serious, I’m getting stuff done, I’m reading, I’m doing all these things,’ and then all of a sudden one day they’re like, ‘It turns out, I do care about how I look, and I never wanted to tell anyone this before, but now I have the means, and I need help, and I’m going to talk to my friends, and it turns out they don’t know how to do it either, because they’re all in the same situation.’
So, it ends up that I’ll style one person, and I’ll end up doing their whole team at work, or a whole group of them, and you see that it’s actually a very common struggle, more than you guessed. It’s also really fun for me, because it shows I don’t dress them all the same. I’ll dress five women working on the same team, and you don’t want to send them all the same jacket, you know what I mean?
Jill: Oftentimes, women in midlife; so you talked about working with groups of women, and their bodies are changing, as they head into midlife through menopause. We often think about, certain clothing isn’t “proper” for that age. How do you address that question; I bet you get that a lot?
What about dressing yourself in midlife?
Mellicia: I do get it a lot, because I get the words that people say, ‘I want to be edgy, confident, whatever,’ and then the word “age appropriate” comes up a lot. So, what does that mean to me? I think about that a lot. I have this amazing client, and she is in her 60s, and she works with rock musicians, she’s a voice coach. As she gets older, things change, and then she’s like, ‘But I’m working with rock stars, I’m not this old person, what do I do?’ So, finding that happy medium…. I think, I mean, there are some things that are just inappropriate, but that may be because of age or maybe not, but that’s more inappropriate to the situation. In general, I think the bigger problem is that women, I don’t know if men do this, but I really see it with women, is that there’s this whole obsession with the age appropriateness; ‘Am I too old for this?’ It’s like, we have a long way to go, and if you’re too old at this age, and you’ve got another how-ever-many years, what are you going to wear then?
So I think a lot about this. So, I got my nose pierced a couple weeks ago with my nieces and nephews, because I’m a good role model. But it was a really funny conversation I had with someone after, like, I’m 43 years old, and I’m getting my nose pierced. I think the standard thought on that, is maybe that’s a little too old for something like that. Well, I could be alive another 30-40 years. Am I going to be 60, and wish I had really done that? Kind of like, looking back and saying, ‘I wish I’d had another baby,’ and you can’t do it at some point. I think a lot of times, people … we think we’re too old, or we think we’re too heavy, or we think we’re showing something we shouldn’t be showing. And that’s not the case; it’s all our own conversations. I think something that can be really helpful for an individual woman is to look back at photos of herself, and try, if she keeps a journal or something, to see how she viewed herself at that time. It’s often very flawed, like, ‘I’m a little heavy,’ and you look back and go, ‘Wow, I looked amazing.’ So, you know … embrace it.
Jill: That’s amazing how you look back at something, and when you look at yourself, you think you look so much better than you did at the time. Or you say, ‘What was I thinking with that hair?!’
Mellicia: But you looked awesome, and at that time, you know what I mean? That’s a really key point about style, and I had this conversation with people a lot. They’re like, ‘Classic,’ and I’m like okay, there are more looks that are classic and timeless, but is it so wrong to be of the era you live in? You may decide that you don’t want to be in that, and that’s a totally valid choice, but choose it. Don’t be afraid to embrace whatever it is.
Jill: It also sounds like a lot of your work is all about self expression vs. doing what you think others think you should be doing, or doing what’s “right or wrong.” How do you break that mindset around being confident in your own self expression, and dressing that way, vs. dressing in the way others think you should dress?
Mellicia: Right, I think that’s important, but I think part of that, too, is also being aware of how other people interpret what you’re wearing. You can’t just be like, ‘I love this! Who cares what people think?’ People are making judgements, and that’s happening. You want to be in control of the judgments that they’re making, so if you have the power to influence someone in that way, why wouldn’t you?
Jill: How about you as a professional? Have you ever run into a client that you didn’t feel you were a good fit for? What kind of chemistry do you have to have with the women you work with?
Mellicia: You know what’s funny? That’s only happened twice, in all the years. I do think it’s really important that we connect with each other. You know what’s really funny? I always tell people that the consultation is really just an hour where the woman is trying to decide if she can get naked in front of me. Once she’s comfortable, then we move forward. That’s all it is. [Laughter]
Jill: Your clients probably put so much trust in you, so you have to have some sort of relationship where that trust can exist. What are some specific things that you kind of, tell women, broadly, that they should keep in mind as they shop? Especially if they’re on a budget. Can you go through those?
Mellicia: Yes, of course. To me, the basis of everything I do is those style keywords. Developing those for yourself, either with me, or by yourself. Knowing your body type, and how to dress for that body type. So, once you have those keywords, then every time you walk in, once you know how to dress your body type, every time you walk in a store, things are kind of filtered for you. If it doesn’t communicate any of those words, and it’s not flattering for your body, you don’t even need to pick it up. You just keep on moving. So that will make it so you have significantly fewer things that you try on, in the first place. That’s going to make for a much better experience.
The things I have people do, is I have people think of someone in their professional life, that has an impact on their future and their career. Think of a very specific person, not just ‘somebody.’ Then, I find a lot of times, people will be willing to do more, to go to work, or to go to wherever, but, ‘Oh, this is just at home. This is just this Saturday.’ Whatever. So I say to them, if you got up late on a Sunday, you’re running to the market to get milk, and you happen to run into that person wearing this, how would you feel? And if you’re like, ‘I feel great,’ then it’s fine. So, I think that’s a great Litmus test, and it’s also really helpful to find one piece in your closet that you really love and feel amazing in. Everything you buy needs to make you feel as good as that makes you feel. Why would you buy something new that’s not as great as something you already have?
Jill: That’s a great mindset, especially when you start to fall into this habit of, ‘It’s on sale, it’s a really good deal.’ Let’s talk about money and budget. Do you work – how do you – do you work with clients on an unlimited budget, or how do you help your clients also think about budget?
Fashion on a budget
Mellicia: I definitely work with people with a budget, of all levels. It’s actually really fun for me. I tell people from the very beginning, I am as comfortable at Forever 21 and H&M as I am at Barney’s and Beyond and there’s no judgement here. What matters to me, is that we’re honest with each other, because I never want to send something that makes you feel like, ‘Oh god, I can’t handle that, I can’t afford that,’ because this experience should be fun, and empowering, and make you feel good. If there’s a moment when you start to not feel good, then we’re not in a win. So, we talk very openly about that. I also think it’s really important to – part of being seen is respecting your values. I think it’s really important to respect who you are, and for me to respect who you are. Maybe you’re someone who’s really into minimalism, maybe you don’t believe in buying new things. Maybe you want to focus your money more on your kids’ education; you think that’s more important with your money; that’s great. There are ways to do that.
I have a lot of clients where we go thrift store shopping, we never go to a new store, and I get the tailor to come over, and we just transform things, and that can save a ton of money, and make you feel amazing.
I also think it’s great to know where you, if your weight fluctuates, if you know where it fluctuates, then to shop accordingly. For instance, it’s very common for women to be, I call it the triangle body shape, or the pear shape where you carry your weight on the bottom. If you carry your weight on the bottom, and your weight goes up and down, that means that your jeans maybe won’t fit next month, that fit now, or throughout the month. Don’t spend all your money on something that is not going to fit in a few weeks. Think about how your body will change, and invest your money in things that are going to work for that.
Jill: What if someone’s not local? Do you work with women that aren’t local?
Mellicia: Yeah, that’s a great question. Actually, it’s kind of this beautiful time that we’re talking about all of this. What’s happened to me, over the years, is that I feel like I discovered how many women really need this more than I think I anticipated at the beginning. I find that I’m sort of maxed out, where I can’t get to all of the people, then I have this big waitlist, then I feel badly, because people are waiting, and I want to help them, and it’s kind of a whole thing. Also, because, as part of my brand, but also me as a person, I believe very strongly in work/life balance. I have a family, and I do a ton of volunteer work. So, finding the way to integrate all of those things means that I can’t be working all the time, regardless of how meaningful that is.
Instead, I’ve shifted the business to have it go toward offering those resources to the masses as opposed to one on one clients locally, which has made a big difference for me. I do a lot on the blog, I have a really strong blog community. Same with my newsletter, so people can engage with me that way. On Pinterest, I have are different boards for their body types, and I have new pieces going up all the time, so they can just shop those. And then, I have books that are going to be coming out in the next couple of months, and there will be a book on each body type, and just this exhaustive description of how to dress for your body type. Then, once you’re understanding what your keywords are, and you know your body type, you have the ability to move forward on your own.
Since the very beginning, I’ve worked very hard to build a community, as opposed to just having clients; I always tell them, “once a client, always a client,” so it’s been really nice for me, I think, and nice for them.
Fashion resources from Mellicia
Jill: You mentioned a couple resources there. How do people find your blog, and I think you also said the Pinterest page. Is it private, or is it public? What parts of private, and what parts are public?
Mellicia: It’s all public, and it’s all … PoplinStyle.com is my website, and then you can get to everything from the website. Pinterest, also, it’s PoplinStyle on Pinterest also, and then the blog is on the website, so it’s all really easy. When people sign up in the first place for the newsletter, they get six weeks of style tips that come directly to their inbox. It kind of kicks you off with a lot of the details; how to shop for shoes, bras, these are the kind of things to take care of, and all that kind of stuff.
Jill: I, for one, have gone out to look at your Instagram, and everything, and it’s beautiful. It’s like a work of art, and so, your eye for fashion and the kinds of women you’re working with, it’s so apparent there. I think, wow, sign up for the newsletter; you get six weeks of tips?
Mellicia: Yep, six weeks to start you off, and I send out a newsletter anyway, so there’s – I try very much to be very respectful of people, so I’m not just sending them stuff all the time. We’re about to launch a giveaway; a $300 gift card for Universal Standard, which is one of my favorite brands; they do size 10 and up, and I love them. I do a lot of giveaways to my readers.
Jill: Is there any question, as we start to wind this down, that I haven’t asked you, that you think every woman should know, or you get a lot from with the women you work around their fashion, their appearance, just projecting the kind of image they want to project?
Mellicia: I think a kind of, part of it, I know it’s uncomfortable, and sometimes it can be scary, but don’t be afraid to admit to yourself, what you wish you looked like, or what you wish you were projecting, and taking steps to get there. I’ve provided a lot of online resources to help you get there, but …
I have this client of mine; so beautiful. Her husband had purchased the package as a gift for her, and it took her two years to redeem the package. I know! So, I bumped her ahead of the waitlist; because, well, you paid for it a long time ago! She’s a doctor, and she was in this sort of weird, okay…when people get a gift, they’re a bit more tentative; even if they want it, they haven’t gotten to the headspace to be able to say out loud, ‘I want to do this, and it’s something that’s a struggle for me.’ We get to that place, and we do the closet edit, and the closet edit can be a really emotional experience for people. I often – at the beginning I don’t think I realized how intense that is for someone, because you form a bond with your clothes. You remember where you bought them, or how it made you feel. Oftentimes, there’s a lot of baggage there too, you’re putting things on to hide yourself, or because you think it’s appropriate, or you’re afraid that your family won’t approve. There’s all these things tied up in our clothes.
So, to go through that is pretty intense. She was pretty resistant; she was great, but she was resistant, which doesn’t happen that often to me. So, I was kind of like, okay, let’s see how it goes, everybody’s personality is different. Then she sent this beautiful email that night, and she said, ‘This was a really transformational day, and I appreciated your patience,’ but then she said, ‘I always tell my daughters to embrace the growth mindset, and I realize that I need to do that with fashion and style, and I need to be able to do that.’ I think women, especially professional women, we read all these things: the ‘growth mindset’ is the buzzword right now, and if you have kids, that’s something that’s coming up. There’s all these things we apply to all these other aspects of our lives, and we’re willing to put that time into our relationships or our kids, or our career, or with our house, and ways we want to improve, and we’re afraid to look in the mirror and say, ‘what is it I want and how hard is it to get there?’
Going shopping in your own house
Jill: Even if there’s a piece of clothing you always wanted to get back into, so many people keep those around as a motivator. How do you address that?
Mellicia: My general feeling is, everything in your closet, it should fit right now, it should make you feel amazing, it should communicate what your style is, and it should be functional for your life. If it’s not those things, it should not be in your closet. You should lay in bed, you should roll over, you should look at your closet, and it should be like a boutique curated just for you, and everything’s color coordinated, and it makes you so happy, and you just can’t wait to put it on, and you know? If you’re not feeling that way, there are things in there that shouldn’t be in there. Even if you only have 20 things; if they’re all a success, you’re going to feel a whole lot better each day.
The pieces that are too small, but you love them, and they communicate your style, and you can’t wait till someday to wear this again? That’s fine. Put them all together, and put them somewhere else in your house, that you don’t see them, and that’s your too-small pile. Then you have the things you love, and they’re amazing, and you can’t part with them, but they’re too big? That’s fine. You put them somewhere else in your house, and that’s your too-big pile. And let me just tell you, when your weight fluctuates, and you feel like you could fit into those, you go shopping in your other closet, and you find these too small things, it’s a revelation. But, if you find that you’re never going in that closet, then after a while, you get rid of that box and never look in it again.
You don’t want to have that conversation with yourself every day. You don’t ever want to wear something that is digging into your waist, let’s say, because that’s probably where you carry your weight, which is why your jeans, or your tights are digging in. Every day, whenever you adjust that, you’re having this self talk, telling you, ‘I need to lose weight, these haven’t worked out,’ or however your body has changed.
You’re not the problem. The clothes are the problem. Someone’s job is to make clothes for you. If they didn’t make the right clothes, they have failed. You have not failed. This is not on you. So, you want to just be sure that you’re only wearing things that make you feel good, and if something doesn’t fit, and it’s digging into you, it’s not making you feel good. And if you’re looking in your closet every day and seeing something that makes you feel like you failed in some way, that needs to go.
One thing I hear all the time is, ‘I love that,” Someone will go shopping and say, ‘look at that dress, or jumpsuit, but I don’t have anywhere to wear that.’ I feel very strongly about this, that you buy the dress to create the occasion. You do not buy the occasion, like, have the occasion and go find a dress. If you think this is amazing and it’s some crazy formal gown, or a cocktail dress, or something that you have no reason, then you go home, you get on the Internet, and you find somewhere you need to go. If you let that drive your life, things are going to be so much more interesting. You’re going to end up doing things you never thought you’d do, or going places you never thought you’d go, just because of the clothing choices you’ve made. It’s another way to not let fear hold you back, and embrace what you see. If you love it, do it, and find a place that you’re going to feel comfortable wearing it, and also, if you’re going to take any fashion risks, do them in a safe space. Do them with someone you know is going to be supportive of you, and say nice things to you, and don’t start out on a journey going out of your comfort zone in a room full of people that you know are going to criticize you.
Jill: Or, do it in an anonymous place, like, going to New York City, you can kind of reinvent yourself because you’re in amongst a lot of strangers.
Mellicia: It’s true. I have a client who, they’d moved here, they live downtown, and she’s working from home remotely. That’s very common, because it’s – everybody’s moving here. And I said, ‘How’s it going with the clothes?’ I was checking in, yada yada, it’s been a few weeks. She was like, ‘You know, I haven’t really ended up wearing that many things; I’ve just been at home, so, you know,’ and I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ And it’s because they don’t have any friends yet, and I told her, ‘This is what you do. You put on those new Alexander Wang boots, and you go, and you just walk downtown for 15 minutes, and I guarantee you two people will comment on them.’ And she called me back and said, ‘It worked! It happened!’ And I’m like, ‘That’s right!’ Because you’re able to have interactions with people.
You know, clothes can make you happy. They can make people around you happy, and it’s a nice way to break the ice. You use them as tools to get you to the life you want.
Jill: That’s great. Thank you, Mellicia, this has been fantastic. I walk away with this with just a different mental model about the way I think of my own fashion, and what my fashion words are, and if I believe what I have in my closet is really exemplifying that. So, thank you, I took away so much from this, personally, and I can’t wait to sign up for the newsletter, and get my six weeks of style tips.
Mellicia: Thank you so much, it was nice talking with you.
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