In the current day of few to no rules in fashion, is there such a thing as age appropriate dressing? Does reaching a certain age dictate what you should or should not wear? And just who says what’s appropriate?

Women themselves do, says Ellen Davis, a Senior Director at the National Retail Federation, a trade organization. “Women are changing fashion to make what they are currently wearing become age appropriate,” she reports.

“Take today’s Baby Boomer, for example. She doesn’t want to be pushed into the styles her mother wore as she aged; she wants her individualized style to stand out.”

Q.24 Planned Changes In Apparel Purchases – Next 3 Months (2007)
  Female 16-24 25-34 35-55 56-70
More 50% 57% 54% 45% 37%
Less 38% 32% 33% 42% 49%
Same 11% 10% 12% 12% 12%

Gabrielle Redford, a features editor with AARP The Magazine, agrees.”There are certainly fewer rules today, but there are guidelines that a woman of any age keeps in the back of her mind. She is dressing in a way that makes her most comfortable, not what she thinks she is supposed to be wearing for her age.”

JC Penney, the multi-channel retailer, takes a more holistic approach to fashion and trends. Says Kate Parkhouse, a public relations manager with JC Penney, “We have learned that our customers do not shop by age, but rather by lifestyle.” Parkhouse adds, “We cater to our customers’ style needs through lifestyle merchandising by understanding the many differences across each of our major customer groups, defining the style preference of each group, and ensuring we have clearly defined assortments to address those preferences. ” Parkhouse highlights that their customers fall into one of four categories of Classic, Tailored, Modern or Trendy.

The tendency to experiment with newer fashions and trends ebb with time, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle MonitorTM. While 57% of female respondents aged 16 to 24 stated they planned changes in their wardrobes over the next three months, that number declined to 54% among women aged 25 to 34, to 45% aged 35 to 55 and to 37% aged 56 to 70.

That’s not to say that today’s more experienced consumer is disinterested in fashion; almost three in five consumers over the age of 35 told the Monitor that they either “liked,” “loved” or “didn’t mind” shopping for clothing. A scant 8% said that they did not like apparel shopping.

“This consumer is less concerned about what the crowd thinks and more about what she thinks,” says Brent Green, founder of an eponymous consultancy that specializes in marketing to Baby Boomers. “She has her own sense of fashion, is culturally conscious and takes her cues from what she sees in stores but makes sure she stays true to who she is.”

“Retailers are doing a good job of adapting to the evolving tastes of women and are serving up clothing that is stylish but appropriate and to her taste,” observes Davis, the trade executive. “We are seeing new brands that address the fashion needs of the aging consumer with attention to her changing body proportions.”

One such brand is Not Your Daughter’s Jeans, maker of Tummy Tuck, a line of denim and corduroy pants that promises to simultaneously camouflage and flatter. Founder Lisa Ruder Sandal maintains, “Jeans are hip and they make women feel good.” They certainly do; only one in ten female respondents told the Monitor that “jeans were in her past and not her future.” “I started the business because there was a niche; there were women who weren’t being addressed and who wanted jeans that fit,” Ruder Sandal adds.

Fit is perhaps one of the most important determinants in dressing appropriately, age considerations aside, tells Sarah Porubcansky, a founder and Customer Relations Officer for My Shape, an online fashion retailer that focuses primarily on body types and measurements. “Just because a garment fits does not mean it looks good,” she asserts. “What flatters you will change over time and it’s important to stay balanced.”

Balance does appear to come over time, affirms Green. “Style for today’s woman is about finding what’s appropriate within a range. She knows what she wants.”

What she wants is quality and value. More experienced consumers were more likely than younger consumers to expect more from their apparel and they were willing to pay a premium to secure their expectations. According to the Monitor, 80% of respondents aged 56 to 70 reported that they would be extremely upset if a pair of pants that were promised to be stain resistant and ultimately stained. That is far greater than the 58%, 54% and 40% of respondents aged 35 to 55, 25 to 34 and 16 to 24, respectively, who expressed their displeasure at the prospect of these unmet expectations. Older consumers were also the most likely consumers to say that they would pay more for a pair of pants with an enhanced feature; three out of four women aged 56 to 70 reported to the Monitor that they would consider paying more for the special feature versus a pair of pants without one.

“This is a smart and educated consumer,” says Green, the researcher. He speaks not only from professional experience but a personal one. “My wife is a Baby Boomer and I can tell you that she and her friends are some of the best dressed women I’ve ever seen because they dress with knowledge and confidence.”

Knowledge and confidence sound like qualities a woman of any age should consider when dressing “appropriately”.

This story is one in a series of articles based on findings from Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ tracking research. Each story will focus on a specific topic as it relates to the American consumer and her attitudes and behavior regarding clothing, appearance, fashion, fiber selection and many other timely, relevant subjects.