The Style Police: Fashion begins at forty

At last, older women can keep up with the latest trends and still keep their dignity intact. Phew, says James Sherwood

YOU HAVE TO ask yourself if we all have a fashion sell-by date. Does there come a time in all of our lives when it would be kinder to invest in a kaftan and retire from public life?

If you're male, chances are the answer is yes. The tables have turned, and women are the well-preserved ones these days, be they embalmed by collagen, surgically enhanced or simply in better shape. On the December cover of Harpers & Queen, Jerry Hall and daughter Elizabeth resemble beautiful sisters. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger - still sweating and gyrating his way through live shows like a drunken auntie at a Jewish wedding - looks like Methuselah's uncle. Women have bucked the old rule that men age better. Cher looks younger now than she did in the Sixties. Paul McCartney looks more like Angela Lansbury with every passing day. See what we mean?

We live in interesting times. A woman no longer has to do the dance of the seven veils to attract an eligible man. She probably earns twice as much as him and can take her pick anyway. With marriage and mating not the sole concerns of a modern woman, she doesn't have to try too hard. Sexiness is light years away from the tight, bright and gold-buttoned Eighties ethos. Now dressing well is as much about gaining the approval of women as it is about attracting men.

Not so coincidentally, this season we're spared the mini skirt, transparency and fit, the three most common mutton-dressed-as-lamb traps. We are now enjoying a period when tarty Versace dressing is dead. Sexy is Marc Jacobs four-ply cashmere. It is fabrics as soft as a whisper. It is quiet high maintenance and minimal make-up. Sexy is not crippling stilettos, pouring your tired old carcass into a tight frock or applying the same make-up you wore as a teenager.

Fashion is not favouring the young this season. The loose sweater, the long, lean maxi skirt and the loose blanket-cut coat do not demand the perfect body. They cover more than they reveal which - as any good stripper knows - is the key to sexual attraction. Let's delete sexual attraction from the records. What we are seeing is a fashion shift from sexual to sensual. There is a new tactility to the mix of fabrics this season. You may think the entire season is under a blanket of cashmere. Not so. Look at baby-soft leathers, powdery suedes, heavy comforting knits and subtly quilted man-mades. How they feel on the body is the message rather than how they make a man feel when they see them on your body.

Style Police believes the key to successful, sensual fashion is natural selection. As with any season, there is absolutely no compunction to go with silhouettes which may be tailored to jail-bait. We've already buried the knife pleated knee-length skirt as a Christmas turkey because it is designed for women without hips. We've dissed the ethnic Haute Bohemian look, which should not outlast your Inter-railing days. Only the young can get away with haute hippie. Ask Zandra Rhodes.

Where does this leave us? With the essence of a luxurious, grown-up season which panders to the woman who's been there, done that and can do it again. When we're talking style divas, I want you to compare Jerry Hall with her fledgling model daughter Elizabeth. The Texan belle with the golden mane has more vamp in a manicured red talon than a teenager could muster in her whole body.

Who said life wasn't fair?

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