Another fashion advice book — and an unintended lesson

Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of single girls’ magazine Cosmopolitan, wrote a fabulous book in 1982, "Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even If You’re Starting With Nothing." This is not a review of that book, although it’s still available on Amazon, and well worth the read, even 28 years later. I mention the book to make a point.

In "Having It All," Brown talks to the ‘‘mouseburgers,’’ the plain-jane, unnoticed girls who didn’t date the jocks, or maybe anybody, in high school, who didn’t have nice clothes or well-off parents or much of anything else going for them — except a native intellect and an unquenchable drive to turn their nondescript, monochrome, dead-end lives into some personal version of fabulous — something Brown herself had done.

For the  former ‘‘mouseburgers,’’ the women who transformed themselves by sheer hard work, by reading, studying, discipline, putting in the long hours required for a career, relying on and shoring up their inner resources, building lives and relationships based on more than simply their looks or their family’s money, each decade is gravy. For them, aging isn’t the end of the world — it’s just another challenge.

Another group of women is aging, as well, and it’s not a pretty sight. No, not the women — many of them, in their 40s, 50s, 60s, are gorgeous. But what some of these women are putting themselves through is downright ugly.

These are the women who were beautiful or wealthy from the start. Looks and money can take one a long way in life today. But when the looks fade, as they will, or the money goes, as it might, a woman who hasn’t developed other qualities and talents can see life start to sag a bit, not to mention the face and fanny.

Case in point — the author of "What to Wear for the Rest of Your Life: Ageless Secrets of Style." She is Kim Johnson Gross, who with co-author Jeff Stone wrote the Chic Simple series of fashion guides. She was a fashion editor at Town & Country and Esquire magazines and wrote columns for More and InStyle. Beautiful woman (judging from the book jacket photo, she still is), former Ford model, fashion maven, style expert — so what happened?

What caused Gross to throw in the slinky little dress and grab a big old tunic, so to speak? Divorce, turning 50, menopause and an extra 15 pounds around the middle.

"What to Wear for the Rest of Your Life" purports to be a fashion guide for “women of a certain age,’’ as the Europeans so elegantly put it. Gross includes fashion advice from those soignee French women: Wear pretty, matching lingerie, take your clothes to a tailor so they fit well (it can make even inexpensive ones look lovely), choose quality over quantity and a small, well-chosen wardrobe over a closet stuffed with clothes, and most importantly, be comfortable in your skin. Flatter your assets. Appreciate yourself. Then get on with life.

Good advice, but it’s been said before, in dozens of fashion and image books. "What to Wear" seems vague, unfocused and not fresh. A sizzling new take on style for the midlife woman, this book is not. That’s a shame.

What a shame also that Gross ignores her own advice. She seems to be a woman at odds with herself, at least that extra 15 pounds of herself that she calls the Alien.

What self-imposed cruelty, to attach such an unpleasant name to one’s own body. But a strain of negativity runs through this book. It turns up in quotes from midlife women. ‘‘I spit on my closet every time I pass it,’’ one woman writes. Says another, "No one compliments me on how I dress or look anymore. I feel as though I’ve become invisible.’’

Well, thanks for the encouragement.

Advice I love comes from "Brenda’s Wardrobe Companion: A Guide to Getting Dressed from the Inside Out." It’s one of several wonderful books by San Francisco-based image consultant Brenda Kinsel, It’s advice every female should write in her daily planner, and post on the bathroom mirror:

"Do not be the first to carve up your nature." When I can remember that line, it stops me cold.
"Don’t alienate your body parts from each other. Your body is a temple that houses your heart and soul. Cherish it.’’

That’s advice worth taking.

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