Fashionable age discrimination

Posted: Apr 19, 2001 12:00 AM
CHICAGO. Not so long ago Chicago was a man's town of booze and blues, wicked and tough, the palaces on the prairie that made up what Carl Sandburg called "The City of Big Shoulders." Men wore hand-painted ties, wide-brimmed hats and swaggered through the speakeasies with molls on their arms and big guns in their belts. Those days are with us now only through Untouchable Gangster Tours, tracing Al Capone's murderous enterprises. The garage where Capone's mobsters disguised as cops slaughtered seven button men of the Bugs Moran gang on St. Valentine's Day is gone, replaced by a retirement home. Gone are the gritty streets where Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" lost her virtue. Vanished are the mean neighborhoods where Nelson Algren met drug-dealers, hustlers and a guy named Frankie, who carried a "duffel bag of trouble." Much of modern Chicago (but by no means all) is a chic, classy "chick city," where fashionable women search out expensive fashion in Michigan Avenue's famous emporia of high-toned rags. But not all of them are happy. The young women of Generation Y look just fine in their mini-skirts, tight slacks, sleeveless blouses, spaghetti strap dresses, backless frocks and backless shoes with skinny heels. But what's a mature woman, a mature woman with a pocketful of plastic, to do? Where's the chic fashion for her? "I still want to look really good, but I don't want to look stupid," Myra Reilly, age 60, a suburban matron from Lake Forest, a tony Chicago suburb, coming home empty-handed from a shopping tour tells the Chicago Tribune. "There isn't a lot that's displayed for women over 50." This is not your daughter's feminism, and it's an opportunity for the industry. And here's a statistic the politicians in Washington as well as designers and retailers elsewhere might take to heart, too: More than a third of the women in the United States are over 50; every seven minutes a boomer turns 50. Half are female. You might think someone would be sewing for them. The women of the '60s generation who once wore granny dresses to protest against feminine fashion imposed by "male chauvinists" don't want to look anything like Granny today. One very specific reason women "of a certain age" are looking for a more stylish mature look is that more long-term marriages are breaking up. Divorces between 1981 and 1991 declined among those married less than 30 years, but increased 16 percent among couples married longer than 30 years. Such trends continue, with enormous implications for national policy of all kinds. These women are spending their money, and a lot of it, on other things: travel, restaurants, gyms, spas, personal education and enrichment. They would spend more on clothes if the designers would cooperate. Retailers of women's fashion instead continue to be obsessed with the waifs of the youth market, trying to build long-term relationships with those under 30. Talk about age discrimination: These sophisticated female boomers have more buying power than any distaff generation in our history. Traditional stores without a label mature women can trust are abandoning core customers offended by the incessant appeal to youth. Burberry windows on Michigan Avenue reflect the fashion conflicts. Half the mannequins are dressed in the traditional Burberry trench coat, half in scanty plaid underwear and bathing suits, all with the design of the classic Burberry lining. This is up-to-date and "edgy," but it's a little daffy, too. You can play to the young and hip and you can play to the aging with hips, but not with the same goods. "Even those 50-year olds with great bodies aren't as small as they were," says the owner of a specialty boutique that caters to the over-50's with mature chic. Jane Fonda still has a great body, but it's not the body she had in "Klute." Older women have more money and more options, and they're pursuing what they think they missed with feminine fury. Nevertheless, it's considerably more difficult for a former wife than a former husband over 50 to find someone new. On this unequal playing field, Viagra is the best friend a man can have in his pursuit of a young woman in a backless dress and backless shoes. Alas, there's no seduction suit for the mature woman on the hunt.