Fashionably Old: Lyn Slater on Aging With Attitude

The year I turned fifty-nine, I couldn’t find anything to wear. Everything that hung in my closet or on racks in stores no longer inspired. This out-of-sorts feeling tells me I am ready for a new story to tell. Something new to get dressed in. Clothes have always helped me tell stories about myself; who I am, who I wish to be. They could be chapters of a memoir.

I look toward the end of a decade with excitement, eager to take stock of what I’ve achieved, and to the new decade ahead for possibility. When I look back on each phase of my life, I remember the experiences I had, not what age I was when I had them. I don’t view each birthday as a lost year of youth, but as a new stage of opportunity.

Instead of thinking about all the things I’ll miss about the past, I focus on the things I can do in the moment that make my life exciting. For me, that means styling a new look, taking on new roles, having new experiences. Perhaps finding a new place to live or a new way of working. I go back to school to learn something new.

Why would I allow my age, only just a number after all, to define who I am or determine how I live my life?

During my fifties, I completed a PhD and became a full-time professor. My daughter graduated from college, found her profession, and married. I took my first trip to Europe. I had a hip replacement. I learned how to make jewelry and started to take classes in a fashion school. I lived in a loft in Williamsburg. My father died; my sister had three babies. My partner Calvin and I grew as a couple and learned the right way to have a fight. We moved from Brooklyn to Queens. I stopped dyeing my hair and cut it short.

After the hip replacement, I could move freely without pain for the first time in two years. I paid for graduate school for me, college and a wedding for my daughter. I saved $250 a month by no longer dyeing my fast-growing hair. This gave me a few more resources to invest in whatever new “wardrobe” I wanted to design. During this decade, from each of my experiences, I learned important life lessons and gained new skills. Taking classes in a fashion school and traveling to Europe for the first time in my life triggered an unrealized desire I did not know I had. It was still undefined, and yet I felt its urgency. It was a hand on my back, pushing me out the door.

But first, I had to find something to wear.

Many people, no matter what age they are, search for meaning as a new decade approaches. So many people kept asking me how I felt about turning sixty when at fifty-nine my age was the last thing on my mind. I quickly discovered that the sixties is a tough decade. Truly, I did not think of myself as old until everyone started telling me I was.

These are the things no one prepared me for. AARP relentlessly sends you membership applications. You receive frequent reminders that you must sign up for Medicare three months before your sixty-fifth birthday, or else you’ll get a fine. You can collect Social Security. People ask when you plan to “retire.” You are eligible for senior discounts on trains, at movie theaters, museums. They ask if you want to take advantage of these, or it’s assumed that you do because of the color of your hair. Parents begin to pass away if they haven’t already. People jump up to give you a seat on the subway. You are told you look good… for your age. Cemeteries send you flyers in the mail, telling you it’s time to buy a plot. During a pandemic, you are told you are in the group most likely to die.

Why would I allow my age, only just a number after all, to define who I am or determine how I live my life? Why does everyone feel compelled to keep reminding me of it? Especially because I, like everyone else, am so much more than my age. I, like everyone else, am aging uniquely, so I don’t understand why suddenly the edges of my individuality are being sanded down so I can be lumped in with everyone else. How old I am is hands down the most boring fact about me. I became determined at fifty-nine not to let age define me, or get in my way.

It was not clear to me yet what I would do, but I was certain that because of my inherently rebellious nature I would find a way, as I always have, to challenge expectations set by others. Expectations that try to dictate who I could be or what I could do. All the reminders that I was getting old only served to provoke me. They fueled my desire to make this decade one where I will resist stereotypes that dictate what I should look like or how I should live life when I am old. I will use my creativity to write an alternative story, a story born of gleeful defiance of the idea that it is time for me to gracefully bow out and disappear.

So here I am again, now sixty-nine, soon to be seventy. Another decade has passed. I’ve moved from the city, bought a house with my partner; a deepening of our commitment to each other and our family. I became a grandmother at the beginning of the decade and again at the end. I decided what kind of grandmother I wanted to be. I came to accept my identity as a writer. I retired from teaching after twenty years. I continue to work as a social work consultant. I had cataract surgery and can see better than I have in years. I had Covid, yet gratefully continue to survive the pandemic. My mother died. My sister’s babies are in college. I’ve been to Shanghai, Tokyo, Madrid, Paris, Lisbon, Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Cologne, Basel, and London—some of those cities more than once. International fashion campaigns have featured me, as has the fashion press. I have more than half a million followers on Instagram. There are commercials, music videos, Today Show appearances, and…well, let’s not go there yet.

During this past decade of my life, I’ve had the most incredible adventure. It’s so far outside my expectations for what my sixties would bring that even I don’t fully understand how it all happened. During this last decade, a professor of social work, a grandmother with gray hair and wrinkles, became a fashion star. Somehow an ordinary woman like me found herself living an extraordinary older life as my alter ego, known as Accidental Icon. Ironically, during the years when society assumed I would become invisible as an older woman, I was more visible than at any other time of my life. Infinitely more visible than when I was young.

There is one aspect of getting older that is under our control: how we choose to think about our age.

As I review each year and reflect on my experiences, I hope to learn the whys and hows of what I did or didn’t do to make this adventure happen. I invite you to come along with me. I discover important lessons about how to be old. I learn the importance of remaining true to yourself and your values. I learn how powerful stereotypes about age are. I learn that if you are not attentive, they can derail you despite how badass you think you are. I learn how to not let my age define me even when others want it to. I understand it’s a choice each day to not let being older get in the way of living the life I want to live.

Ending one decade and beginning another, no matter how old we are, implies the question “What now?” Societal and familial expectations and our own unique circumstances complicate our response to this question. I am aware that, as a white, educated, cis, healthy woman with financial security, my privilege has contributed to what I could do at sixty and how I could do it. It informs what I can do now.

Growing older is also a privilege, one not enjoyed by all. Yet before it happens to us, we see being old as something to avoid at all costs. The dictionary definition of the word old is “having lived a long time.” I ask in all sincerity: Would you really prefer the alternative to living a long time? As I turn seventy this year, I will gratefully add “old” to my list of privileges and recognize it as such.

There is one aspect of getting older that is under our control: how we choose to think about our age. What we think about getting or being old informs the way we feel about ourselves as people who are and will age. It impacts our health. It influences how we might respond to the challenges and opportunities older life poses. Nothing about your age, regardless of whether you are turning thirty or one hundred, should deter you from living the life you want to, regardless of what others say or society says you should or can do.

I write this book as I look toward seventy. Just as I did when I was fifty-nine, I review each year of the past decade. During my sixties, I lived a life online as the Accidental Icon. I’ll share the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows, the gains and losses, of my time being her. But most importantly, as I revisit each year, I offer a lesson learned, lessons that can help you respond creatively, no matter what age you are, to the challenges and opportunities that life may send your way. These are lessons that I take with me as I begin my next decade, another opportunity for adventure.

I know it will be an adventure because, like before, I am determined to make it one. My body and the world have changed, and once again I’m finding my clothes no longer fit. It’s time to write a new story, to reuse in imaginative ways garments that already hang in my closet. I remain engaged in the extraordinary process of aging, a process—as fashion icon extraordinaire David Bowie once said—“whereby you become the person you always should have been.” Becoming is a process in motion and implies hope. I will become that person. What’s most exciting is, I don’t quite yet know who she will be.

I can’t wait to see what experiences I’ll be looking back on when I’m about to turn eighty, and what possibilities might lie ahead. After all, my mother lived until ninety-five. But for now, I’m going to turn back and see what I can bring with me as I turn seventy. I’ll remember what I have learned about how to be old; I’ll find pearls of wisdom and gemstones of insight that reflect the light, embellishments that add beauty and sparkle to whatever I may decide to wear. That makes me, an older woman, someone of value in the world.


Excerpted from How to Be Old: Lessons in Living Boldly from the Accidental Icon by Lyn Slater. Excerpted with permission from Plume Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Lyn Slater.

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