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Dress, age and men – not subjects that have an obvious affinity. But I think they reveal important things about how gender, age, consumption and identity are changing.  In an article I have just published in Ageing & Society (First View: doi: 10.1017/S0144686X18000892) I explore some of these connections through a study of the role of dress in the constitution of masculinity in age.

Clothes mediate between the body and the social world.  They are part of how identity is grounded in the visual, one of the ways in which social expectations act on and are made manifest materially and culturally. We are accustomed to these connections in relation to gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, but not, by and large, age.

Over the last decade, however, I have been exploring these linkages through a series of studies of dress and age. The first looked at older women, published as Fashion and Age: Dress, the Body and Later Life. The second, with Christina Buse, explored the role of clothing in the lives of people with dementia. This latest study turns the analytic lens on to men.

It is often though that older men are indifferent to dress. Certainly under the label of ‘fashion’, that’s true. But clothes are something we all wear. They are part of ordinary life, a central element in the presentation of self in everyday life and, as such, of concern to all social actors. My study, which was based on interviews with men aged 58-85 from a range of social backgrounds, found that older men warmed to the subject of dress, once initial uncertainties were surmounted. Though most conformed to the dominant mainstream British norm of ‘low engagement’, they had things to say.

So is it different for men? In certain key ways, yes. But these are the result less of age as such, than of its intersection with more general cultural structures in relation to dress and the body. Dress has different meanings for men and women in western culture, and it operates in different ways. In a similar fashion, the meanings of the body and embodiment differ between the sexes. Age is, thus, refracted through wider cultural assumptions and meanings; and these are crucial in shaping the ways old age operates.

The accounts given by the men were less dominated by concerns over age and age appropriateness than had been the case with the women. For example, none of the men talked about the ‘Changing Room Moment’ – that moment when you look in the glass and see that the dress, or whatever, no longer suits: is ‘too young.’ Nor was there the sense of sadness or cultural exile that marked many of the women’s narratives. On the few occasions when men did talk about clothes that were too young, it was often in derogatory terms, focussed on items or styles they despised and had no wish to wear, like tight jeans, hoodies or scruffy trainers.

For some older men, dress could also represent a realm of moral value, though this was largely in an implicitly, muted and taken-for-granted way, wholly unrelated to fashion. Old fashioned dress connoted old fashioned values, such as neatness, order, good sense, discernment of quality and proper respect for the social context. It could express commitment to enduring values and qualities of worth that repudiated the cheap throw-away aspects of modern culture. These traditional modes of dress could thus act as implicit endorsements of the older self as of itself of continuing value. These were not views that were expressed in the women’s interviews.

Lastly, dress reveals how masculinity in age retains greater positivity than is the case with women. This links to arguments made by, among others, Sontag, Calasanti, Gullette and Hurd Clarke, that men retain aspects of gender privilege in old age. In the case of dress, part of this is the ability not to be drawn into the pervasive discourse of erosion that marked the women’s responses. This reflects the way their dress contains stronger elements of erotic display, and is linked to wider gendered cultural of bodily perfectionism, reflected in the youthful ideal. Dress for women in age is thus part of a larger issue of appearance and concern over the loss of youthful attractiveness. For men, by contrast, dress predominantly has other meanings, linked to authority, social status and the ability to fit successfully into the social context.

The article is located in wider debates related to age.  It is part of a movement within age studies, characterised as cultural gerontology, that aims to shift the focus of analysis away from an exclusive attention to frailty, decline and its implications for public policy, towards one that encompasses the experiences of getting older in a broader way, drawing in different subject matter and different research traditions.  It is also contributes to the new academic focus on materiality: the ways in which material objects – in this case clothes – operate within the social world, both shaping and expressing the meanings of daily life.