Why is it that ageing men rush out and buy natty European sports cars when they get fat and their hair falls out, while ageing women sink into trainer pants and quit using makeup - and what does this tell us?
That time is heartless, for one thing. Men's libidos are primed for perpetual optimism, but women pick up on time's most distant signals, interpret them correctly, and swiftly yield to fate.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />
I don't like to think this is inevitable, which is why I keep a scruffy kind of file of women who rage against the dying of the light. They're eccentrics, I admit, and all the more admirable for it. There's Zandra Rhodes, whose hair dye and clothing never admit defeat; Vivienne Westwood, who can still subvert a pearl necklace; Sonia Rykiel, whose hennaed hair makes her look like a wise fox; and Andree Putman, the French interior designer I've always admired, much as I also admire Miucchia Prada, for being neither beautiful nor young, but clever and fantastic.
We need role models of older women who still present themselves as if clothes and grooming are legitimate pleasures, and at the moment there are few of them.
The Queen? She's probably on the list just for being quietly dignified and predictable. American Vogue editor, Anna Wintour? Definitely, for the discipline she displays of being so very thin because it really, really matters to her to be elegant. Hillary Clinton? Well, there I hit a snag.
Clinton has just been photographed wearing glasses, thick glasses at that, and with no makeup apart from lipstick. Her hair is still dyed blonde, and it looks as if there's still some Botox happening, but she's signalled that at 64, she's ready to leap into dowdy. Commenting on this widely noted move, one author has said that a man making the same choice wouldn't get the same degree of attention, which is, "Important, because it speaks to the question of whether powerful women still need to endeavour to look feminine and pleasing. Apparently they do."
She's not altogether right, I think. A powerful man who stopped looking after his appearance would also be noticed and commented on. Imagine incorrigible Sergio Berlusconi without his hair dye, Barrack Obama with a scruffy little beatnik beard, or Mick Jagger with a pot belly. For that matter, imagine Angela Merkel without her power suits. We dress for our part in life, and what troubles me about older women is that we're so quick to step aside and think we don't have one. That Clinton, one of the world's most powerful women, is signalling an end to her efforts to keep up her grooming is not just a superficial gesture, then. It's a bad example.
This abandoning of effort reminds me of my great-aunts, country women who, when they bought a new coat at about 45, would say: "It'll see me out," as if life from then on was just a matter of waiting to stop breathing. The trouble is, they lived on for another 45 years in which they could have had several new coats - and why not? Are we no longer interesting when we don't inspire sexual interest? Why on earth would we believe that?
Young women are lovely; being young is enough in itself; but old women who keep their wits about them are always interesting. Past the age when they expect to fascinate in other ways, they can fascinate because of what they know, and the perspective they bring to conversation. They are never dull, which a pretty girl, anxious to please and uncertain of herself, will often be. An ideal dinner party has one of each.
The answer's not for older women to dress as if they're still pretty young women, but surely it's to present yourself in a way that doesn't merge with the wallpaper. Clinton famously said her husband was a hard dog to keep on the porch. I'd hate to think she'll end up sitting on her porch with her jowls dangling, in an old jumper with coffee stains down the front. That's not liberation. It's called waiting for death.