The secret to beauty comes with age

By Cecilie Geary

A positive self-image helps take the angst out of ageing.

The recent death of American comedienne Phyllis Diller brought to mind a Weightwatchers lunch in Auckland some years ago, at which she was the guest speaker. A tiny, bird-like woman, she shared her weight loss secrets and wisecracked about her multiple facelifts. Her face was taut, pink and porcelain-smooth, her hands those of a woman in her mid-70s. Scary.

Fast-forward a few years to the arrival in Auckland of former French fashion model Bettina Graziani. Pick up any book featuring French fashion in the 1950s and you'll come across Bettina modelling Givenchy, Fath, Balenciaga, Dior. She was the top Parisian model of her day, a favourite of star photographers such as Norman Parkinson and Irving Penn.

Still fabulous in her 70s, her freckled face untouched by surgery, the statuesque redhead wore sky-high heels and a cream sweater dress by Azzedine Alaia. She dismissed the quest for eternal youth as delusional. "Women who do a lot of plastic surgery can still look old because age doesn't just come from your face. It comes from the way you walk, the way you move, the freedom of your mind. I love life and live it to the full. That's what keeps me young." A few nights in Auckland and Bettina was off to walk the Milford Track. The previous year, she'd ventured up the Amazon.

Two women, two different cultures; one youth-obsessed, the other philosophical about growing older.

For the record, America contains more surgically-enhanced women than any other country in the world. In Europe, the trend is for women to accept their older selves and to wear their age with pride, their faces reflecting a lifetime of joys, sorrows, setbacks and achievements. Ask New Zealand women if they'd go under the knife and their answers vary - some would, some wouldn't, some might. Dermal fillers such as collagen or Botox are a more likely consideration because they're non-invasive.

Resisting the nip and tuck means resorting to superficial means to minimise the signs of ageing - a good skincare regimen, regular visits to a beautician (worthwhile for the pampering aspects alone) and the right makeup.

There was a time when women of a certain age piled on foundation and powder in the mistaken belief that it concealed their wrinkles. What they didn't realise was that heavy foundation settled into pores and fine lines, exaggerating what they wanted to hide. Not for nothing was makeup referred to then as "warpaint". As these ladies also tended to be heavily rouged, they appeared quite fierce. The less-is-more concept would have been completely alien to them.

The passing years demand a makeup rethink. Dated makeup makes you look, well, dated. Women who have been great beauties in their day are often the most likely to get stuck in a time warp, reluctant to give up the hair and makeup that defined them when they were at their peak. Frosted lipstick? So 60s. Bright blue eyeshadow? Where's the disco?

These days, beauty advice is freely available courtesy of magazines, the internet and in-store makeup consultants. It's never been easier to sort out the dos - in this case, light-textured, light-reflecting foundation with a hint of colour, neutral eyeshadow, moisturising lipstick, cream blush high on the cheekbones, blended towards the hair-line - and the don'ts - matt foundation, too dark or bright lipstick, heavy eyeshadow, a hard lip-pencil line.

The thing to remember when choosing makeup is that it's not about looking artificially perfect or girlishly young, but looking like yourself at the age you are, only better. Being told you look good "at" your age, rather than "for" your age is much more complimentary. "For" your age is actually rather patronising, as is describing someone as "well preserved", a term usually associated with bottled fruit.

When it comes to hair, some hair pros will tell you that over 35, shorter and sharper works better. Others will say that length isn't an issue as long as the hair is well-shaped and well-styled and, if coloured, that the colour is built up in layers of natural tones so it doesn't look "hard".

Not so long ago, the idea of grey hair being a sophisticated option would have sent hairdressers into a state of shock. Not any more. As more and more women, some as young as 40, choose to go grey, grey hair no longer automatically confers senior citizenship. Most women with grey hair will admit to experimenting with colour at some stage in their lives but, having eschewed the dye bottle, they express no regret, describing their decision to go grey as liberating. To make grey hair work you need a good hairstylist and a ton of confidence. No apologetic demeanour, rounded shoulders or gazing at the ground. And perhaps it's time to shelve the word "grey", with its drab connotations and replace it with a more positive one like "silver". Silver linings, silver service, silvery moon, silver Rolls Royce, silver hair. Silver has a much nicer ring. Who knows? Now that grey has shaken off its old-lady image, one day grey (or silver) might be the new blond.

Dunedin fashion doyenne Barbara Brinsley, 74, is a long-time champion of grey hair. Originally a brunette, she went grey in her 40s and her hair became part of her signature look.

"My grey hair opened more doors than if I'd dyed it black. It was - and still is - my crowning glory." Brinsley was one of three stylish Dunedin women over 60 chosen by World to walk the runway at their New Zealand Fashion Week show in Auckland in 2003. On that occasion, her long hair was combed out but in everyday life she wears it up in a french roll, a style she considers sleeker and more practical. Always impeccably dressed and accessorised, Brinsley, her grey hair now white, can be spotted regularly at Dunedin's major social events.

Just as a woman's makeup evolves over the years, so should her wardrobe. Beware those who declare that "anything goes" at any age. There are certain clothes, flirty short shorts and skinny patterned pants, for example, that are the exclusive preserve of the young, while underwear-as-outerwear on an older woman makes her look like she's had a senior moment and accidentally got dressed in the reverse order. But dressing age-appropriately isn't a question of swapping fashionable for frumpish. Good dress sense doesn't disappear with time and often only minor adjustments are necessary.

Elizabeth Arden general manager Valerie Riley is a chic Frenchwoman in her mid-40s. A classic dresser, not given to fads, the changes she's made to her wardrobe have been minimal. Very high heels with platform soles are out, she wears her hair shorter and, despite having shapely legs, steers clear of mini-skirts. "They're fine until you're 30. After that age, no. I also don't wear as many suits as I used to but rather than being an age thing, fashion has become less formal. I still wear a lot of trousers."

When fashion designer-turned-fashion curator Doris de Pont talks about being inspired by older women who continue to embrace the pleasure of dressing up and who celebrate their engagement with style and with the world, she could be describing herself.

De Pont, now in her 50s, dresses as she's always done, intuitively and with imagination, her taste for tailoring always a little subverted by the use of bold pattern and colour and quirky accessories. For the opening of the New Zealand Fashion Museum's Home Sewn exhibition, which she curated (at the Nathan Gallery, Britomart until September 26), she wore a pink Cybele dress with vintage, above-the-elbow, ostrich print gloves and a possum fur stole back-pack.

De Pont doesn't have a beauty routine as such. "I've never been a routine kind of person. Many years ago, my father told me I should use a certain skincare preparation because that's what my mother used. So I did, and do. Anything that can make your husband think you look beautiful at any age has to be the right choice."

- NZ Herald

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