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Fashion fits for those over 50

(ran HT edition)

Worse than trying on swimsuits in January is waking up and realizing you really don't know what to wear anymore.

"I don't want to look like a teenager, and I don't want to look like Elizabeth Dole," a reader writes. "I just want to look the best that I can at 55.

"Isn't there something between the rich, lacquered, matron look and sack dresses with Birkenstocks?"

The letter is surprising. It's from a school administrator with a dramatic wardrobe and great personal style _ a look her contemporaries admire and students compliment. But even this fashion maven, who asked to remain anonymous, has moments of doubt.

Get a group of fiftyish females together and the midlife fashion dilemma almost always comes up. Complaints range from clothes that don't fit the way they used to, to sizes that make no sense.

"I've always worn a size 12 blouse. The last one I bought was a size 6," a woman says, shaking her head.

They blame designers, convinced they cater only to young women. They say male designers don't understand them. They hate the way the fashion industry introduces new color schemes every season _ colors that aren't easy to assimilate into an existing wardrobe.

Stores ignore us, they complain. But still they shop, often accumulating closets full of clothes that don't work for them.

Some give up, climb into sweats and athletic shoes and stay there, day in and day out.

Others set out to solve the problem _ reading, seeking advice and experimenting with combinations of clothing and colors until they're happy with the way they look and the way their clothes fit.

"This is all about regaining confidence in ourselves," says Tori Hartman, author of Fabulous You! Unlock Your Perfect Personal Style, (Berkeley, 242 pages, $12.95).

A Los Angeles fashion consultant for 15 years, Hartman says women are their own best fashion experts _ "I want to free you to make the best choices." She says her book, one of several on the market, is a tool to help make those choices.

Hartman pooh-poohs books that say a woman must have a blue blazer, two skirts, etc. "What's your lifestyle? How do you really live?" she asks.

"You need to shop for who you are today _ dropped butt, thickened middle and all," Hartman says. "We don't have a lot of role models in their 50s and 60s. The fashion magazines let us down in this department."

She recommends working with a shopping consultant or a sales person in a store or department where you like to shop. "Don't just pick up what worked for you 10 years ago," she says. "If you look at something and wonder "How do I wear that?' it's not for you."

Dorothy Carstens, 55, a registered nurse and electrologist, has her personal style down pat. But she has observed that some women think of themselves as old, while others think their life is just beginning.

"If you put yourself in a category, that determines what you're going to look for in fashion," Carstens says.

"I personally believe you should find a look that's comfortable for you, one you can update. It's very important to keep current. When you hit your 50s, you don't want to be stuck in 1962," she says.

Carstens says she has no trouble finding clothes. She has always been willing to try new labels and stores. She stays current by reading Bazaar, Elle and Big Beautiful Woman magazines and watching fashion shows on television.

Sylvia Wilson, 61, a retail veteran who has owned a boutique and taught fashion marketing at the Art Institute of Seattle, says she makes an effort to dress fashionably so she makes a good first impression. "I want people to see how I feel about myself," she says.

Wilson knows her style and her body, which she describes as a boyish figure with no waistline. She emphasizes her slim hips and covers the waistline.

She shops all over _ specialty shops to discount stores _ to find high-quality, basic pieces that will last. Then she buys inexpensive, trendy accessories to jazz them up.

A ribbed sweater with a mock turtleneck, for example, is a fast update for a favorite old jacket and the jeans she often wears to work. She also looks for camel and other warm colors that complement her golden-blond hair.

Elizabeth Lockett, who is 70-something, is another denim fan. "I look better in jeans than I do anything else," she says. But she shops for fun pieces to wear with them. She's a believer in colorful accessories _ scarves, belts, shoes.

Hartman recently met a 76-year-old woman who was wearing a sarong. "She looked terrific," she says. "She was comfortable with who she is. Most women are afraid of updating (their fashion image) because they're afraid of aging."

A lot of women are still dressing as they did in the 1960s, Hartman says. They need to figure out their personal style.

"The key is to look magnificent and elegant," she adds. "That's what we want to achieve."