09/22/2011 10:04 am ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011

Fashion arbiters who think for themselves and dress like grownups

There once was a woman in Nantucket who had cards printed to hand out to women she considered inappropriately dressed. "Your attire is not appropriate for Nantucket," the recipients were advised. Such meddlesomeness would not be acceptable today, but it might be fun to be so sure of oneself. The woman obviously had no second thoughts about her correctness or taste. She was well into her 40s when she claimed her role as a fashion arbiter, and that was the way women felt about themselves in the 1940s and 50s. She was not about to be pushed around by young girls or celebrities who bent the rules with tastelessness or extravagance. Her approach was a draconian version of those do and don't pages in fashion magazines that women, myself included, have always read and pondered.

Fashion was for grownups 60 years ago. Society women themselves, like the subject of my book, Searching for Beauty, The Life of Millicent Rogers were mostly guided by their own taste. They did not try to look or dress like their teenage daughters. It is sometimes forgotten today that in Millicent's day, the 30s and 40s, stylish adult women were the trendsetters who wielded influence on the fashion world, much as celebrities do today. "Nor was it a period when young women had any standing in the smart world," wrote Vogue's legendary Paris editor Bettina Ballard in In My Fashion, her memoir of her career and life in fashion. " A woman was not considered important in Paris until she was well in her 30s and had her children behind her so she could concentrate on a fashionable life." This description fit Millicent perfectly.

Paris was the fashion capital of the time and Parisians set the standard. Ballard included Millicent in her chapter "The Women Who Make Fashion." "Several American women of that period occasioned a certain fashion stir in Paris. Millicent Rogers (by then Mrs. Ronald Balcom) lived very little in Paris but bought all of her clothes there." Ballard emphasized "the extent of the personal taste that she used in choosing her clothes. They still look today the epitome of fashion," she wrote in 1960, seven years after Rogers' death, "Hers was a true natural elegance." And as Andre Leon Talley points out in his latest column for Vogue, her influence endures to the present. (Diane von Furstenberg and Dior mentioned her inspiration to last season's collections.)

I'd like to see a 40 or 50 year old today set style by the strength of her own fashion sense and taste. It would be wonderful to see adult women lead instead of follow fashion . Though it might be advisable not to hand out printed cards to fashion transgressors on Manhattan streets, or Nantucket either.