12/02/2011 01:00 pm ET Updated May 17, 2012

How Short Is Too Short? Style for Post50 Fashionistas

A few years ago, around the time we both entered our fifties, Ellen Barkin was profiled in the New York Times Magazine. I was eager to read what she had to say, because she's always seemed so wise and worldly to me with her sexy, crooked smile. Scanning the article, I nodded frequently in agreement, until I came to her "Rules for Life After 50" list. Not a fan of rules in general (I much prefer guidelines), I remained open-minded -- until coming to this: "No blue jeans to dinner."

Huh? No jeans? Just because we're over fifty? Barkin conceded that black jeans were "okay" -- but definitely not blue. I had just dished out $168-plus-tax on a new pair of 7 For All Mankind (this was before I discovered the fantastic $39.99 version from Uniqlo, which is all I wear now). The 7s were dark blue, beautiful, and had been out to dinner many times. This demanded further research.

Barkin's declaration made me realize that by the time we hit 50, a lot of us would benefit from a wardrobe re-evaluation. Our bodies, faces, and lifestyles have changed over the decades, but our fashion choices haven't always kept up. And while I think I always look presentable (and sometimes even downright hip -- though my two teenaged daughters might roll their eyes), I still have a lot of questions about what's considered "acceptable" for women in midlife. I don't want to live by strict fashion commandments, but I do want some guidelines for achieving a good look, without breaking the bank.

That said, I don't have the time (or interest) to devote to shopping often, so I want to streamline my style without fussing -- or going broke.

Most of all, I want answers to these questions:

  • How do we rise above the youth-centered styles meant for rail-thin 20-somethings without looking dumpy?
  • Where can we find clothes that will help us look good and still look our age?
  • How can we look sexy without looking like cougars?
  • How short is too short anyway?
  • Should our arms -- although improved by the push-ups we should all be doing every day -- banished forever from view?
  • What are the basics that every woman over fifty should have in her wardrobe (jeans, for sure, right?) we need to spend a fortune to get them?

When researching and writing The Best of Everything After 50, I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of fashion-savvy women -- Diane von Furstenberg, Ginny Hilfiger, and the fabulous team at Saks Fifth Avenue's personal shopping department. Their combined expertise pointed me in the right direction, and I ended up spending a lot less money on a lot more clothes, all of which can be worn together. Some takeaway pearls of style wisdom direct from my fashion team include:

  • From Diane von Furstenberg I learned that you have to be comfortable. If you're constantly tugging and pulling at your clothes, you won't be comfortable enough to focus on what you should be engaged in.
  • From Ginny Hilfiger I learned that you can shop for basics at Target, Uniqlo, and H&M (and other low price-point stores) and look like a million.
  • From the style consultants at the Saks' Fifth Avenue Club personal shopping department, I learned that fit is everything, and a tailor is your best friend.

Knowing that I'm not interested in spending a fortune to look fabulous, they suggested I look for items that are:

  • Classic enough to be worn for more than one year.
  • Easy to mix with my existing clothes and with each other.
  • The right material to wear for two or even three seasons.
  • Not too young looking, but not dowdy either.

And finally, here are a few tips born of personal experience:

  • Try stuff on.
  • Go through your closet and see how each piece makes you feel. Give away anything that doesn't make you feel good.
  • Spend time with fashion-savvy people who can show you different styles for your body. Go to department stores and work with a personal shopper, or a fantastic salesperson. See what works and what doesn't. Once you understand this, the rest will be easy.

Oh, and by the way: Diane has seen Ellen Barkin in jeans many times.

Stay tuned: next week I'll list the "best of everything" must-haves for women over 50.

For more tips about living your best life after 50 visit here. Staying connected is a powerful tool: "Friend" me on Facebook and "tweet" me on Twitter (@BGrufferman).

Turning 50 is more than an's a movement.