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How Do You Adjust Your Dress-Up Style as You Age?

As wedding season approaches, we turn to an unlikely source of fresh style inspiration for older women, the newly crowned Queen Camilla.

Every time I see a photo of Queen Camilla I’m struck by the line she has to walk, fashion-wise. She has to look smart but to avoid dowdy, to always be appropriate for long days of meeting and greeting subjects and dignitaries, and to ratchet up the flash for state occasions. At 75, she just stepped into the biggest job of her life, by her husband’s side as he begins his reign. Don’t you think dressing for the coronation must have been terrifying? I panic at finding a dress to attend a wedding as a guest, but there was grandmother of five, Camilla, in a full-length white gown balancing a priceless five-pound crown in front of 20 million people!

Camilla and Charles wed when they were aged 57 and 56, respectively. She pulled off her first major fashion moment spectacularly, in a pale blue and gold embroidered coat by Robinson Valentine with a feathered hat dipped in gold leaf by Philip Treacy. I single out this look because promptly thereafter the then Duchess of Cornwall faded into the background with a range of solid, workaday looks centred around structured coat dresses with matching hats. Nice, but unexciting. In this manner, for nearly 20 years, she left the flashbulbs and the wardrobe coverage to the younger generation royal wives, first Kate, then Meghan.

But Camilla is now prime time, and her look has already started to polish up with the new title. The late Queen Elizabeth worked a highly successful signature look: a photo carousel-ready rainbow of head-to-toe brights and sherberts, through the last three decades of her reign. Camilla, however, is there to support her husband, not outshine him. Plus, fashion was never  really her thing. After all, Camilla is very much the rough-and-ready country sort, mucking about Wiltshire on her horses and in the garden. Lest we forget she was the other woman for many years and had to work her way very slowly and carefully to be accepted by a British public obsessed with her predecessor. In the ’90s, Camilla often seemed as though she’d positioned herself as the opposite to Diana in terms of style, choosing an earthy contrast to Diana’s glamour.

One of the key elements of Camilla’s queenly makeover has been her hair: She still has a version of the flip she wore when Charles first fell under her spell in 1972, but now it is a soft champagne blond. She loves good jewelry and wears big rocks with aplomb, a necessary skill when you become part of the Windsor family, where the average family jewel is the size of a hard candy. The big jewels work on her because she is clearly comfortable in her own skin. Confidence should be one of the great benefits of aging, though many of us have trouble getting to that inner headspace past the surface wrinkles and sags. Wearing bold jewelry, whether Crown Jewels or costume, is a skill we can all take a cue from. It’s the fastest way to elevate any look, plus drawing the eye to something shiny, helps distract from areas you may prefer to call less attention to.

Now that she is Queen, Camilla is expanding into bolder blues — see the cornflower blue coat dress by Fiona Clare she wore for her pre-coronation portraits. Clare is one of her go-to designers, along with Bruce Oldham, who designed the coronation gown. As The Telegraph said of Oldham’s gown, he used his dressmaking skill to create confidence for Camilla on the big day by carefully positioning seams and linings to give the garment substance and clean lines: “The inner workings of his gowns typically flatter and enhance the wearer’s figure — the support and scaffolding on offer makes them popular with older clients.”

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To dig further into how Camilla (along with her stylist, Jacqui Meakin), is upping the fabulous factor — and to garner tips as to how the rest of us can pull off graceful party looks at any age — we spoke with Canada’s special occasion fashion magician, Brian Bailey. He is the go-to designer for elegant custom gowns for mothers-of-the-bride or groom in this country. Bailey has been in the business since graduating from Ryerson in 1983; he launched his own label in 1992.

“It all comes down to fit,” says Bailey. “Especially the bustline. That can be where things get mumsy. You need a good bra, go get one.” (He cheekily suggests that new foundation garments for Camilla would make a big difference.) For this Bailey suggests seeing a proper bra fitter, and putting some money into it. A great Toronto resource is Melmira Bra & Swimsuits, the kind of old-school place at which you need to make an appointment for a fitting. In Vancouver, try Diva Lingerie; in Calgary, go to Knickers ‘N Lace as these also carry a wide variety of sizes and specialty bras such as minimizers, which can be quite sexy, but they are pricey. Good, dependable brands include Chantelle, Empreinte and Prima Donna.

Bailey finds the most important part of his work as a stylist is actually psychological. He helps his clients change their (often negative) attitudes towards their bodies by guiding them to choose clothes that maximize the positive. “Accepting changes in your body, not being self-critical, that’s the thing.” 

Fabric is incredibly important, look for something with body. “I love a Japanese crepe synthetic,” he says, which is going to perform for special occasions because it stays smooth and drapes beautifully, skimming the body instead of clinging. Doesn’t that already sound appealing? “If you look rumpled, you feel rumpled. You want armour, something that doesn’t bunch or pull.”

Keep the design simple, he says, and lean into colour. “A-line dresses [cut close on the waist] are the most flattering, as is a fuller skirt.” He says Camilla’s stylist is clearly focusing on giving her a waist these days, which makes for a cleaner, easier silhouette. Princess-line dresses, with darts and seams to delineate the waist, have the same slenderizing effect. And if, like Camilla, you have a larger bust, show it! “A V-neck should never be a straight V. Choose a sweetheart neckline instead with a deeper V.”

Bailey isn’t as concerned about arms as many of his customers are. “I don’t love sleeves on evening wear. Older skin is older skin. Just use a little self-tanner and you will feel great. If you do insist on sleeves, make them three-quarter, perfectly tailored, cut close to your arm.” If you do insist on short sleeves (hey, the customer is always right!), he warns, they should not go straight across. “Make sure it goes up into a little scallop in the middle,” he says, meaning along the shoulder seam, to give the illusion of lightness and keep the line from cutting you at an unattractive place on the upper arm.

Camilla is a fan of sensible footwear for long days on the rope line (she reportedly has many dozens of pairs of Sole Bliss pumps in two-inch heels). She makes up for the less exciting shoes with designer handbags (she loves a Dior). Bailey is not against flats, as there are many great options now, but he does suggest a strappy sandal of any height works best with evening wear: “As little shoe as possible,” is his motto.

There is always a formula to effective dressing schemes, and Camilla has a good plan. She hews to signature colours, of creams and blues. She wears bracelet sleeves and then fills the open arm with bracelets, her favourite ornament. Camilla has always been an excellent hat-wearer and invests in sophisticated, never silly or novelty, headgear. But the real secret to her silhouette? Everything fits perfectly, and that is what raises the bar.

We can all steal that tip, says Bailey. “Find someone good to tailor the fit. Yes, you want to be comfortable. But too loose is old lady. Don’t go there.”

Always asking questions,

—Leanne Delap