In celebration of mutton-dressing

Iris From

Since the way women dress is curiously linked to the life stages of a sheep, perhaps you’ve looked in the mirror at some point and wondered where you stood on the lamb and mutton scale. If so, this is for you.

A friend loaned me Julia Baird’s new book Phosphorescence at the start of home-isolation. The sub-title is On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark.

There’s been plenty of commentary on the perfect timing of the book’s release and if you’re interested in a read that will leave your soul in a good place, get hold of a copy. The writing is beautiful.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with its background, Julia Baird has had three bouts of cancer, so ample time to contemplate the fragility of life.

But aside from being a journalist and TV presenter, she’s also an ocean swimmer and that clearly provides her with far more than just exercise.

The rhythmic movement through tranquil water is a metaphor for keeping going, and the remarkable sea creatures she encounters inspire their share of awe and wonder.

The middle of the book takes a slightly different tack though, and one chapter there is called Let Yourself Go. It was previously published as an article with the heading Don’t Dress your Age.

In it, Julia takes issue with this idea of mutton-dressed-as-lamb and the way older women are advised to dress.

Believe it or not, one of the first recorded uses of that expression was in praise of older woman. England’s George IV, while still a prince, apparently declared that he wasn’t interested in girls, but in mutton dressed like lamb.

These days, of course, it’s a term of ridicule. One that has led many older women to feel as though the simple act of putting on clothes can be a bit of a minefield.

“As we ascend the ladder of wisdom and maturity,” Julia notes, “we are cautioned to adopt restraint, to be ‘classic’, ‘sophisticated’, to eschew skin in favour of prim. And with every passing year, to occupy less space and be more demure — and dull.”

Her greatest mutton-fantasy, she says, is to just wear and do what she wants, and to not have such preoccupations even cross her mind.

“Isn’t there a point when one can just be a dowager, a grand old dame, a merry old boiler? When we can refuse to kowtow to prescriptions and permissions, but just march on in the shoes we fancy wearing?”

She relishes the prospect of ‘letting herself go’.

“It’s just the most delicious concept: a balloon wafting into the ether, a raft flowing smoothly with the current. One day, I have imagined, I will find myself wandering along the street, either cheerfully unkempt with hair askew, or impossibly fabulous, wearing a curious assortment of clothes — perhaps a vintage frock with dapper heels — that meet just my liking. I might bump into an old acquaintance who will regard me with confusion. ‘Oh,’ I’ll exclaim, with an easy laugh, and, touching her arm lightly, I’ll say, ‘I thought you might have known. I’ve let myself go!’ Then I’ll saunter off, dangerously liberated, feeling curious eyes on my back — having reached, finally, the age when you can reject rejection.”


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