How to Avoid Looking Frumpy or Matronly


I would be interested in your advice on the opposite of looking more mature- how to avoid look ‘mature” i.e. matronly or frumpy when you are a larger size (i.e. 16+) woman….Thanks. Love reading your posts


To avoid looking frumpy:

principles of volume

Ensure that you don’t wear too much volume at the same time.  Only one voluminous garment at once.   A loose top with slim bottoms, or slim top with more voluminous bottom.

be wary of small florals

Beware of old lady patterns.  If it reminds you of something your grandmother would wear then put it away.  Particularly small floral prints as you get older can look frumpy.  If it looks at all like a nurses uniform, avoid it!

Don’t wear clothing that is too large.  It’s common as women get older to get more obsessed with comfort and will choose clothes that are a size too large.

Don’t worry about looking ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ as long as you don’t show too much skin, or wear head to toe the latest fashion trends it’s just not going to happen.

Be aware of the current fashion trends.  If you’re wearing clothes that are dated in their silhouette, you will look older and frumpy.


A lack of jewellery or jewellery that is to small will age you.  As you get older it’s important to become a little bolder and more confident in your accessorizing.  Many women dress clothing that is very plain then don’t add any accessories to add spice and a focal point.

Skirts that are too long – the midi skirt (mid-calf) skirt is hard to wear unless you have super long legs.  For everyone else it’s frumpy territory.  Hem your skirts to your knee (unless it’s a maxi)

comfortable and stylish shoes

Shoes that are all about comfort but lack any style, and don’t work with the outfit.  If you’re wearing a skirt or cropped trousers (another danger territory for the more mature woman) your shoes need to be low vamp.

Get a modern hairstyle. Wear your best most youthful clothes when you go to your hairstylist. If you walk in in your old lady clothes you will get an old lady hairstyle. Walk in looking modern and youthful and you will get a hairstyle to match. Speak to your stylist about the look you’re after. Share your style words with them.

What are you tips to looking youthful as you get older?



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  • Great advice, Imogen. One additional issue for many women (including me) is the need to wear orthotics in our shoes, and many styles are not deep enough (unfortunately, that’s where the chunky comes in), However there are more and more nice shoes available that will take an orthotic. They are not cheap but can be totally worth it.

  • Imogen,

    I have problems wearing a “slim top” with loose bottoms. When I wear a slim top, my hips get in the way and it ends up bunching up around my waist (especially in the back) which accentuates my boxy and short-waisted figure. What kind of slim top can I wear?

    Also, because I am short waisted and petite (5’3″) a loose top and slim pants make me look REALLY short and even more boxy.

    I’d appreciate your wise counsel!

    • Kelleen – depends on your body shape – you may find that a peplum top works better so it doesn’t bunch at your hips. Alternatively, maybe you’re better with a looser top and slim bottoms!

    • Kelleen

      I translate loose top for me (also short and fluffy) as draping but not clingy, but not really big-loose. Not easy to find in the right colors, though.

    • Try belting your tops with a skinny or elastic belt at the smallest part of your waist (it’ll give a peplum effect). I wear petites, have an “hourglass” figure but am shortwaisted so in most shirts I look boxy. Since I started belting, it’s opened up an entirely new look for me!

  • When we’re young, bright skin and hair help us get by even when our style choices aren’t ideal. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the importance of caring for my changing skin, and choosing a flattering hair color and style that help “lift” things visually. Shoulder length hair with layers works best for me.

    All of your color, style, and proportion advice for an X-shape body also help a bunch. Wearing a classic, feminine item, such as a fit and flare dress, hemmed to the knee is an instant pick me up!

    P.S. I couldn’t agree more about avoiding clothes that are too large. I recently purged my spare closet which contained clothes I’d worn in the late 90’s, early 2000s. My 17-year old daughter couldn’t understand why I had such large sizes even though I hadn’t fluctuated in weight much over that time (I tried a few things on and I was drowning in them and looked 10 pounds heavier). It was really an AH-HA moment.

      • Ugh…those awful shoulder pads. Even back during the 80s, I refused to wear them (when I bought new clothes, I’d have a tailor remove the pads and adjust the garment).

        Saleswomen lectured me about how shoulder pads created a beautiful silhouette — if a woman’s shoulders were considerably wider than her waistline, there’d be the illusion of a slender figure. First, I already had a slim waist and hourglass figure. Second, the advice was ridiculous; huge shoulderpads just looked silly and unnatural.

    • I second everything Dottie says. I love bobbed hairstyles on other women, but they make my oblong face look frumpy. The medium length graduated layer cut works well on me too. And thank goodness for style advice for hourglass 8s! I had a terrible time during the low rider jean craze. Whenever I put those on, I looked like I was packing a side of roast beef from the back. The denim industry kept calling these waistbands, but I called them hipbands because they rested 8 fingers below my natural waist and high hip. I needed a jean that was at least mid-rise, but everyone kept calling that a mom jean!

      • Mom jeans are jeans way above the waist that hits the rib.
        I’m 54 and hate the skinny jeans, super low jeans, low jeans, jeggings.
        I look better in flare jeans and a waist band that sits at the natural waist (since I have a muffin top and belly).
        I am going to wear jeans as long as I look good in them, but the day that they look awful on me, I (cringe) will wear slacks and jog set (polyester).

  • I live in New Zealand where lots of women wear lots of black but as you age I don’t always think that this is the best colour for the complexion. I have olive skin and I am very careful not to wear too much black in winter when my skin gets washed out because it does not suit me that much. I have also noticed that many of my friends reach an age where they feel that they must cover up their arms and their belly’s. Dressing in this way particularly in terms of their belliy means that they look much bigger than they already are. I am not a little girl and I have a belly but I also still have a waist at 50 and with a belt to provide a contour line many of my dresses look much better with the volume pulled in. Finally I believe that dressing well is in part down to confidence and self acceptance; perhaps it is because I have never been considered an acceptable size (I am a 16 to 18) that I am willing to take some risks with dress. What I am not willing to do is just fade away or dress mutton as lamb as neither is a good option in my view. Stylish dressing is accepting what you have and not just seeing the faults.

    • Hi Paula and Imogen
      Yes I too would like a post on glasses. In the last few years I have gone from a sometime wearer to a permanent wearer of glasses. I get comments about how sad or unhappy I look when I don’t feel that way at all. I can see that glasses change the way I look completely. I need to buy a new pair soon I wish there was a styling service to help me buy the right pair. Any thoughts?

  • Great article. I work in retail with mainly older women and those with larger figures and see so many women who have given up on style. Many have poor grooming, wear heavy sneakers and socks and bland poorly maintained clothing. I feel personal grooming, posture and confidence are essential in maintaining style as you get older.

  • This may be a small thing but I think you need to wear updated nail polish colors. I have found that frosted nail polish looks matronly on my hands. Shimmer is okay, but frosted, no. Ditto for makeup.

  • Great post. I’ve read other “how not to look old” books and articles, but this is one of the most relevant and succinct that I’ve ever seen…not surprised as you are really good at distilling the material!

    One thing I just realized and tried (and think it’s working) is getting my eyebrows tinted with the “lowlight” when I get my highlights/lowlights for my hair. Helps to combat the whole skin-tone thing. (Of course Day 1 is always a little startling, but the boldness diminishes to a reasonable level quickly – just don’t do it the morning before an important afternoon appointment.)

  • I agree that most older women don’t look good in black – it’s far too harsh for ageing skin – and similarly very bright colours. I think the most important issue for older women is finding colours that flatter them, being aware that these probably won’t be the same colours that suited them in their prime!

    I also think that wearing matching shoes and bag gives older women a rather dated look.

  • Hi, Imogen. I particularly like the suggestion of not looking dowdy when you visit your hairdresser, it’s a very good point! I agree with Paula B in asking if you could comment about wearing eyeglasses.
    When is it too much (e.g. Big jewellery, earrings, AND eyegalsses) Can you have too much going on , and, therefore, everything is fighting each other? Thanks.

  • You’ve taken the first step: wanting not to be dowdy! (As opposed to making excuses, blaming other things etc.) You don’t say your age but it seems to be older rather than younger and fashions have changed quite a bit even over the last 10 years.
    If you are size 16+, how about dark monochrome clothes with your favourite colour scarf/glasses/ jewellry/bag? Imogen has posted a great deal on flattering and unflattering patterms but I find buying something in a pattern and then never wearing it my worst mistake…So monochrome clothes get much more wear.
    Are you in Australia? If so, Sportscraft and their more expensive label Signature are very good for 16+. (Available at discount outlets so you can get very good value clothes if you keep looking as the stock changes…) Other good labels are Country Road’s Trenery and also the label Philosophy, sold in some Rodney Clark stores. These provide fitted 16+ sizes but if you are short you will need to have things taken up as bigger clothes are also longer clothes.
    Your clothes need to fit well. Jackets and skirts that are too long are very aging and pants fashion has changed totally so slim cut is much more modern than any sort of bagginess, for older 16+ women anyway.
    The two most major fashion crimes in Australian malls : carrying your stuff in supermarket eco-bags and wearing old white joggers when you are not exercising.
    Fashionable neutral bag and shoes will go with everything (think Mrs Middleton…).
    If you have a skirt or shirt which really suits you, get it copied in another colour or look for similar styles in the stores.
    Other than that, it is basically a matter of looking critically in the mirror (front and back), noticing people who you think dress well and looking for celebrities you think have good style and emulating them. Think what they would wear and this will stop you buying something which will “be useful” but never make you feel good.

  • I live by (or try to!) all these great tips except for the large scale jewelry. To me, it shouts “old lady.” I know what you mean about small jewelry, so I shoot for a statement somewhere in-between. Thanks–Susan

  • And very important – a good bra! Nothing makes you look as dumpy as low boobs. Hike ’em up, and let your waist show!

  • Those of us who were younger and stylish in the days of punk see clunkier shoes as Doc Martin inspired and NOT aging – dainty shoes to me seem more ladyish and staid.

  • Good advice on the bigger jewelry. I especially like that idea for necklaces. Years ago an older workmate and I were trying on coats at lunchtime one day. The excellent sales woman* told my mate that one of the coats looked way better than all the others. She thought that because of the attractive, interesting collar on the coat and said “As you get older a good collar is your best friend. It frames the face and adds interest and softness without shouting.” Now over 30 years later I totally get what she meant.
    * I was dithering back and forth between a coat that came in either black or midnight blue. She pronounced “Oh the black dear! They only make the midnight for the people who can’t wear the black!” I don’t know about that but I loved that coat until someone stole it out of a restaurant!

  • I totally second the advice about dressing up to go get your hair cut. Makes a huge difference :-). For me there’s a corollary: don’t make your hair appointments too early in the morning..

  • I don’t know what you mean by dowdy or matronly. The image I have of matronly is a female guard in a 50s B movie about a women’s prison. And when did “mature” get to be a bad word? I am so sick of old being equivalent, to bad, irrelevant, ugly, useless, helpless. Why is looking “old” so terrible? It’s terrible only because of our perception of what is attractive.

    Then there is all the talk about dressing to look thinner because, of course, fat is bad and unacceptable too.

    Worst of all is old and fat. Oh, the horror!

    Why must we continually strive to LOOK BETTER? We are saying that we are not OK as we are and how we look is THE most important thing.

    Well if we eliminate all the fat women and the old women, that will be a giant step in the right direction. Right? No one over US dress size 4 and age 30, no, better make it 25, should be allowed to take up space on the planet.

    You can write me off as a nut case or you could give a little thought to what I said.

    • Chris – it is your choice to dress as you please. I’m asked questions and I answer them as best as I can. If this information isn’t of interest to you feel free to ignore it. Why do people want to look better? Probably because many women feel better and more confident when they look better (in their eyes). There are numerous studies that show that people who look more attractive (not natural beauty) are more successful at work, and get more opportunities in life. It’s not about being a size 4 or 30 years old. It’s about looking like you value your body and yourself today – what ever age and size you are. Taking care of yourself says something about self-love and self-esteem.

    • Wow talk about closed minded…… What a rant.. she should read a different advice column… Seriously. The rest of us appreciate your advice. Thank you

  • I really enjoyed this column. Having recently turned the bit “5-0” I am particularly sensitive to the issue of “frumpiness”. That is not a space I EVER want to inhabit. I am a career person and I like working. I intend to never retire (health permitting) and fully believe that a person needs to always look their best if they want to achieve success. The saying is that 50% of success is simply showing up and think how much more you could forward yourself by showing up AND looking fabulous!
    I see other people my age handling the situation in different ways and I have witnessed how if you don’t fight it, the years between 50 & 60 (sometimes even between 45 & 50) can take a person from cute and stylish to old and dowdy.
    My advice to my sisters is: “don’t give up, never give up”. Fight the fight 🙂
    My grandmother passed away in May at 93 and she was wearing her make up and her hair was fully coiffed – she looked beautiful. That’s how I was raised.
    Good luck!

  • I suppose I’m “of a certain age” in some circles at least – look young 40s but I’m actually mid 50s – and the jewelry thing has me stymied. I have delicate features and small bones, so need smallish jewelry. Chunky or large things are just completely out of scale on me! I no longer wear just “post” earrings, having found some short dangles (about an inch and a half long, half inch wide), and wear them nearly every day.

    How do I find/wear “larger scale” jewelry that won’t overpower my smallish features?

  • I’m a 50-something-year-old who was raised to dress appropriate for the occasion/event and to look my best. In so doing, I feel my best. I work hard to keep my figure and people say I look at least a decade younger than I actually am, even though I do not dress like a teenager. I don’t apologize for wanting to dress nicely. And no, I’m not a size 4; and I’m well past age 30. It saddens me to read a rant like the one above. There’s nothing wrong with putting one’s best foot forward. It’s an outward manifestation of the way one feels inside; and in one’s career, the way one looks projects confidence and professionalism.

  • Generally speaking, dyeing one’s hair is aging, unless one can spend upwards of $300 every couple of weeks for maintenance. NOTHING is more aging than a head full of dye-fried hair. Wear your silvers proudly, women!

  • I think you wrote this sticker just for me! It’s so easy, especially when you’re tired or busy, to just grab the comfy clothes, throw them on and go. My daily challenge is to force myself to make the effort. Purging my wardrobe of ‘frumpy’ clothes is helping, but some days some how I still manage it! I am a work in progress!

  • I think hair colour is important. If I had salt and pepper or silvery hair, I would actually wear it proudly (well styled, of course). But I have a mousey, nothing-y colour that washes me out and makes me feel invisible. Since I can’t afford monthly colouring, I’ve experimented with henna, and have found some of Lush’s shades to be really natural looking, not at all orangey, they warm up my skin tone wonderfully, and they are all natural ingredients. Some of the shades are darker, too, so good if you don’t want an obvious red. They also condition the hair beautifully.

    The other thing is eyebrows. Over-plucked and naturally thinning eyebrows look ageing. With natural thinning, I’ve now added eyebrow colour to my makeup routine. Thicker eyebrows are in fashion now, so plucked styles can be dating. Thicker-looking brows add definition.

  • I am 6-0. That is hard to say, but yeah, I just turned 60. I am working on reversing the 6lbs I gained by eating junk. I treadmill 7days/wk, but I am a little pudgy for my taste. I’m a size 4ish (no vanity sizing), and I like to dress nice. Jeans are for winter, and I’m not a huge fan. They look sloppy to me. I’m all girl!

    I find statement jewelry fun, and it can bring an outfit from ok to fabulous. generally sparking a conversation up. I like color in spring and summer, and I live in long bias cut linen skirts, which I own in 10 colors, some with matching safari jackets. Summer and linen skirts… I also wear form fitting “bodycon” dresses, but buy them a size or two up. Sexy but not slutty.

    I am saving to get dermal some filler work done, because I need to work until I’m 68-70. I like what Joan Rivers said “drive an old car, but wear a new face.” I agree.

    Ladies, we’re all different flavors, and socio-economic levels, psychographics, and have different life experiences. Lets embrace our desire to look our best, until the end.

  • Help. Need assistance in purging wardrobe. Am 70 years old — look & feel 50! What should I “really” have in my closets from everday wear to special activities. Went overboard on purchasing clothes 5 years ago and have way too much; especially shoes [flats, low heels (2″) and boots] My Hubby is 20 years younger (Yes… I am a Cougar!!) retired military and works as a government contractor. We still have functions to attend and we live in the States. And moving [due to a job transfer] at the end of the late summer/early fall to another state; namely CO where its a colder than AZ. Any ideas? Thanks………..

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