Old people's clothes

Considering that I live in Florida now, my ponderment regarding the following subject seems even more relevant.

In the United States, at least, there seems to be something of a uniform among the elderly. Both sexes wear clothing that is made almost exclusively of polyester and polyester blends, with the women favoring bright flower print blouses and shockingly bright pants (usually lime green, hot pink or sky blue), and the men wearing nerdy banded bottom shirts paired with seersucker pants.

This question is something of a three-parter.

  1. Where do old people get their clothes? Even in Kmart, you won’t find aisles full of lime green pants. (I’ve seen http://www.blair.com, but I don’t think Blair is the sole outfitter to the country’s tens of millions of old folks.)

  2. Was there ever a time when the bright polyester clothing preferred by America’s elderly was considered fashionable? (The current crop of oldsters matured in the 1930s through the early 1950s, and as far as I know such fashions weren’t ever in vogue during that time. I;ve heard theories about the clothes being relics of the 1970s, but was it possible for so many pairs of lime green pants to last through 30 years of regular use?)

  3. If the clothes were never fashionable at any given time, how did the style become so popular among old folks? (I’ve heard “comfort,” but if that’s the case, why the mutant colors and strange patterns?)

I do not know where the older folks in your neighborhood shop, but I do know quite a few elderly people who shop from catalogs.

Why do they wear the bright colors, it makes them feel good. Bright colors look cheerful. As one gets older the body starts to develop pains in places one didn’t even know had pain receptors. This is their way of saying “I am not going to let a few aches and pains get me down”. Now understand some of these pains would put you and me in bed for awhile but these old people are thumbing their noses at the pain.

Another reason to wear bright colors is that they are old enough to not care what the current fads are with the younger sets. Actually I find that most senior citizens of my acquaintance would not want to be 18 yrs old ever again.

Polyester is easy maintenance. No ironing, just wash and wear. Polyster blends were in fashion in the '70s.

These people are obviously still having some fun in their life.

Another “ponderment” is the insistance of many elderly males to wear their pants at increasing altitudes above their wasteline. What’s up with that?

I’ve noticed that Elderly gentleman of blue collar background in my area tend to wear “Dickies” style cotton pants and or shirts.They are usually dark blue, dark green or grey.My grandfather drove a bus in NYC for 35 years (no, he didn’t know Ralph Kramden).When he retired he continued to wear the dark grey pants and light grey shirt which was his uniform for those 35 years.I remember asking him why he still wore them.His reply “If you get comfortable doing something,wearing the same thing for so long why change?”
I wonder if someday our generations “elderly uniform” will be levis jeans (maybe a 501 relaxed fit), baggy sports jersey and leather cross trainers.All the kids will be wearing lime green polyester and laughing at our clothes.

I think Rich is on to it.

I know that people of my generation are comfortable wearing a certain set of clothing that not only puts us apart from the others, but bonds us to each other. People tweak it a bit here and there as the style changes, but all and all, it’s basically the same as you grow older. In a way, you almost get ‘stuck’ in your generational ‘style’.

With my grandparents, their ‘style’ was polyester and bright. Ours is jeans and polo’s. For the kids of today it’s baggy and phat.

I wonder if another factor is increasingly failing eyesight. Maybe they wear the big, bold patterns and bright colors in order to see each other. Kind of like birds, so they can identify other old folks.

On another note, perhaps their clothes really are old. Well taken-care-of polyester can last a long, long time and today’s elderly certainly know the value of a dollar.

Well, when I get old, I’m going to wear all the vintage stuff I love from the early 20th century, and long patterned full skirts and white lacey middy blouses and cameo brooches and watch necklaces. And I’m going to have long hair that I’ll die that silver blue color. Just because it’s such a cliche. And I’ll wear my hair in one of those big puffy updos that they wore in the Edwardian era.

But as the OP pointed out, these clothes weren’t in fasion when these people were growing up. I like deb’s theory, but maybe KitKhat has a point, too, about old folks knowing the value of a dollar and polyester lasting. Maybe these people only buy clothes every thirty years or so.

BTW, I remember David Feldman addressed the old men-rising belts situation on one of his Imponderables books, but I don’t recall what he came up with.

Thanks alot, Alan. You’ve now forced me to call my grandmother to find out.

This may take a while, but I’ll be back…

Yes, polyester wasn’t the fabric that today’s seniors grew up with, but don’t forget that when synthetic fabrics hit the market – around the time this generation was marrying and having their first kids – they were considered a miracle product (“better living through chemistry” and all that).

Folks of my parents’ age embraced “wash-and-wear” clothes to the extent that even after the hype died down and more sensible people realized that the stuff was non-breathing, hotter than hell, scratchy and cheesy-looking, they remained hooked for life. Frankly, I think that a generation of housewives were so enamored (sp?) with iron-free clothes that they brainwashed themselves (and their husbands) into thinking that the stuff was actually better than natural fabric garments.

Yeah, but not ALL synthetics suck. Polyestor seventies style button down shirts, like That '70s Show, rayon, and such, aren’t always that bad. Poly-cotton blends, etc etc.

I was actually pondering this same question today, after a phone call from my grandparents. They’ve both worn the same clothing for as long as I can remember. The only way they get new clothes is if they get them as Christmas presents.

Based on little more than personal observations and a hunch, I’ve come up a theory I’ll call retail alienation. I think at some point people just lose interest in shopping for new stuff. My parents, no matter how much they like a CD, won’t actually walk into a record store and purchase it themselves. Either I have to be with them or they ask me to bring it home from work. I can see where I wouldn’t like going into a store where most of the stuff was unfamiliar to me and everything else I dismissed as crap, like my parents do any section but the oldies. I would imagine the same would hold true for people going out to buy clothes for the first time in ten years.

I would guess, as others already have, that some of these clothes are 70’s originals. The polyester hasn’t worn out yet, so the clothes have not yet been replaced.

These clothes may not be ones that the oldsters bought themselves back in the '70’s, however. Many senior citizens love to frequent thrift shops. I went to one once on a Tuesday, which happened to be Senior Citizen Discount Day, and the place was packed. I would guess that many seniors like to frequent garage sales as well, which would be another source of good cheap polyester. And, when an old person dies, there is, of course, the estate sale, where the polyester clothing gets bought up by yet another old person, and so it goes.

If an old person does buy new clothes, they might look for polyester just because it lasts so long (and, therefore, they get more for their money.) Heck, Blair.com wouldn’t sell the stuff if no one bought it.

As for the bright colors, strange patterns, etc., I am reminded the book called “When I Am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple”. Old people don’t have to look “professional” or “conventional” anymore. Either they like those colors, or else they just don’t care. Failing eyesight may cause them to favor bolder colors and patterns, too.

And, of course, their friends dress that way :).

Tamex said,

Speaking as an aging person, this describes my attitude completely: I just don’t care about “fashion” anymore. At this stage of my life, comfort is more important. My day to day attire is jeans, a loose tee shirt and shoes only if I am going out.

As to the upward rising belt-line, a lot of older men tend to develop a pot belly—maybe the rise in the belt line is to prevent that belly from spilling over the tops of their pants? (I haven’t developed the belly yet, but I suspect it is on its way.)

Guinastasia: I like your thoughts on what you’d like to wear when you get “old”. The Gibson Girl look would look very stylish, to me anyway. (Forget the blue hair).

But… for men, the ca. 1900 clothes are (I reckon) predominantly woolen, which suck in the DC area climate, especially in a 1900 style non-air-conditioned climate. I don’t know how those Civil War guys got around humping all that equipment in the summer while wearing heavy woolen uniforms. Nor can I imagine how the people who had to live with wool as the fabric of their lives kept it clean. Laundry must have been a major undertaking. I understand the proverbial “tenterhooks” were used to keep washed woolens from shrinking up while drying.

God forbid that I retire into the clothes of my youth from the 70’s. The styles were pretty form-fitting, and right now I reckon my form would best fit a Jell-o mold. I would suppose that I’ll retire into what seemed comfortable for most of my life and not when I was a wild oat farmer (or grape smuggler?). So I’ll be puttering down to the hardware store in relaxed fit jeans, moon-landing type athletic shoes, and a t-shirt with some corporate logo printed on it.

Perhaps this is the same thinking which I’ve noticed amongst the elderly. Intelligent people of that generation who have little or no trouble adapting to using modern digital technology in the home would rather spend an hour in the bank queue than use the automatic teller machines. My aunt (aged 75) still has an extremely keen intellect, yet refuses to let me show her how to use an ATM, even though, when I assure her she’d learn in two minutes, she believes me. She just “doesn’t want to”.

Hey, I’ve got a notion about this that I don’t think anyone has brought up yet. And I’m certain that’s a first.

The answer may not have as much to do with fashion and taste as it does another issue:


Could it be that the elderly we’re talking about simply grew up in an era where it was unheard of to spend the kind of money new clothes cost today? I think many of them don’t look beyond the sale racks when they DO buy clothing and therefore don’t end up dressed in the latest fashions. They are also loathe to toss anything out if it’s still in good shape. It may be 27 years old, but it’s good as new and they see no reason to be wasteful.

I go shopping with my grandmother on occasion and witness this. She pulls something off a rack and ONLY looks at the price tag. If it’s a good deal and seems high enough quality to suit her, she buys it. Consequently, in spite of this my grandmother generally looks GREAT! She leans a bit toward the polyester thing, but generally looks sort of “with it” for a 78 year old woman.

I also notice that the places she shops tend to cater to that “polyester style” and thus to older people.

Please note: my grandmother has no qualms about spending real money on ME. It’s just when it comes to buying stuff for herself that $$$ is the main issue over anything else.

As soon as I hit 55, I’m going to start wearing hats!!


Hey, I turn 55 in April and just started wearing a hat. I used to think it didn’t look “cool”, but now I don’t care!

I like it and i’m going to wear it!

SexyWriter, I’d buy your theory if it weren’t for the fact that some of those clothes are actually fairly pricey!

I think that it’s partly a change in body shape. When your parts start to sag a little, a lot of the regular women’s & men’s clothes don’t fit quite right. They’re cut for younger builds. So seniors naturally gravitate towards certain makers who offer comfortable clothes in simple styles with uncomplicated fastenings (easier for older hands).

From that point, I don’t know how much is demand (the stuff that is polyester, and boldly colored, sells the best) or supply (that’s what these manufacturers think sells, so that’s all they make available).

I’m sure my grandma wore a lot of Koret and Alfred Dunner and Blair.

It’d be most comfortable to wear sweats all the time, but most of my elders are from an era where one wouldn’t wear those outside the house. That’s why there is such a market for those sweatsuits that are perky-looking and sort of dressy, I think. Comfort, ease of fit, warm, but still look okay to an older person’s eyes.

My advisor dresses pretty dowdy, but she buys out of the Land’s End catalog. I like some of their stuff, too, but we buy very different items. She can get older-lady style there, but without the nasty fabrics.

“I just don’t care about ‘fashion’ anymore. At this stage of my life, comfort is more important.”

Oh, dear, that is so sad. I have an agreement with my best friend; both of us would rather die than to live taste-impaired. So when he starts to comb-over his bald spot or I start to paint little rouge circles on my face, we have a suicide pact.

I’m with Guinastasia—I want to be a Margaret Dumont/Mrs. Drysdale-style matron, complete with lorgnette, monobosom and little-old-lady hat (the kind with one daisy sticking out of it).