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'Hip' Out of Place?

December 20, 2012 By:
Diane McManus, Special Sections Feature
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They cover their gray — with multicolored shades — and flaunt it. They sport hot new fashion trends — and they’re perfectly content with jeans and Birkenstocks.

You can find them in Nordstrom’s — and in thrift stores.

These are the baby boomers turning seniors — and forget the nostalgic image you may have had of grandma, that sweet aproned-woman whom you traveled over the river and through the woods to visit.

Let’s rerun that: You’ll travel over the Schuylkill and through Center City to her Rittenhouse Square loft and eat a piece of the gluten-free apple pie she picked up at Whole Foods — except that isn’t quite it either. Perhaps she’s not home, because she’s stepped out for a run.

Yes, there she is in shorts, sleeveless top, sunglasses, neon-colored shoes. Or perhaps not: It could be the woman behind you in line at Starbuck’s — you saw her, right? Purple hair, blue nails, artist portfolio, talking on an iPhone?

As Dorothy mused in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

Or not even Elkins Park.

While no generation can be easily summed up, and quite a few women in the 55-plus age group will claim a more traditional identity, the mere presence of older age groups in untraditional categories invites some to puzzle, “What is going on here?”

The times — and the aging — are changing.

Models are appearing on runways proudly keeping their hair gray and their bodies lean. Witness Linda Rodin, 63, developer of a skin care line, and former model who still cuts an elegant figure.

Sue Levy, a Philadelphia resident, avid runner and retired teacher, resolutely refuses to bow to fashion.

“As a youthful Jewish senior,” Levy commented in an email, “the importance of being ‘hip’ has no impact on my life. I have no desire to compete with anyone — young or old, (unless it’s in a race!). Fads are fads and not long lasting — they come and go.”

Comfort, then, not any fashion guru, seems to guide many choices, and that comfort extends beyond clothes.

The boomers have historically defied anything that smacks of dictated style, including fashion, preferring to set trends rather than follow them, whether that means flaunting style or ignoring it and opting for their own choice.

L.L. Bean has not gone broke making practical, comfortable clothes that fit.

Hipness seems less to be about what others expect than about what each person chooses. Observes Sandra Folzer, 73, a Philadelphia communal activist, “I run and am active in opposing fracking and going to marches and do other seemingly ‘hip’ stuff because it’s what I believe in. I do it for myself.”

Folzer admits that her granddaughters, 16 and 13, “sometimes laugh lovingly at my activities but I suspect they love me for it. They respect my energy and desire to make the world a better place.”

She also concedes that her clothes aren’t “hip,” “since I don’t even know what is in style.” She recalls that one of her daughters once gave her “a very short black skirt because she thought I should show off my legs. I wore it once for her but didn’t feel comfortable. Gave it to a granddaughter.”

More important to her is the quality of her life, not the stylishness of her wardrobe. “At 73,” she says, “I want to enjoy life and try to make the world a better place for everyone.”

Like Folzer, Mary Braverman, 50, of Bala Cynwyd, has the fit physique to easily wear the latest styles, but comments, “I’m not sure that I have ever been hip!”

Yet like Folzer, she enjoys the connection she has with younger people. “I consider it vital,” she says, “to stay in touch with what the different generations are doing — having my children has been immensely helpful for my feeling happier about being alive.  

“I think it’s because having a connection with younger generations increases the feeling of being relevant.”

In a fall cross-country race open to college and non-college runners, Braverman bravely participated as the only non-college woman. A competitor approached her afterward and complimented her for being an “inspiration” — a rather fast moving inspiration, as it happens, often outpacing runners half her age.

As a whole, this is not a generation easy to catch, pin down, or label.

As Katie Becker reports in her Prevention Magazine blog article, “Are ‘Older’ Women Suddenly Trendy?,” “Maybe it’s the fact that boomer women control 70 percent of the disposable income in this country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. Any advertiser worth her Mad Men DVD collection knows exactly which audience she should be targeting.”

Diane McManus is a seasoned writer specializing in health issues. This article appeeared originally in "The Good Life,," a special section.

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