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Turning 40 in style

I’m 40 years old — shouldn’t I have the fashion thing figured out by now?

Last summer my family and I spent a lot of time looking at old photos. My father was very ill, and somehow reminiscing helped us feel a tiny bit better as we faced this difficult time. During this Kodak vigil, one family pic — that I hadn’t seen in years — popped out at me. Taken at my bat mitzvah, the photo not only depicted 13-year-old me in a white dress with a lavender grosgrain-ribbon belt (and matching short-sleeved jacket and amethyst drop necklace) but it also captured my mom at 40.

Her hair was teased and frosted (it was 1981, after all, and Lady Diana had just gotten engaged); her silk floral tank and matching skirt were elegant but understated; a sweep of blue eyeshadow rimmed her eyelids; and a double strand of pearls floated right at her neck. She and my dad seemed so sophisticated — she holding her hands gracefully in her lap; he gazing intensely at the camera, temples graying ever so slightly, his own camera in hand. Seeing her in this photo, as I teetered on the verge of 40 myself, all I could think was that she looked leagues more mature than I’ve ever felt.

My mom was a divorce attorney in the era of L.A. Law, which meant a daily uniform of silk blouses, suits, and heels. She wore it all well, with an air of “I’m a power woman in a man’s world, so don’t mess with me” that made a big impression on me as a child. Her elegantly defined style seemed to reflect the fact that at 40, she was fully grown up, a person who was sure of her place in the world. That’s what I always thought 40 would look like for me too — complete with the perfect outfit for every occasion.

In contrast, I’m a working (but completely un-corporate) mom juggling three jobs. I’m sliding into midlife with a toddler who just finished potty training. I don’t know if Isaac Mizrahi would ever design a line called “Just Doing the Best You Can,” but that’s how I’d describe my current style. Instead of a suit and pumps, I’m more likely to wear a peasant blouse and jeans. I’m in that messy phase of life when the simple act of getting out the door with lipstick on and a necklace that doesn’t completely clash with my top feels like a major accomplishment. I’ve embraced the fact that I’m an unapologetic clog wearer, and I don’t need the Handbag of the Minute to feel I’ve arrived.

Sometimes I have trouble mentally bridging the gulf between what I expected of myself at this age and the reality. To be sure, I never thought I would become the mirror image of my mom. Silk blouses and makeup will never be daily requirements in my more relaxed work life. But I still find it vaguely disconcerting that there’s not a single outfit in my closet that I consider foolproof, no ensemble that I can look at and instantly know, “That’s me.” If having one’s own signature style, whether it’s “classic elegance” or “urban bohemian,” is a requirement of adulthood, well, that’s one test I’ve failed.

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