How Can I Dress to Look More Grown-Up?

How do I dress to look more mature without looking stuffy? I’m in my 30s working in the tech industry but often get mistaken for someone in her early 20s. That may sound ideal to some, but it can be demoralizing at work, where I’m a director leading a team, and in my personal life, where I am looking for an age-appropriate date. Any advice? — Kira

It is true that, given society’s obsession with youth, the question of how to look older does not come up too often. But as you point out, looking young can be nearly as much of an issue as looking mature, given all of the unspoken prejudices about age on either end of the spectrum.

The issue is all of those qualities attached to youth: childishness, naïveté, inexperience, vulnerability, credulousness and so on. They’re embedded in the lizard brains that shape attitudes and associations and could lead to your being taken less seriously than you deserve.

While it is obviously wrong to judge people’s experience by the way they look rather than by what they do or say, it still happens all the time. This is in part why movies like “Freaky Friday” or even “Big” have so much resonance: A child in a grown-up’s body is treated like a grown-up (and their words taken as yogic wisdom), whereas a grown-up in a child’s body is treated like a child. That’s annoying and we can debate the superficiality of the situation, but it’s also reality.

So what to do?

The answer is not to dress in the most frumpy-adult way possible. That way leads to inverse thoughts of mutton dressed as lamb and, counter-intuitively, can make you look younger. What you want to do is trigger the subconscious connection to a different set of words: not “cute” or “collegiate” but “sophisticated,” “worldly” and “in control.” That’s not about basic sartorial qualities like length, but gestalt. You are using fashion to manipulate perception. Think about the difference between, say, a rah-rah skirt and a pair of neatly pleated Bermuda shorts with a matching jacket.

That means pay attention to the details. The more you appear to respect yourself, the more others may respect you. And that means clothes that are not wrinkled or spotted or dangling threads or hems. An iron, a nice set of hangers and the ability to fold garments neatly are your friends.

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