Fashion Taps Into the Middle Ages

Plunging, tight tees and belly-baring pants aren't quite right — but neither are boxy Granny dresses, polyester Polos and drab cardigans.

With most fashion catering to Britney Spears wannabes or Very Mature Women — the kind living in retirement communities — what’s a baby boomer (search) looking for style and comfort to do?

After years of neglect by the fashion industry, there are finally more options for the middle-aged who want to look current and sexy without being a slave to teens' fickle fads.

Answering the call, Tommy Hilfiger has come out with a line for sophisticates called H Hilfiger. Gymboree Corp. has launched Janeville, a new store for suburbanite pretty mommas. And Talbots — one of the few retailers that have kept the mature woman in mind — recently got a facelift, with more youthful, trendier offerings.

“Consumers are asking for this,” said E! Networks Lifestyle Director Elycia Rubin. “The stores are flooded with low-cut jeans and fitted tops. The baby boomers want what’s comfortable and appropriate for them.”

Save for a few exceptions, fashion designers and retailers have often snubbed women ranging from their late-30s into their 50s and even 60s who are looking for clothes that are sassy but still classy, flirty but not vampish.

“It’s either young or old. Everything in between, you’re stuck fending for yourself,” said 30-something new mother Cristina Barden of Long Island, N.Y. “It’s hard to find trendy, age-appropriate clothes. I would love to sit all these designers down and slap them across the face and say, 'What the @#$%!! are you thinking?'”

Cute clothes for teens and 20-somethings run rampant in malls — but older women (especially mothers of teens and 20-somethings) usually feel silly donning the hipster (search) duds.

“If you’re dressing like your daughter, people look at you as if you’re weird,” said teacher Joyce Acton, 52, of suburban Philadelphia. “And you are weird.”

But in the late 1990s, a small store called Chico’s that opened in 1983 soared in popularity because it catered to the forgotten boomers. On the racks: flowy sundresses, shapely shirts and other casualwear that Rubin describes as “loose-fitting, breezy and breathable.”

Chico’s success prompted others to follow suit and target the not-too-young and not-too-old. H is sophisticated but conservative while keeping the signature youthful Hilfiger flair intact. Talbots' new collections are less frumpy and zestier than some of its previous lines. And Janeville tantalizes suburban moms in their 30s with a blend of style, femininity and versatility.

Two Janeville stores have opened on the West Coast with another on the way; a total of 10 to 12 across the country are planned by year’s end.

“We’re going after a demographic that people have skipped,” Lisa Harper, chairman and CEO of Gymboree Corp., said in a phone interview. “Nobody was really capturing that age range in between, as women convert from being more career focused to more family focused.”

Harper says Janeville, whose shops look like Hamptons beach cottages, is a cross between Ann Taylor and Anthropologie.

Its signature pieces are casual but elegant, comfortable but form-fitting sweaters and tops with details like ribbon or lace trim, subtle beading and embroidery. Capri pants (search) have stretch in them. Skirts and dresses are shape-enhancing, but not super short or skin-tight. The focus is on mix-and-match clothing.

“The outfit has something novel, so it’s embellished with a little bit of whimsy and surprise to it,” Harper said.

The new lines for women in the prime of life aim to change the fact that many are hard-pressed to name one store or label they gravitate toward.

“I don’t think there are many options for me,” said Barden. “I do a lot of Internet shopping. I don’t have the time or the patience to shop in stores.”

And variety seems to be the key for busy women in their middle years — since most wear a host of different hats at work and at home in the course of a single day.

“The consumer that age wants more options, more choice,” Rubin said. “You can still look sexy, stylish and trendy. It’s just about designing clothes with a little more sophistication in mind.”