What is Sophistication?

Reader Deb wrote to me with this fabulous question:

As a middle-aged woman, I often hear style gurus advise women of my age that we can wear trends as long as we “wear them with sophistication.” I’m happy that age-related style rules (no long hair after 35) are no more, but I’m floundering a little with the sophistication bit, especially sophistication on a budget.

Would wearing just solid colors be more sophisticated? Have you helped any of your clients with this issue? Is sophistication just one of those things that you recognize when you see it, or can it be described?

This is a doozy, but well worth addressing. I think that sophistication – especially in dressing – is ephemeral, difficult to describe, and HIGHLY subjective. It’s an observation that’s tied closely to personal taste, so what appears sophisticated to me may look ghastly to you. But, in my opinion, a few tenets generally hold true:

  • Minimalism: Very few over-the-top styles read as sophisticated. Limiting outfits to a small group of beautifully-designed, high-impact pieces will do the trick.
  • Muted tones: Much as this lover of brights hates to admit it, cool tones, neutrals, and dusky shades generally look more sophisticated (and expensive) than their lighter, bolder cousins.
  • Agelessness: This gets to the heart of Deb’s question. Babydoll dresses and graphic tees generally appear young. Thick nude stockings and quilted coats generally appear old. Items that work well for women of all ages – like basic black skirts, simple ballet flats, and fitted cardigans – convey chic sophistication.
  • Clean lines: Embellishments like ruffles, buckles, embroidery, lace trim and such are used sparingly. This ties into the minimalism thing, but is worth calling out as it applies on a piece-by-piece basis.

As for the advice to “wear trends with sophistication,” my guess is that it’s simply code for “one at a time” or “sparingly.” Which, frankly, is good advice for ALL women or ALL ages! Trends are incredibly fun and I encourage everyone to indulge … but not head to toe. If you love the look of velvet – a forecasted fall/winter trend for this year – try a velvet blazer or scarf instead of a full-skirted velvet dress. And if you worry about looking unsophisticated, don’t mix trends – wear that velvet piece with classics, instead of pairing it with over-the-knee boots and a cape. I know that sounds like an oversimplification, and it is – but you get the picture. Dip your toe in trends, don’t bathe in them. When you want to deploy a trendy piece, surround it with simple, gorgeous, classic pieces and let it shine.

Image of sophisticated lady Sigourney Weaver via collider.

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  • Anna

    While I understand the root behind what you are saying about simplicity, it almost sounds like you are suggesting that to be sophisticated you have to be bland. I would particularly have to disagree with your point about muted tones and sophistication. Jewel tones and rich deep colors are synonymous with sophistication in my mind. But more than anything, to me a sophisticated person is one who knows what colors, shapes, and embellishments look good on them and wears them with confidence, regardless of age.

    • Sal

      There’s a big difference between minimalist and bland, in my opinion!

    • Oh, there’s a BIG difference between minimalist and bland! Nothing has to be boring, not even monochrome. Mixing up fabrics and finishes, adding an interesting hat or purse or scarf, or tights with a ribbing or stripe pattern… There are all kinds of possibilities. What she’s talking about is basic sensibilities, like wearing a statement necklace, but not pairing it with statement earrings, an immodest blouse or dress, a loud scarf, crazy-bold makeup… that kind of thing. Think for example: black silky blouse, black tweed vest or jacket, black velvet skirt, black cable-knit tights, black faux-croc flats, hair in a simple updo, bold silver earrings. I’d wear that at my current age of almost-26, or 46, or 66. It’s classic, sophisticated, and monochrome but certainly not boring.

  • Leslie

    Great post and great guidelines. I agree that there is a big difference between minimalist and bland. But the success of the minimalist look lies in very subtle details and that is why it is hard to pull off successfully.

    For me, developing a suitable style in middle age has been a real struggle. So much of what is shown in magazines and carried in stores is designed to showcase the vibrancy of youth. I don’t mean to suggest that middle age people aren’t vibrant, but bodies and muscle tone change as we get older. Very few of us at 48 look the way we did at 25.

    It is hard to transition into a more mature style. To give up some of the newer, brighter, tighter trends. It is one of many things that we loose as we age. But, after a period of mourning, I discovered that sophistication is a great alternative to more youthful looks because it showcases all of the things that we gain as we get older. Strength, perspective, grace.

    I read once that we can still be as stylish at 50 as we were at 25. It just won’t be the same style.

  • Miss T

    Sophistication is largely a quality of the person, not the clothes. Or at any rate, t’s a reflection of a complex synergy between the wearer and the clothing. I don’t think sophistication can be induced by any combination of clothing, or by adding or subtracting any particular article of clothing. But intent matters: you can “wear something” with sophistication — or not.

    • Christy

      I agree!! I think sophistication has much more to do with how someone carries herself than what she’s wearing. A sophisticated woman would be able to exude confidence and competence in a track suit! It’s really one’s sense of self-efficacy that shows through when one comes off as sophisticated, in my opinion.

    • S.

      I have to admit–reluctantly, with great embarrassment–that when I unpack my idea of “sophistication,” it centers around a tall, thin woman with facial features that tend toward the angular or classic. I don’t look like that: I’m average height and I could be thinner, but more than that, my nose is canted upward, my chin’s not as strong as I wish it were, my teeth aren’t perfectly straight, one eye is a bit askew. What has stuck with me is a comment someone made more than thirty years ago: “Gee, you don’t LOOK like you’re smart.” I’m 48 and over the last year have been struggling mightily to yank myself out of the nondescript T-shirts, sweaters, and jeans I wore for twenty-five years, from grad school and a Fulbright fellowship through parenthood and as a successful freelancer. What I’m aiming for by changing the way I dress is to project the confidence I am beginning to feel on the inside as I get older, grow wiser, and enlarge my world. Part of that work, clearly, must involve redoing my mental image of sophistication and realizing that I assigned to that archetype not just physical features that I wasn’t born with but also a set of qualities–self-confidence, assertiveness, being able to make one’s way in any environment, being of value simply by being oneself–that I didn’t think I had or could ever have, making sophistication something that by definition I could never achieve. It hurts to realize that, but now that I have, I can begin to re-create that concept for myself. So I’m going to echo Miss T’s definition of sophistication: wearing something with intent.

  • Oh, you’ve totally used one of my favorite style icons for this post. I’ll have to do an icon post about Ripley 🙂

    I’m starting to think that overuse of black really isn’t sophisticated. I’ve worn a lot of it in the past, and there is a certain school of thought that seems to say “black is always chic” but I feel more sophisticated using mixes of colors in new ways than I do if I just throw on a lot of black.

    • Hmm… I agree, but I don’t, if that makes sense. Of course… I happen to freakin LOVE black. These days I don’t generally go head-to-toe; I’ll mix it with white and/or grey, and/or one great colorful blouse or accessory.

      Black is like any other shade or color. It can be chic, but it can also be horrid. Depends on how you play it.

  • Advice for middle-aged women is always as follows: 1. Look at what young women are wearing, 2. You can’t wear 90% of that stuff and 3. Here’s one really dumb thing you should wear, like clunky men’s watches, or sailor pants with great big buttons that emphasize your belly.

    Last Fall I was decorating chocolate cupcakes with m&m’s and I discovered that I really like how rich dark brown looks with small accents of intense bright colors. So I’ve been adding these sorts of pieces to my wardrobe. There is not one fashion guru who would advise a 47-year-old gray haired lady to dress like a chocolate cupcake with m&m’s. But I own this look!

    • That’s awesome. I feel a tad silly being so young and posting in this thread (But I consider it foresight!), but I gotta say. I think I love you for posting this. You freakin’ rock.

  • Laurie

    Great post! As a 58 year old who wrestles with this question on a daily basis, the only thing I have to add is that I find as I get older accessories are so important! I tend toward minimal classic styles and neutral colors, but a great pair of earrings, a great necklace, bracelet, scarf or awesome belt can really spark those outfits. They can provide the finishing touch and take a bland or boring look to a rich, sophisticated one.

  • At 43, I’ve been thinking a lot about these kinds of questions. I think one thing that’s close to a “must” for women over 40 is to have a personal style. In my 20s I played dress-up: ooh, today I’ll look like a corporate attorney! Tomorrow I’ll be a cowgirl! Now, although my wardrobe remains diverse, I have a more distinctive personal style. I dress like a woman who knows who she is, because I do.

    • spacegeek

      I like this advice very much. For me sophistication means looking pulled together and elegant, with clothing that fits. I have lost and gained a fair amount of weight over the last few years, but I keep buying clothes because I don’t want to apologize for my body. I want to feel as good as possible with the body I have *now*. My main challenge at this point is to keep looking “pulled together” when I’m in my weekend clothing–stuff I can run around in with my 4 year old twins. I’ve got the work part down pat.

  • Lucky Lucy

    Your guidelines are spot-on. Your are also correct with a less is more strategy. I am reminded of an incident a few years ago at the funeral of a friends Mother. Rose was a beauty, even into her 80’s. She dressed well and accessorized appropriately according to all her friends and family. Her famous line was…dress, put on the jewels, scarfs, etc, stand back and take off one thing. Then proceed. As we stood beside her, in repose, her daughter, (my friend) reached in, removed a brooch, and said….”yes Mother!” Well, that was interesting. I think if we view persons we feel are/were style icons into middle age and beyond we will see the pattern. My references, Jackie O, Mme. Chanel, Donna Karan, and of course Sigourney (?spelling) Weaver. I also think that most colors in tone-on-tone shades compliment a middle age complexion. That said, we would all appreciate your opinions on cosmetics in middle age Sal.

  • You hit the nail on the head in the difference between minimalistic vs. bland.

    Sophisticated looks are feminine but not frilly, alluring and dressy but not showy. Clothes and accessories are streamlined, refined, modern and tailored. Colour combinations are clean-cut and crisp. The fit and finish on garments is impeccable and you are polished to the extreme. Quite the opposite to arty and playful. I’s say that brands like Theory, Ann Taylor and Karen Millen are sophisticated – while brands like All Saints and Anthropologie are not.

  • Jen

    As a girl who still adores ruffles at 32, wallows in pinks and purples and oranges, this is a question I have to ask myself each time I am in the store! I gave up graphic tees long ago (I work with teenagers, I don’t want to look like them!) and also babydoll dresses and the like. However, there are some things I simply cannot do without. I find that if I need to indulge my need for some girlish, ruffly fun I will do it with just the shirt paired with some sleek pants and minimal jewelry. Or a bright pair of shoes against a black outfit. I find myself feeling less regretful about this than I thought I would, simply because I do work with teenagers who try to wear every trend they own at all times. Nothing like seeing a mash-up of Ugg boots, sparkly sweater tights, a ruffle tunic, a statement necklace, large earrings, and a headband with a giant flower all on one tiny girl! Got to admire their bravery though:)

  • ParisGrrl

    I learned so much from my first trip to France (in my early 40s); in planning for that trip I studied what French women were wearing, and used that as the basis for a new sophisticated “trip” wardrobe that soon became my “go-to” wardrobe on both sides of the pond. Yes, the French wear darker colors as a general rule, because the lack of closets and the love of quality over quantity argues for a more streamlined palate, but it doesn’t have to be boring. Color simply becomes more of a background for the details of each piece, which btw can certainly include lace and texture and glitz and all sorts of things if those touches look like they’re done artfully and purposefully. Scarves and jewelry stand out more against understated outfits as well. Living in Paris full-time now I can tell you that there really is only one hard-and-fast rule of dressing here: Wear what you Rock. At any age. In any style. That means you can see women in their 70s walking down the street in high boots and miniskirts, and owning it. There’s no Stacy and Clinton lurking with some “35+ don’t even go there” rule in Paris. IMO the best thing about getting older is, if you keep taking a fresh view of your wardrobe and style options, and trying new things, you really can develop an eye for what looks good on your body, and what you enjoy wearing, and those are precisely the things you should wear. Those things don’t even have to be expensive, they just have to work for the body and personality they adorn. A sophisticated eye creates a sophisticated wardrobe, be that a ballgown or just the right t-shirt and jeans.

  • cm

    Great question, this one really has me thinking!

    I’m 23. I recently got engaged. I’m no longer an undergraduate at my university. I pay bills, work hard for my (our) future every day and take care of the people I love. But, I’m still 23. I fully acknowledge that I am very much a style novice and that I am not yet a sophisticated woman.

    That being said, I have noticed a dichotomy in the style consciousness of my age group: we either fall into the extreme trend following/clinging to our 17 year old bodies camp, or we align more with the ephemeral sophisticate in a can, Ann Taylor-loving lot. Neither is ideal, clearly, since both of these styles of social presentation limit our expression as individuals and stifle our potential to grow as young women. And of course, neither extreme fosters sophistication.

    With that claim, I suppose I should explain what I believe about sophistication. To me, sophistication is not about the color palette you work from. It is not about the way you wear your hair, nor is it a function of the price tags on your clothes. Instead, to me, sophisication is an aura, it is a style of presentation that conveys more than one’s love for color or skirts or long hair. Sophistication results from experience, from knowing and loving the person you are; this is why I say that I am not sophisticated: I do not yet truly know and love who I am. Futhermore, it is my belief that many young women and even some older women also lack sophistication for this reason.

    I have a somewhat narrow definition of what it means to be sophisticated and I am sure that many people may disagree with me. But I think it is worth considering many different definitions of sophistication, since everyone’s thoughts will surely differ and the resulting pool of ideas may be very insightful.

  • Bubu

    I’ll also add, and this is true for all ages, again, that the devil is in the details, i.e. FIT. Somehow I notice this more on older women, but if the pants are too short, or you’re wearing sneakers or other not-very-flattering shoes, it can kill what is otherwise a sophisticated outfit. It may have to do with the body shape changing over time, but it’s so important that your clothes change to accommodate that. There are some gorgeous, low-heeled, comfortable walking shoes (e.g., from Born) that are worlds better than mocs or sneakers, and will pull it all together.

  • JRose

    When I think of “sophistication”, I think of an elegant, old-Hollywood style. I like your points, Sal.
    Still, I think there’s a problem with the basic premise; that middle-aged women can only wear trends if they do so “with sophistication”. A middle-aged woman can rock a boho look, or an artsy look. These might not be defined as sophisticated per se, but you could still find ways to insert trends gracefully (without looking forty-going-on-fourteen.) That’s especially true since trends vary so wildly.

  • Linda

    So, is “sophistication” something that it is really incumbent on us all to adopt or strive for after 40? Because as Angie’s comment suggests, “sophistication” is a specific style among many possible styles, and not one that especially suits me even though I am 44. I *am* rather arty and playful. No matter how old I get, I don’t think I am going to magically become streamlined, tailored, impeccable, polished, or crisp. I was curly-haired, round-faced, and soft-featured at 20 and will still be so at 60. None of this “goes” with me, however awesome it looks on Sigourney Weaver. (On the other hand, I also never looked good in or wore styles meant for perfect-bodied teenagers, so I don’t have to give them up.)

    • Sal

      Ahhhhhh, I’m glad you brought this up! I don’t think I made it clear enough in the post itself, but I don’t believe that any woman of ANY age needs to feel obliged to strive for sophistication in every outfit every day. I certainly don’t. Sophisticated ensembles of various types are useful, and it’s valuable to know how to construct your own brand of sophisticated outfit, but variety is underrated. Some women strive for sophistication at all times, some don’t. To each her own.

      And while some would disagree with me, I don’t believe that women over 40 (or 50, or 60 …) should feel obliged to change their personal styles merely due to chronology. Most age-based style rules are broad oversimplifications, in my opinion.

      • lyd

        I agree. So broad, in fact, that it has become a stereotype. Personally, I don’t believe in age-based dress among adults and I think this is where women get caught up and confused. I have heard women saying they can’t wear leggings, miniskirts, tank tops, jeans! Yes, because they are over 35! Or they can’t dare wear any color. This is ridiculous. Just don’t dress like a teenager (a.k.a. fashion victim) and wear clothes that fit your body type, and you should be fine.

        I’m 47 and I wear everything I like that suits my body type and aesthetic. My personal style in the casual arena includes the latest jeans, a fun blazer, boots, bold earrings an eye-catching bangles and .
        a funky purse. I’ve basically been wearing this same uniform for 25 years.

        Dressier occassions and work I favor a classic sheath dress, pencil skirt and boot cut slacks. For some weird reason people think I’m taller than 5’2″ and 15 years younger.

  • this is a great post, because you’re right- sophistication is a very hard term to describe- one of those things where you just know it when you see it. even though i’m 29 i still find myself worrying all the time about dressing in an appropriate and hopefully sophisticated way. i think keeping the silhouette and colors neutral is great, and then adding in 1 bright color, or 1 trend item, lets you mix it up without being over-the-top. and i think that goes for all ages!

    something i also notice, when i think of very sophisticated people, is that i want to wear what they’re wearing- even if the person is 85 years old. so i guess a timeless quality about the pieces they’re wearing is key.

  • What a great question, and a great post. I think that the way you wear your clothes can be sophisticated or not depending on fit, accessories and yes, the color. But, for me I think that sophistication also has as much to do with the woman as with the clothes. Some women just have a certain something that coupled with their way of wearing their clothes makes them seem sophisticated.

  • Such a thoughtful post, Sal – I love it!

    I agree with your thoughts on sophistication. When I think of it, I think of clean lines, a confident woman, thoughtful details, trends personalized, perfect fits. A sophisticated woman is, to me, someone who knows herself and has thought about what she’s wearing and how she’s wearing it.

  • What occurs to me is that sometimes a ‘touch’ of a trend looks like nothing; it looks like you’re tiptoeing around rather than owning your look no matter what your age. Sure, don’t go over the top if you don’t feel like it – but if you do, go for it. I guess I think that people should seek to look like themselves, whatever that may mean to them – much like Brenda Kinsel’s post on YLF today – http://youlookfab.com/2011/01/14/make-your-style-your-own/

    I echo commenter Linda’s thoughts – sophistication isn’t something that everyone is striving for nor does it work for everyone. I personally tend toward the minimalist but after years of being raised in the “look at yourself in the mirror and then take one thing off” school of decorous fashion, I wish I took more risks and wasn’t so cautious.

  • sue

    I think that sophistication also has to do with confidence in who you are and what you like and how you’d like to come across to others. In addition, I think it has to do with kindness and consideration for others. This doesn’t just mean good manners. It goes beyond that. I don’t just dress to please myself. I also keep in mind social milieu.

  • Sal, I think you’ve nailed it pretty well here! The only think I would add is attitude and demeanor. When I think “sophisticated,” I also think of someone who is confident, gracious, and self-possessed, not insecure, boorish or rude.

  • I think sophistication is in some ways also synonymous with unfussy, by which I mean that the clothing fits perfectly and is of good quality such that it doesn’t bunch up, slip down, or otherwise require constant readjusting. A sophisticated dresser never has to stop to hike up her cheap tights, pull down her shirt that keeps riding up, or adopt a pigeon-toed shuffle to keep her ill-fitting shoes from slipping off. So wearing a trend with sophistication might mean that you invest in a quality piece that fits you perfectly. Not that sophistication can’t be inexpensive, but it can never be cheap.

    • Great response. I get that fully, and I fully agree.

  • Sally – I love your take on sophistication. I completely concur. I think that sophistication is a state of mind. (And a bit of money doesn’t tend to hurt either :-))

  • I think sophistication is the same as sophistication in thought – the ability to hold two different ideas at the same time. So judicious balance of any trend against the rest of what you are wearing. You can do this at all levels of exuberance, and still be sophisticated, IMO.

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  • Janet

    I also think fit is extremely important as we get older. I’ve noticed that we bulge a bit more even if we are in good shape. The tummy, the skin around your bra that is noticeable under a t shirt… Tight clothing simply doesn’t look as good. Blouses are great because they still show your shape but don’t show the bulges.

  • Anon

    Sophistication is definitely ageless. Trends change, but excellent styles persist. Occasionally, I will come across daguerreotypes from the 1800s and early 1900s of men and women with haircuts and/or clothing that looks amazing centuries after the fact.

    For instance, this haircut (not the clothes) still persists:
    http://27.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lmxn4abD9L1qkgs51o1_500.jpg

    …and is replicated to this day:
    http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ljto9z6vCB1qayzvw.jpg

  • Maria

    I’ve always worn a lot of black pants and skirts with simple lines when I was younger. No I’m 49 turning 50 in November and getting ready to embark on another business in which I venture out more. Currently, I have a home-based freelance business. So I want to look sophisticated yest casual. I believe this look will work best with my business venture as I will look confident yet not like some rich snob trying to get richer. I want to look trustworthy and not intimidating. I need help doing that. I’m not sure if the black slacks and black skirts helped me to pull off the sophisticated look that I had hoped it would all those years ago since I don’t believe I would be described as a sophisticate. So I have to say that I agree that self-confidence has a lot to do with it since I lacked a lot of that when I was younger. But I am more self-confident now and just need to right look to boost it. I have the right haircut. I nice, sleek chin length bob that shiny and I keep really nicely trimmed and updated make up to give myself a really clean, fresh look. But I really have trouble with blouses that look sophisticated. I know I’m going to be wearing a lot of the boot cut city pants that are low rise and boots with two inch heel (in the fall and winter) but blouses are what I need help with. I’m top heavy and have always steered clear of turtlenecks although I love that look. But this post helps me to at least know the colors I’m going to go with. Pulling the sophisticate off in the summertime and the spring isn’t easy either. But I’ll try to stick with these tips and see if that helps. Thanks.