Reader Request: Dressing to Look Older

what to wear to look older

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Reader Andrea e-mailed me this request:

I’m 22 and about to start student teaching at the high school level, but I look like I’m about 15. I’m currently trying to build a wardrobe that doesn’t make me look like a student, but I don’t want to age myself too much and end up looking frumpy, either. So far, I’ve been leaning towards things that are generally more formal than the dress code for teachers in most public schools just to further differentiate myself from the students, and I’ve mostly been wearing heels (which also give me a slight height advantage, because I’m petite). If you have any other advice on this topic, I’d love to hear it.

There were several questions in the suggestion box about similar topics, so hopefully this post will cover several bases! I also know that dressing to look older and more sophisticated is a goal that many women have, and can arise for many reasons including internships, interviews, career, or the simple desire to evolve personal style from previous, less refined stages.* The instinct to dress a bit more formally is a good one, as casual clothing and style are naturally associated with youth. Here are a few more specific ideas and guidelines to help create a more polished, adult look:

Focus on muted tones and gray

I LOVE bright colors but, as I’ve said in the past, they are more on the bold/fun than the sophisticated/serious side. There are many ways to wear brights and make them look grown-up, but if you’re looking for a shortcut to a more adult style, making muted colors your main shades is a great way to go. I also suggest relying on gray as your primary neutral, since it’s easy to fall into a rut of colorful-top-with-black-bottom. If warm colors suit you and you’d rather keep to autumnals, you can swap in some brown for the gray, but keep the color focus on dusty, muted, subtle shades.

Upgrade or simplify your jewelry

I generally feel like jewelry and accessories can be bought inexpensively since it’s frequently harder to tell what’s cheap and what’s quality. (Harder for the untrained eye, at least.) But that idea applies mainly to those seeking to be expressive and experimental in their style goals. For anyone hoping to refine her look, I’d advise either upgrading some of your main pieces of jewelry, or simplifying your jewelry overall. Instead of F21 chandelier earrings, buy a pair of sterling ones from a department store. Invest in a simple, elegant necklace and wear it regularly. Don’t worry about springing for real diamonds, but get a small, tasteful pair of CZ or Moissanite studs. Understated, classic jewelry is a great route to grown-up looks. (Here’s an older post on building a classic accessory wardrobe.)

Incorporate prints

When new grads enter the working world, they tend to gravitate toward outfits that rely solely on solids. Working with printed fabrics in clothing and accessories will create a more confident, mature, refined overall impression. However, proceed with caution: Best bets for prints include blouses, cardigans, skirts, scarves and dresses. Printed tights, blazers, shoes, and pants may feel too young. Also use your common sense about which prints to wear: Animal, ditsy floral, and anything with tiny critters or whimsical graphic elements might give the wrong impression. Stick to abstracts, geometrics, watercolors, and similarly artsy designs.

Mind your footwear

Andrea already mentioned that she’s sticking mainly to heels – which is definitely a good choice since heels aren’t generally associated with young women and/or students – but there’s no need to feel like they’re the only option. Pretty much any clean-lined, relatively unembellished shoe will work, especially if the other elements of your outfit are tailored and urbane. Avoid shoes with ruffles, floral embellishments, exaggerated platforms, and lots of hardware. Until you’ve built some sartorial confidence, you also might want to avoid sneakers. But classic ballet flats, wedges, flat boots, and even booties will definitely work.

Refine your smart casual outfits

Since you won’t want to look buttoned-up every single day, give some thought to creating a grown-up casual look for yourself. Typical tools of the trade include dark-wash jeans, waterfall cardigans, scarves, and walkable heels. When conceptualizing your new version of casual consider using upgraded or formal versions of staples (jeans, tees, shoes) or creating mixes of casual and formal (jeans with heels instead of sneakers).

Some of the more common sense guidelines include avoiding mini skirts, ripped/distressed anything, graphic tees, extremely tight clothing, anything with loads of sparkle, ruffles, deep necklines, and extremely casual items like flip-flops. Also keeping makeup fairly neutral is probably best practice for anyone hoping to give the impression of refined sophistication.

Avoiding frump should be fairly simple. Most young women who aim for “grown-up,” don’t end up overshooting and landing in “elderly” territory. Those who look naturally youthful are especially unlikely to encounter this problem. But should it be of concern, simply stick to contemporary styles and garments, and make certain that they both fit and flatter your figure. In my opinion, “frumpy” has to do with wearing outdated garments that fight or hide one’s body. So avoiding frump means wearing modern cuts that fit you. Simple as that.

* Although some strive to dress MORE youthfully. That’s another post!

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

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  • Katie

    I’m a young college professor with similar anxieties. Some of my anxiety around dressing comes from beginning to teach when I was in graduate school and only about 4 years older than my students. Some comes from when I was 25 and teaching 50 years olds. The rest comes from being commonly mistaken for an undergraduate around my 4 year university campus now that I’m 30. I like these tips, but I would add that one never knows what students will be distracted by and what they’ll not notice at all.

    Be aware of the neckline on your tops – a flattering scoopneck can be more revealing than a flattering V-neck depending on your body shape.

    Try to avoid wearing super trendy items in the classroom – you can still be very stylish without wearing the same fads your students are wearing. Make intentional choices about jewelry – I like to wear brooches; they’re sophisticated and beautiful, convey my personal style and taste, and very unlikely to show up on the shoulder of an 18 year old.

    Be sure you can move easily in your clothing (once, on the first day of the semester, a button exploded off of my pencil skirt. Fortunately my shirt covered it), but don’t hide behind it.

    Invest in some quality, supportive footwear. You’ll be on your feet a lot!

    Being flexible and paying careful attention to how they respond in the classroom (and whether they give eye contact *shudder*) can help you figure out how best to shape your style. Students may find you too intimidating if you’re very buttoned up, but they may also get distracted by a watch face that catches the light as you write or gesture as well. If you’re prepared to make small adjustments, you’ll do fine!

  • It’s important to remember also that as a teacher, your students are going to be looking at you all day. So the neckline that you aren’t sure is appropriate? Err on the side of conservative. Same goes for a skirt or dress that should fit, but not be too tight. Keep an eye on where your shirt meets your waistline–you don’t want your students to see skin or underwear there if you drop your chalk and need to bend over, or need to reach up to turn on a projector.

    • Courtney

      Yep. I sometimes (rarely!) bend over in the restroom as I wash my hands, look up at the mirror and notice – holy boobs on review. Ugh. So I remember to stand up straight for the rest of the day, but teaching (even adults) often requires more movement of the body, and occasionally bending over, stepping over backpacks, etc. than you might expect.

  • Jen

    I will echo the first two commenters. I am a school counselor and former English teacher. My first year in the classroom I was 23 and my students were high school seniors, only five years my junior. They notice everything! Watch your necklines. Don’t go too clingy either. When trying things on, stand in front of the fitting room mirror and bend over to get a glimpse at what a garment will look like when you are grabbing things off the floor or helping students at their desk. Think like your male students too. I made my baby brother help me in this area-he was 16 at the time. Stay away from the trends the students are wearing. This does not mean you can’t wear an interpretation of it, but keep it more modest and simple. I found the clearance racks at Gap, Ann Taylor Loft and Banana Republic to be my friends that first year! Don’t be afraid to look around to other teachers to find some style mentors too. I had a few in my district that were always tastefully dressed and were of various ages. I would look for ensembles to reflect their looks. Good luck, and welcome to education!

  • Anonymous

    Wear slacks instead of jeans and wear a cardigan or jacket. Make up and accessories like a necklace or scarf also help. Skirts/dresses are tough since there is little out there between mini and pencil. Maybe order from Boden.

  • yasmara

    Blazers! A simple way to “grow up” even a jeans-and-tee outfit. With tons of reasonable-priced ones out now (and hopefully on sale as retailers clean out for spring), buy a bunch. Even a more casual knit blazer (easy to teach in, washable) can elevate a simple outfit.

    Also, I think you can still wear jeans if you dress them up (as mentioned above – heels, blazer), but avoid super trendy shapes. Think trousers, not flares. Slim, not skinny. Good luck!

    • spacegeek

      This definitely! I think a structured jacket is the best way to look more mature. Stay away from shrunken styles or too much embellishment on the jackets. It will help you look more professional. Also, surprisingly for me (because I almost always agree with Sally), I suggest bigger earrings, but not dangles. On the ear bigger styles will make you look more mature. Also statement necklaces with that jacket and the smaller earrings will be good.
      Avoid ballet flats to start–many more mature women wear these on the weekends but choose a slight wedge or kitten heel for the office. Avoid the sky high platforms too, for the same reason.

      Anything too tight, off the shoulder or too trendy should be eschewed in your first months, IMO.

      I’m 42 FWIW, and in a business casual workplace where I am a midlevel manager.

  • vampfan30

    this was certainly helpful for me…as a 35 year old mom that is UNDER 5 feet tall, any ideas to age myself up a bit is welcome. Thanks, Sal.:)

  • D

    Oh goodness, I could have used this post 4 years ago! I’m the youngest member (and the youngest of the very few females) of the operations team in my office, so I had to completely revamp my wardrobe when I joined my industry. Lots of cardigans, nice skirts that go to my knee at least, and heels in my life nowadays. I like it 🙂

    I’d agree with commentors above me, haunt the clearance from Ann Taylor and Banana Republic (or search for those brands in thrift stores…)

  • Anne

    This was me about 17 years ago. I would echo Yasmara’s comment about blazers. Wearing a third piece (cardigan, vest, scarf) in general sets you apart from your students. Just a random suggestion here, but it worked well for me: I picked up some separates in my school’s colors. I did not want to walk around the school on game days in tee shirts or sweat shirts. The kids and staff did notice that I was wearing the school colors. My principal even congratulated me on showing school spirit in a professional way.

    Here’s another odd piece of advice given to me by one of my professors. If you have a JLo or Beyonce style bootie don’t turn your backside to the class to erase the board.

    • Laurinda

      LOL… I gave that advice on black board erasing to new TAs back in the 80s — was this at a West Coast university???

  • Anonymous

    Even when I wore tailored business apparel I still got confused with my jr. high students are who are wearing school uniforms (I think some people are just clueless). It didn’t seem to help much so I gave that up and am wearing fun clothes that I want to wear (but I think are still grown up). Cutting my hair shorter has helped and I am hoping to learn how to do my make up differently as well. I think clothes will help in how serious people take you, but in my experience I have been judged on my face, no matter what I have been wearing.

  • I didn’t mean to be anonymous above, I just forgot to fill in my name.

  • LK

    I run into this issue a lot. I now sub as a teacher’s aid and at 27 I can still pass for a high school student due to my petite size. All the teacher’s on my first day thought I was a new student and I was in expensive black slacks, a dark purple blouse and dress shoes! The dress code of a school helps a lot because for one thing you have to wear dress pants and conservative clothing. You may want to avoid floaty casual dresses unless dressed up with nice shoes and a cardigan. Cardigans totally age me so they may work for Andrea. We also aren’t allowed to wear heels over 1″ in the school since high heels are considered both dangerous in the hallways and too sexy. A kitten heel can go a long way though.

    I feel your pain Andrea! I still don’t get how they mistake us for students when the students are wearing tons of makeup and sweatpants. I think its pretty obvious lol

    • Kookoo

      I been teaching for 14 years in 4 inch heels! when I first started teaching though I cut my hair, wore glasses, and a skirt or pants suit every day. Today, I do not need to look older so it was two animal prints, (dress/scarf) casual blazer, and killer suede pumps. I love to dress up and appreciate a dress code… But heels height requirements made me gasp!

  • Susan, the one in Berkeley

    Anything with a slightly vintage vibe makes you look more mature, just don’t take it to costume extremes. A slightly darker shade of lipstick also helps.

    Another favorite blog of mine is Complex Cardigans, written by a young math teacher who makes boots and scarves look completely appropriate: http://complexcardigans.blogspot.com/

    You will likely find that people treat you differently once you dress more maturely, not just students. I was pleasantly surprised to find it happen to me once I upgraded my everyday style. Have fun with it!

  • I dealt with exactly this same thing as a TA, as an adjunct at my grad institution, and then as a visiting prof at my undergrad institution. Vintage blazers were my best friend because they are cheap (at thrift stores), well made, available in interesting cuts, and they immediately read as grown-up.

  • Mrs.M in MI

    When people keep asking you if you are old enough to drive and you are about to graduate from college and enter the professional work force, dressing older is a necessity!

    Over the last six years I have learned a lot, but my best tip would be to always do the “bend-over” test before you leave the house. Check your neckline and check your rear view to make sure nothing is too low or too tight.

    Heels are good, but you have to be careful about what type of heel it is. Very tall heels, very thin heels, and shoes with platforms usually look too sexy to my eye, not to mention they are not very comfortable or walkable. And make sure your shoes don’t look too trendy or cheap.

    You know, I figure that this is a problem now, but when I look 50 and I’m really 60 or 65, I’ll be thanking my lucky genes!

  • Lana

    I think hair plays a big part, too. Younger people who look more sophisticated tend to have clear hairstyles – long hair is very youthful. So I would say, get your hair cut. Get layers. Have it at a length where you can “do” your hair every morning – whether it’s blowing it straight, curling it, or pulling it back. Grooming will make you seem older and more professional, because having every hair in its place seems less casual than a messy ponytail or beachy waves or braids, which are all trendy, but very youthful.

  • LinB

    Oh, good suggestions, all! The blazer-and-dress slacks route worked well for a bright young friend of mine, who at age 15 was paid to tutor college students in chemistry. (She didn’t want them to know that she wasn’t already out of college, much less that she was still in high school.) She also adopted an air of authority and confidence that served her well. Myself, I’d have to go the nightgown-and-adult diaper route to dress any older, lol.

  • Patricia

    In this youth obsessed culture we live in, I would think it’s a good thing to look young, fresh and vibrant. I don’t understand wanting to look 50 when you are 25 or 30. I would say, embrace your age, because once you really get to 50, you’ll probably want to look like you’re 30 again! In my opinion, it comes down to looking put together, dressing modern, and carrying yourself with confidence no matter what age you are.

    • Not if you’re trying to get ahead in the workforce. Young-looking women – especially PETITE, young looking women often have a lot of trouble getting ahead and being taken seriously. How would you like it if you were a 28 year old manager who is constantly asked if you’re the intern?

      • Chelsea

        Agreed! Youth may be worshipped but it sure isn’t respected, especially in women.

      • I also second this. I look young for my age, by ten years. Try to get respect from women who think they are 20-30 years your senior and that you just walked out of high school, when you are the office manager (etc.) I don’t want to age myself by getting wrinkles or gray hair, I just want to get respect. First impressions matter, and even if people find out I am 31 later, they can’t seem to drop the you are so young you have no clue who you are or what you want patronizing bit.

  • Great post! I’m trying to look my age when I’m in university, but it’s great to get some tips for when I graduate and get a real job.

  • Sarah

    Try consignment shops. It’s a great way to get higher-quality items that you would normally not be able to afford at full retail. Then, find a good tailor. Sloppy or ill-fitting clothes are a sure way to look unprofessional and frumpy. Cheap clothing often is not worth the money that good alterations cost, so look for the best quality you can afford. Shoes are another good place to invest in the best quality for your budget. Cheap, ultra-trendy footwear will make you appear younger. Also beware of heels that veer too much into “going out” territory. Too high with too narrow a heel (stilettos) may not come across as professional, and will probably kill your feet anyway. Good luck!!

  • This is so timely for me. I am venturing out into a community where no matter what I do I appear to be ten years older than I am, and with that comes less respect from those who perceive themselves to be much older than me. 31 isn’t venerable, but it isn’t unsure or inexperienced either. I am tall so that is not an issue, but hairstyles, make up (which I have never worn or gotten good with) and clothing are all important. I really like your suggestion of gray, it does make that model look more mature. I also like her hair and dusty pink shirt. It seems like a very mature look and I may copy it very closely for my foray into this culture.

    • erg, I meant I appear ten years younger than I am, haha.

  • Invest in 1 or 2 good jackets (buying tips here: http://www.alterationsneeded.com/2012/02/how-to-find-a-blazer-jacket-that-fits.html ), a pair of trousers, & a skirt from stores like Loft, Express, NY & Co., Banana Republic, etc. Classic pieces in neutrals that mix & match but that have some fun, feminine (not sexy, there’s a difference) details. Don’t wear them as a suit (not appropriate for teaching imo), but wear them with sweaters, knit tops, blouses, trouser jeans, & other slightly more casual pieces. Use them as a background for color, pattern, & accessories. That’s the quickest way to build an “adult professional” wardrobe.

    A few more expensive, more dressy pieces will work for years, & fill in with the less expensive items that will casual-down the outfit, like knit tops from Old Navy.

    • Yes, wearing a suit-like outfit would age you way too much–try a cardigan in a similar color instead of the jacket to look pulled together.

  • I agree that hairstyle can make a big difference – long undifferentiated hair is a very college-y look, so a shorter style or something more done is a good choice.

    Angie and the gals at YLF have been discussing this very issue, and trying to look mature when you are a small person – http://youlookfab.com/welookfab/topic/ask-angie-how-to-dress-olderyounger-but-still-be-age-appropriate

  • I’m 30 and work in a school, and have always been mistaken for someone much younger than I am. I think your tips are right on, avoid any kind of sneaker or gym shoe, I do wear jeans, but when I do, I wear something else to up the sophistication level (a blazer, heels, a silk scarf, etc). And a lot of it is just in your attitude. Don’t let teenagers know that you’re intimidated, just because there are more of them, doesn’t change the fact that you are in charge and need to be respected.

  • This was a big issue for me for a long time (i’m 30 now, the age where looking younger is a good thing). I never really nailed the grown up ness, mainly because i didn’t try that hard. Luckily I work in a job where eventually experience and quality of work are often allowed to speak for themselves. and if people recognised me as the author of that amazing (ha!) report, then the fact that I looked about 20 didn’t matter so much. But I always thought the two things that made the biggest difference to looking polishedly professional were shoes and hair.

  • Sonja

    I hear you! I’m over thirty now so I suppose I should start to be thankful for the fact that I look so much younger, but it still bothers me, and being very short, I sometimes feel people do not take me seriously. But as a long-time tomboyish type, I never really used clothes as a means to change that until about two years ago, when I started to experience with my style.
    Now I’m giving language lessons two times a week in a firm, it’s a group with four male students. Two of the students are much older than me and also seem to be big bosses in the company. Somehow this inspired me to dress older and more professional in these classes in order to reinforce my authority, which actually is necessary sometimes.
    Something that other commenters don’t seem to have mentioned, maybe because they took it for granted: It is really helpful to wear blouses insted of t-shirts. I have always been shying away from blouses and shirts because they just didn’t seem to look right with me, but lately there are so many different types that you will probably find a style that flatters your figure and face.
    I have also found that wearing a light make-up – in comparison to not wearing any – makes me look older and more professional.

    • I completely agree about the light makeup. It gives just enough polish so you look more professional.

  • b.

    Agree with all that has been posted above. I’m a teacher, I’m 34, and spent the first couple years getting asked where my hall pass was. Some of it is inevitable.

    Just want to re-emphasize what others have said: SO much of looking like a teacher is body language. Develop your “teacher faces”–you know, the “I’m watching you” stare, your “I’m walking down this hallway like I own it” walk, and your “I am in complete control in this classroom” glance-around-the-room. I dress pretty casually now–much more casually than when I started–and I still look nearly as young as I did ten years ago. The difference is that I now know how to manage a classroom nonverbally much more easily, and I don’t have to rely on my clothes. You’ll get there, too.

    Good luck! Have fun student teaching! 🙂

  • sigourney

    I think I would wear a substantial good-quality fine jewellery ring. (Everyday piece, not bling)That is of course a question of price and gold is expensive but perhaps she could find a heirloom item at her relatives.

    Never thought about it that way but a ring, especially if it’s the same one worn every day, gives a “settled” polished look.

  • rb

    Oh, hey, I taught high school when I was 22! Only for that one year, but I hear you on looking the same age as some of your students.

    I didn’t do this perfectly, but in hindsight here’s what I’d focus on.

    1) washable. dry erase ink and or chalk are very hard to get out.

    2) layers. classrooms usually don’t have the best & consistent HVAC systems

    3) wearable heels. I mean, you’re on your feet all day, after all.

    4) separates that can be dressed up for more formal meetings and down for regular classroom days.

    So with those in mind, I’d go for twill skirts or pants in classic cuts (pencil for the skirts, trouser for the pants) in solid colors, and a number of cotton cardigans in colors that suit you. I like wearing knits under my cardigans but nice woven blouses would probably convey more authority. The cardigan is that “third piece” that makes you appear put-together and authoritative. You don’t have to sear suit jackets, but if you can find cardigans that are more jacket-like (yet still washable!) you’ll have more of the authoritative edge that you seek.

    Other advice. Don’t try to be the “cool teacher.” I think most of us hope to be that cool teacher when we think about teaching, but if you’re a first year and on the young side, it just undermines your authority with the class.

    Second, wash your hands, a lot. I have never had as many viruses as I did that one year of teaching high school. I read somewhere that playing cards with someone is as germy as kissing them, and I agree!

  • erinsuzanne

    I loved this post- in my 3rd year of high school teaching (I’m 31, but look significantly younger).
    Along with a more “polished” look (blouse/cardigan/trouser-style jeans with flats), I would strongly recommend buying camisoles or slim tank tops in a bunch of colors. I wear them nearly every day to keep my necklines more modest and to avoid that inevitable moment where you’re writing something on the board and realize your top is exposing your stomach or back. I move around CONSTANTLY, and am a very modest/conservative dresser in the classroom. I still don’t wear jeans/sneakers to work unless it is a very specific occasion like homecoming. I have been able to put together a great work wardrobe from thrifting (live in a college town with multiple great thrift stores) so I stock up on lined, wool dress pants for the winter and skirts/blouses for the summer. I do dress up more than many of my older coworkers, but I think it helps my students with appropriate social boundaries and when parents stop in, I feel better looking ‘grown up’ when discussing their student.
    Have fun student teaching!

  • As an “older” woman, it was interesting to read this post. All sound advice and you deconstructed “frumpy” well.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a fourth year HS teacher and I struggled tremendously with what to wear my first few years of teaching. In my first year clothing wasn’t really on my mind as much as lesson planning and keeping my head above water. I just wore slacks, black Sketchers sneakers, a dress shirt and cardi. Very simple but also very frumpy. Here’s a look at how I started in terms of wardrobe: http://complexcardigans.blogspot.com/2011/12/drab-tastic.html

    But slowly I switched to flats and then upgraded to skirts and dresses because dress pants never really fit me correctly. Also, I shied away from heels because they are simply too impractical being on my feet all day. I would say that the dresses and skirts really did help set me apart from the kids, though I’m extremely conscious of my hemlines at all times. I generally look ridiculously young because of my height, especially in jeans, hence I never go casual while at school. Even though this might sound superficial, I agree with the other comments about how your wardrobe will help the kids take you seriously.

  • Stephanie

    I’m a petite law student who looks about 16, so I hear you on this one. I echo the recommendation for wearable heels. Also, a nice compromise between formal and casual that I’ve discovered is dark wash trouser jeans with a comfortable blouse tucked in–looks sophisticated and clean, but feels unfussy.

  • Shaye

    My best advice is to search thrift and other second hand shops for more expensive brands that tend to read older, like Talbot’s, Ann Taylor (not LOFT), various Nordstrom or Macy’s brands. Not that you can’t get great stuff at less expensive places, but these brands, while still stylish, will come off as older even if a very similar silhouette to what found in fast fashion shops.

    I’ve slowly been upgrading my wardrobe via thrift, and I think it’s made a big difference in how I’m perceived at work.

  • Thank you so much for this post! I am 20 and I will be graduating from Bowling Green State University in May of 2014.
    I am definitely a few steps ahead of my class career-wise, but I have extreme anxieties about my youthful look. (I have a lot of freckles, a very round shaped face, and I am only 4’10”.)
    The difficulties I seem to be having are mostly in regards to my fear of losing myself. I am going into the creative marketing/advertising industry, so it IS okay to “stand out,” but I feel as though I have yet to find a balance of my individuality and a “grown up” look.
    I advise anyone else with similar problems to also avoid horizontal stripes or large polka-dots. I have asked others of how old they think I am while wearing these patterns, and I typically get a 14 or even the dreaded 13! Avoiding cotton v-necks and crew necks is a MUST as well!
    Anyways, what a wonderful post. I am going to save this for future reference! 🙂

  • Janet

    Some great ideas from everyone. Please include a link to some pictures of outfits that have worked well for you.