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40 Now, 21 Forever

Here in the land of endless summer and eternal youth, there are few things considered less hot than a woman who is aging. The mere idea conjures images of high-waisted, tight-ankled mom jeans, menopause, bad haircuts and unforgivable footwear. Sure, Mrs. Robinson was a fox, but Anne Bancroft was all of 35 years old when she created that template for the “sexy older woman.” Dustin Hoffman, portraying the bumbling college grad, was 30, just five years younger than her. And it’s not like this is some anachronistic oddity; remember a couple years ago when Angelina Jolie played Colin Farrell’s mom? Talk about MILFs. Only Hollywood could fuck with our heads so beautifully.

The irony is that youth is often perceived as a stigma until one reaches the age of consent. We girls spend much of our adolescence wondering just how soon we’re going to be a woman; we dress like femmes fatales and lie about our age so we don’t seem “inexperienced.” And then, just as we’re starting to get into the groove of being grown-up (I still consider myself as much a “girl” as a “woman” — and I’m older than Mrs. Robinson), we’re told it’s time to start thinking about “age-appropriate” attire as though we need to hide something. But is showing your ass crack any less appropriate than wearing a shapeless shroud? Luckily, the culture that created these paradigms also knows how to rewrite the rules.

“L.A. is dictating to the whole world what to wear,” asserts Fraser Ross, who owns Kitson, the celeb hot-spot boutique on Robertson Boulevard. “There are no trends coming out of anywhere else,” Ross says — and that includes New York, he adds. “When a New Yorker comes here I notice they can’t wait to get into their denim and look like a slob.”

Back in 1999 I was in a meeting with Vogue’s accessories director, Candy Pratts-Price, among others. We were discussing trends and someone brought up cashmere hoodies, which were a hot fashion item that fall, several years before Juicy Couture came on the scene. “Hoods are for children,” sneered the fearsome fashionista. Mildly mortified and kind of defensive, I pointed out the hood on my sweater to Ms. Pratts-Price. She didn’t even dignify me with a response. All I can say is, who is laughing with childish glee now, Candy Pratts-Price or the ladies of Juicy, as they count their hundreds of millions in revenue? And guess what? I’m still wearing a hoodie.

Other style and taste “experts” advise a woman over 35 to excise the following from her wardrobe as well: plunging V necklines, bright colors (especially bubblegum pink), logo T-shirts, tight anything, hot pants and miniskirts, stone-washed jeans and low-rise trousers, animal prints, metallics, lace and frills, and black leather. Hair should be subtly highlighted and worn at shoulder length or shorter, and all frosted and shiny makeup must be tossed.

But where would “old” Hollywood be without hot pink and animal prints and frosted lip-gloss? We would have no Desperate Housewives, no Pamela Anderson (who, at 38, was one of only five actresses over 30 in Tom Ford’s version of Hollywood), no DVF Vintage wrap dresses, and Mrs. Robinson would be dressed in beige, not leopard, her wild platinum-blond streak tastefully toned down.

Let’s hear it for the gals of Los Angeles who won’t stand for it. Not only would a 35- or 40-year-old mother never be caught dead on the soccer field in mom jeans, but stores in Los Angeles don’t even sell jeans like that.

Forever 21, the rapidly growing L.A.-based national retailer, offers designer-denim knockoffs and other up-to-the-minute trendy fashions for less than the cost of many people’s dry-cleaning bills. But it’s the store’s mantralike name that speaks to subconscious fantasies. “People want to be forever 21,” says the company’s senior vice president, Larry Meyer. “You can be 51 and want to remember that time you were 21, if that’s better for you, or you can be younger and aspiring to an older age.”

A survey of Forever 21 shoppers one recent Friday afternoon at the Grove revealed everyone from groups of Latina teenagers trying on sunglasses and jewelry, to rich kids with designer shopping bags loading up on cheap tops, to a chic 40-ish chick who failed to return my smile when I noticed we were both trying on the same blue-silk blouse (embarrassed, perhaps?). A well-dressed French tourist in her 60s examined a gold-studded, black-leather hobo bag, comparing it to the nearly identical, and no doubt pricey, purse slung around her shoulder.

Kitson also targets customers of all ages (“mother-and-daughter shopping is big,” says Ross), making it hard to resist buying into the illusion of youth, leisure and celebrity. The shop stocks sizes up to 14 (including Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B. line), and sells affordable accessories — how about a sequined eye mask that says “39 and holding”? — alongside the designer handbags and shoes, $900 sweatshirts and size 2 bejeweled jeans.

More than conning his customers into shelling out for Jessica or Lindsay’s latest fashion fancy as seen in the pages of Us Weekly, “We want people to leave the store feeling good,” says Ross. “And if they get compliments about what they’re wearing, they come back. I don’t want people to walk around looking like clowns.” But by the same token, if it’s a clown thing you’re going for, Ross won’t try to stop you. “If you feel comfortable in it, wear it. Life’s too short.”