How Can I Dress to Look More Grown-Up?

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.

It definitely means tailoring. Nothing can be more transformative than a perfectly cut jacket, which is like a portable power pose even if worn with (unripped) jeans and a T-shirt. It means tucking in your shirt, since we tend to equate untucked shirts with a lackadaisical approach. (For a while, it is true, the geniuses of Silicon Valley changed all that, but let me just say, Sam Bankman-Fried.)

It means avoiding anything that requires constant fiddling or adjustment. It means leaving behind the semiology of campus — backpacks, sneakers, leggings, sweatshirts — for the semiology of work. And it means shoes that are not scuffed, worn down or otherwise showing signs of neglect.

Speaking of shoes, it is true that high heels can be the footwear equivalent of a really convincing elevator pitch. Rumor has it that titans of industry often seat themselves in such a way that they are looking down on the person across the desk. Whenever I am feeling disempowered, I generally want to be taller. Platform boots with heels are an easy hack. The idea is to embrace polish, in every sense of the word.

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.

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