Beauty & Fashion

Should You Worry About Being Mutton Dressed as Lamb? — Inside Out Style

Should You Worry About Being Mutton Dressed as Lamb? — Inside Out Style


Frequently, my personal styling clients say to me “I don’t want to look like mutton dressed as lamb!”.  It’s a common lament, but what does “Mutton dressed as lamb” really mean anyway?

Meaning of Mutton Dressed as Lamb

The term “mutton dressed as lamb” has its origins in British slang and has been in use since at least the early 19th century. The metaphorical use of “mutton” (meat from an older sheep) and “lamb” (meat from a younger sheep) likely evolved from the longstanding culinary distinction between these two types of meat, where lamb is considered more tender and desirable compared to mutton, which is tougher and less sought after.  Particularly during wars or in tough economic times, people would try to pass off the older mutton meat as lamb by adding some garnish, which is where the saying originated.

The expression emerged in a cultural context where fashion and appearance were (and still are) subject to societal expectations, often harshly scrutinizing how individuals, particularly women, present themselves in relation to their age. The phrase captures the societal tendency to judge people, especially older women, who dress in ways deemed youthful or trendy, implying a misalignment between their attire and their perceived age.

Here is a fascinating article from fashion historians about age and dressing styles (from the times when children were dressed as mini-adults and when young women were frowned upon for dressing more sophisticated and maturely than their age) to the whole Mutton Dressed as Lamb origins.

The Age Police

These days people are so much younger than they were even 50 years ago.  As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, 40 and 50 year olds were older than a 40 or 50 year old of today, and this is because life spans have gotten longer, and so people are younger and healthier for longer than ever before.  Plus the fashion rules that used to be so strict have abated.  In fact, it was only older women who wore black for many years (read about the reasons here) and now black is the colour that has been taken over by the young.

Photo credit: Anton Cook

Here’s a gorgeous photo that my father took in 1958 of a lunchtime crowd crossing the road on the city streets of Melbourne, notice the hats and gloves worn by many of the women.  By the 1970s this level of formality had disappeared from the rules of dressing.  Fashions constantly change and what is appropriate or acceptable also changes constantly.

These days with the casualisation of the workplace where traditional corporate businesswear is now less common, all fashion rules have changed.  When I was growing up, tattoos were seen as rebellious, now when I’m at the gym, pretty much every woman and man under the age of 30 has at least one visible tattoo (many have many many more) and so they no longer read as an act of rebellion.

I have read lists by others on what constitutes Mutton Dressed as Lamb and I really think for most of them it’s a load of garbage:

  • Red lipstick
  • Colourful clothes
  • Skirts above the knee
  • Long hair (and long grey hair)
  • Ankle bracelets


If You Worry About Being Mutton Dressed as Lamb

Yet the women I speak to are really wanting to appear modern, but not too young, as if attempting to pretend to be decades younger than they are.  It’s not about getting older as such, it’s a fear of looking ridiculous and being judged harshly.

What’s interesting in 20+ years I’ve been working as an image consultant, is that I rarely see what could be described as “mutton dressed as lamb”. Instead, I see way too many dressing frumpy and old (even in their 20s) for fear of looking too young.

So many women get into a style rut and don’t know how to get out of it as they worry about buying something new that will suddenly fling them into the mutton dressed as lamb territory.

My experience is that if you worry about it, you’ll never dress in a way that may be seen as dressing too young for your age.  So if that thought has ever passed through your head, you will never have that ascribed to you.

Mutton dressed as lamb meme

So if There Aren’t Style Rules Now, Is there Anything I Should Avoid So I Don’t Look Like I’m Trying to Look Like a Teenager?

If this is something you worry about and you want to know what may be construed as “too young”, from my experience and research, there are a couple of things that may put an outfit into that category.

Copious Skin

Now I’m not telling you to dress like a nun or cover every bit of skin up, but lots of skin showing, such as mini-skirt, low cleavage, backless, midriff and bare arms all at the same time, is a lot of skin.   I don’t know about you, but one of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve hit my middle youth (😉🤣) is that my skin isn’t quite as firm and taught as it was when I was younger, no matter how much moisturiser and sunscreen I’ve used.    This means I’m not as keen to get it all out on show. My 19 year old daughter has the stomach and back and legs to wear form-fitting, backless, or show off midriff and legs (she’s been a gymnast and dancer all her life), but me, not so much!  So instead of wearing a short skirt and a lower cut top a the same time, I’d choose one or the other, and then keep everything else covered up, and there are bits of me that I’ll never be getting out on show in my everyday outfits as showing them off doesn’t make me feel confident any longer. 

As they say, you do you, wear what you feel comfortable in.  

Fashion Victim

The other thing that can make an outfit into looking a bit ridiculous territory is wearing the latest fashion trends head to toe without an awareness of them not suiting you.  

One of the things that we expect as we get older, is that we’re more educated and wise as we get older about which shapes, styles and silhouettes suit our body so we become more choosy as far as which fashion trends we elect to wear and which we avoid because they’re just not going to do anything for us.

Just because something is in fashion, and just because “influencers” are telling you that “everyone needs this in their wardrobe” doesn’t mean it’s actually true.  


What’s Not Mutton Dressed as Lamb?

Wearing Fashion Trends that Suit You

If a fashion trend suits you, embrace it if you love it.   Head to toe a fashion trend that doesn’t harmonise with your body looks odd,  but every season you’ll find so many possible trends you can embrace, there will be something out there that works for you, your personality and your lifestyle.

Wearing Jeans and Denim

There is no age limit on jeans.  Denim is a twill fabric that anyone can wear if they want to.  You may not want to wear ripped and shredded jeans (or you may, that’s up to you to decide), but there are plenty of other styles that you may want to embrace.  And because most jeans now have a stretch element, they are comfortable too (unlike back in the 1980s when we’d lie on the bed with a coathanger in the zipper to do them up as there was no stretch and the denim was stiff and uncomfortable). 

Wearing Leather

Just like denim, if you love leather then wear it.  Back in the 1950s, a leather jacket was ubiquitous with the rebel (and James Dean) but today leather is just another fabric choice. No need to avoid it if you want to wear it.

Shopping at Stores Not Aimed at the Senior Market

You can find clothes anywhere.  Some stores are aimed at a more mature market, sadly many items can be frumpy.  Sure in the young people’s stores, you won’t often find the quality you’re after as they are fast fashion and not made to last.  Fortunately, there are plenty of stores that fit in between these two demographics that you can shop at and find fashionable pieces of good quality that definitely won’t make you look like mutton dressed as lamb.

Wearing Red Lipstick

If you love red lipstick and you’ve found a shade that really works with your complexion, you’re never too old to wear it.  Some young people with soft gentle colouring don’t look great in a bright red lipstick instead they look fabulous in a softer more subtle red.  This is not about age, it’s about your colouring.

Long Hair

There used to be a fashion rule that women over 40 couldn’t have long hair, in fact, one should chop it all off and start getting a perm and set each week.  This seems completely laughable in this day and age.


How to Be Modern and Youthful in Your Style

Rather than worrying about being mutton dressed as lamb, avoiding all fashions, only shopping in old-lady shops, and ending up looking like my grandmother did at 92.  Just remember that there are a few things that can keep you on the right path.

Update Your Wardrobe Seasonally

Each season add in a few pieces from the current fashion trends.  There are so many sources of fashion information around, from online websites such as Vogue and that can show you what the trends are, to just going to your local mall and taking a walk through some of the stores aimed at the under 40s.  Even if you don’t buy anything in them inspect the silhouettes of jeans and trousers, of tops and jackets.  Notice what the shapes and styles they are selling today are and see if they are similar to what you own or completely different.  If they are radically different, then it’s time for an update.  If they are the same, then you know that you can keep wearing what you already own.

Maybe there are one or two trends that you like that you may want to bring into your wardrobe to keep it updated this season.  Get an education in colour and style so that you know what really suits you so you can just pick up the trends that work and leave the rest behind.

Good Fit

Our drive for comfort becomes greater with age (there are shoes I wore in my 20s that I’d never wear now as they just don’t meet my criteria for comfort).  What often happens is that because comfort becomes a stronger driver, it’s easy to slip into clothes that are too saggy and baggy and ill-fitting and we ignore their lack of style because they are comfortable to wear.

Body shapes change and many of us lose our waists (if we ever had them to start with) which means we may choose boxier clothes that are less flattering as we just don’t know what to wear to hide menopausal tummies and adapt to the new us.  This is where getting an education in style and what works for you today is so important, as sometimes you need to take a fresh approach to your style and that education gives you the path to follow.

Buying for the bits that are bigger, then having alterations to take in the excess that we don’t need is something to consider if you’ve ended up down frumpy town.  Don’t expect clothes to fit you as the stores didn’t take your measurements, and then construct the garment with your body in mind.  Instead, understand that mass manufacturing is trying to fit the maximum number of bodies into a garment, which means that every specific fit issue can’t be addressed.  Armholes may be too deep, waists won’t necessarily fit, and they may have too much or too little fabric through the hips, bottom and thighs than you’d like.  99.999% of women have difficulty finding clothes that fit off the rack.  So unless you’re part of the .001% think of yourself and your shopping struggles as completely normal.


Audit Your Wardrobe

The older you get the easier it is to own clothing that’s decades old (and most likely dated).  Time goes faster each year (well it does for me) and so it’s easy to keep things well past their used-by date.  This is why doing that wardrobe update, going out and seeing for yourself what’s in fashion (or even just pursuing some local stores online to see the shapes and styles) is worth some of your time.

If it’s pilled and faded, old or just stretched out of shape, then even though it’s comfortable and may come in ‘handy’ it’s time to let it go.  Old and tired clothes communicate that you are old and tired, which particularly in the workplace is not what you want to communicate ideally.


Get to Know Your Current Body and Colouring

Your colours change with age, as can your body shape.  Getting up-to-date information about what works for the body you have today so that you buy with clarity about what does and doesn’t work will save you so much time, energy and money in the long run.  Fashion confusion runs rampant as you try and figure out what does and doesn’t work for your changing shape and colouring.  Lifestyle needs also change throughout your life, so what may have been great 5 years ago may not work anymore.  

This is why a comprehensive education in colour and style is so valuable, as it puts you in the driver’s seat of your style when shopping and making decisions.  You get to decide on your own personalised style and colour criteria so you have the knowledge you need when shopping to not be swayed by a helpful sales assistant, so you don’t end up bringing home clothes that you won’t wear.   

If your body has changed it’s worth figuring out what shapes and styles work for you, you can do it here for free with my body shape calculator quiz.

Maybe you just need to update your colour palette – an online colour analysis is an easy way to discover what suits your complexion today.

If you’d like the full comprehensive education in colour and style (and so much more) then I’d love to invite you to join my 7 Steps to Style program as it’s designed to give you the knowledge to make the very best decisions for you and your style.  

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