Should Old People Wear Sassy Underwear?

A bold fashion plan for people over 60.

Nudie Cohn costomized each of his many Cadillacs, protecting his work with plastic. This one is decorated with silver-dollar coins and handguns.
Nudie Cohn customized each of his many Cadillacs, protecting his work with plastic. This one is decorated with silver-dollar coins and handguns.

Photo by Jeff Albertson/Corbis.

There was a time when oldsters were revered and respected. Unfortunately for me, as I’m about to turn 60, that time is over. But I’m not going to kvetch about the situation. Rather than lamenting my forthcoming loss of social currency, I would encourage superannuated citizens everywhere to view their marginal status as an opportunity. More specifically, an opportunity to wear velvet jumpsuits and glamrock satins.

Here’s why: Back when seniors were treated with deference, it behooved them to dress the part. There was an unspoken contract between the old and the young: The young would revere the old, and the old would reciprocate by wearing squishy beige shoes, AARP-logo fanny-packs and Mr. Rogers cardigans.

Now that old folks have been relegated to the back burner, now that aging is seen as something shameful, something to be ignored or “defied”—beauty counters are jammed with “age-defying” unguents—the old contract has been broken. There is no longer any incentive to dress like a venerable old geezer or geezerette. To all of you grizzled folks out there, I say this: Since nobody is going to give you any props for “growing old gracefully”—let’s face facts, nobody is going to give you props anymore for anything!—you might as well let rip and crank up the volume on your leopard-print mankini.

Caution: This does not mean dressing like a teeny-bopper in skinny jeans and a hot-pink Hello Kitty halter. In fact, I would advise strongly against aggressively youthful styles. When seniors take the tween route, they end up looking like those unfortunate little kids who have aged prematurely as a result of progeria. Rather than adopting the signifiers of youth, oldsters are better served by developing an idiosyncratic look.

As you embark on your twilight style odyssey, you will need inspirational role models and kindred spirits. For women, there are an abundance of older and wiser style provocateurs from which to choose. Ari Seth Cohen, creator of the Advanced Style website (which documents the creative goings-on of glamorous seniors like Iris Apfel et al.), is your best inspiration resource.

For guys, however, the landscape is arid. Flamboyant dudes tend to die (see Jimi Hendrix) or put their lurex catsuits and satin jockstraps into mothballs (see David Bowie). Another Cohn to the rescue: My own personal style beacon, and possibly the most over-the-top dresser in U.S. history other than Liberace, is Nudie Cohn. Nudie was the Russian pogrom-escaping immigrant who created outrageously embellished Western wear for performers ranging from Hank Williams to Elvis to Gram Parsons. Though long deceased, Nudie remains a vibrant source of available inspiration, thanks to Google Image.

I first met Nudie back in the late ’70s, when he was in his late 70s. He was parked outside Canters Deli in West Hollywood. His Cadillac was embellished with steer-horns and tchotchkes of all descriptions. His lemon yellow suit was bejeweled and bedazzled with orange and red cacti. He was the un-Ralph Lauren.

This week, as I approach the big 6-0, I have been thinking a lot about Nudie and about the role of flamboyance in old age. As far as I am concerned, there are no limits on how show-bizzy or gangsta one’s outer garments might become. However, when it comes to undergarments I am still trying to find a path. Should I switch up from the Calvin Klein tighty-whities I have worn for as long as I can remember? Should I go conceptual avant-garde and snag some of Mitt’s mysterious Mormon encasements? What would Nudie have done? Might snakeskin thongs and banana-hammocks and bedazzled budgie-smugglers provide a more life-enhancing option?

 During my childhood, old people never wore groovy underwear. My grandpa wore thick, scratchy long-johns year-round and my granny wore monstrous prewar bloomers. Her undies were so allure-free and utilitarian that they would have made Bridget Jones’ gym knickers look like burlesque enticements from Frederick’s of Hollywood.

Whence comes my gruesome familiarity with the undies of my grandparents? Truth be told, I was traumatized by them on a daily basis. A cursory glance at the washing line in our backyard revealed the truth about the foundation garments of our entire household. My sister and I were merciless in our critiques. My granny got sick of us mocking her billowing bloomers and sneakily started drying them in the airless attic. We responded by unpinning them and dropping them out of the top floor window onto the wearer’s befuddled head.

Right before filing this column, I had a breakthrough of sorts. I located a company specializing in sassy humor undies for seniors. (Check out the Sexy Old Buzzard boxer briefs.) The styles are basic and chic, and the messages that adorn the garments are quite amusing. My one reservation is the type size. The current scale would send the average senior scrambling for those bifocals in order to read it. Not very romantic, right?

Happy birthday to me!