Of all the words in the English language, these four are most guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of middle-aged women: mutton dressed as lamb.
Because the overriding rule in the midlife style book is this: if you cling on to the look you’ve been modelling since your youth, it will only succeed in making you look ancient.
Poppycock, says psychotherapist Nova Cobban. Because for Nova, 43, and an increasing number of middle-aged women, the key to turning back the clock isn’t the traditional midlife makeover. Rather, it is determinedly staying stuck in a style time warp.
And from the blonde bob she has worn for 20 years to her resolutely minimalist make-up, it’s astonishing how Nova’s look makes her appear so youthful. The concept of chasing new ways to stay looking young is alien to her. Instead, her hair and make-up routine is the same as when she was 23.
Rather like Woman’s Hour host Emma Barnett, who recently spoke of not changing her hair or lipstick for decades, Nova, who lives in Bedfordshire with her husband and two children, aged 17 and three, has never felt compelled to change her look.
‘It’s my armour’: Angeline Davies (aged 26 left; and 46 right) believes that sticking to one look has helped her mental health
Part of this, she says modestly, is because she has never got the hang of styling her hair or applying her make-up any differently.
‘Every time I’ve tried to experiment with my hair it just ends up falling naturally back into the same style,’ she says. ‘I’ve sometimes thought it would be lovely to change my look — usually if I see someone I know who has changed their hair and looks amazing.’
But while her friends loved to play with make-up shades or alter their hairstyles as they grew older, any experimenting Nova tried was unsuccessful.
‘The odd times I’ve dabbled with lipstick, eyeliner or false lashes in an attempt to be a bit more dramatic, I’ve found it doesn’t suit my face or features,’ she says.
‘I’ve never worn eyeshadow or lipstick and stopped wearing make-up entirely during lockdown. Now I just wear fake tan to add some warmth, and mascara, which is the one thing that really makes a difference to my face, by lengthening my stumpy lashes.’
Bare-faced chic: Emma Fowle’s (pictured left aged 18; and right aged 45) make-up is as minimalist today as it was 27 years ago
But the proof that it works is in the reaction of others. For it’s not only those who have known her since her early 20s who think she still looks the same — strangers also believe she is much younger than her years.
‘People always comment that I don’t age, and I think part of that is because I haven’t altered my look,’ says Nova, who is also a performance coach. ‘But although it was lovely being asked for ID when I went to buy a 15-rated DVD on my 30th birthday, it’s not always helpful at work when people assume I’m younger and don’t have the years of experience I have.
‘I enjoy the stability of keeping my hair and make-up the same, though. I know they suit me and keep me looking youthful, so why would I change them?’
Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered psychologist, agrees, saying it shouldn’t be presumed that women must change their look dramatically as the years pass.
‘There is sometimes no psychological explanation needed — we may stick to the same hair and make-up because it’s simple,’ she says. ‘We know what suits us. Hair will often part or hang in a certain way, and it may be that no amount of trying to train it otherwise will make a difference.
Naturally youthful: Don’t change for change’s sake, advises psychotherapist Nova Cobban (pictured left, at 23; and right aged 43)
‘Our hair and make-up can also be part of our identity and become something others associate with us. Making a sudden change to it may leave you feeling that part of who you are is different.’
That’s why yoga instructor Seema Banerjee, 50, hasn’t changed her look for 30 years, from her eyeliner to her nude lipstick in the same brands, plus her shoulder-length hair. It’s this consistency, she says, not fancy lotions, that is the secret to her age-defying appearance.
‘I’m still asked for ID when I buy alcohol in supermarkets and have always chosen the natural look for a low-maintenance hair and make-up routine that hasn’t changed since I was 20,’ says Seema, who lives in London and is married with two children, aged 22 and 18. ‘Fiddling around with your hair and wearing too much makeup can really age a woman.
‘I don’t blindly follow fashion trends because what looks good on someone else might not look good on me. Keeping my hair shoulder-length and naturally wavy, with very light make-up, has worked for me.
‘There were a few misadventures with my hair in my early 20s at university, including having a perm and once cutting it really short, which I regretted terribly.
‘These days it might vary in length by an inch or two, but that’s as daring as I get.
Playing it safe: Seema Banerjee (pictured left aged 20; and right at age 50) avoids following trends after a past perm misadventure
‘In the past I tried to experiment a little more with make-up, but I’d have it done at the beauty counters in department stores, only to get home and wipe it all off. It’s just not for me.’
Angeline Davies, 46, has also remained as youthful as Dorian Gray — thanks, the TV presenter believes, to keeping everything, including her hair parting, liquid eyeliner flicks, smoky caramel eye colour and prominent eyebrows, exactly the same as 20 years ago.
Angeline, who lives in Stratford-upon-Avon with her husband and two children aged 14 and ten, believes her approach to her appearance has helped her mental health — and thinks many women making midlife style transformations would do better to confront their deeper needs and desires.
‘So many women reach a certain age and think they can’t carry off long hair any more, including my own mum, who had her beautiful long hair chopped very short,’ she says. ‘I said to her: “Why have you done it? It’s aged you so much!”
‘But looking back, at that time, my siblings and I had all recently left home and I think she had empty-nest syndrome. She’d suddenly lost her purpose in life and chopping her hair was a reaction.
‘That really stuck with me, so I’ve never been tempted to alter my style. I’ve also watched other people I know go through significant life changes and dramatically alter their hair as a knee-jerk reaction, then regret it.
‘In contrast, my hair and make-up are my armour, especially when I’ve been deeply unhappy with my weight over the years. Keeping my hair and make-up the same gives me a sense of safety when I’m feeling down.
‘I’ve been going to the same hairdresser for 15 years, having my brunette hair coloured to cover any grey and add an ombre effect towards the ends.
‘It’s about maximising your hair, make-up and clothes to accentuate the best bits. I’m just fortunate that I discovered what works for me a long time ago.’
For old friends, keeping your look the same probably acts as a bit of visual trickery — if you remind them of the person you were decades before, that’s the age they will mentally peg you at.
Certainly, when friends from Emma Fowle’s university days bump into her or spot photos of her on social media, their reaction is always the same: ‘You haven’t changed a bit.’
This isn’t faux flattery — it’s true. She really hasn’t altered since she arrived at University College London in 1995 as an excited 18- year-old with swishy golden locks falling just below her shoulders, and natural but pretty make-up.
Her cosmetics collection — a mere three items: tinted moisturiser, lipgloss and the same Clinique mascara she has used for years — has stayed as minimalist as it was 27 years ago.
The 45-year-old insists that her style works as well for a middle-aged mum of two daughters as it did when she was a vivacious teenage undergraduate.
‘I found a look that I was happy with, so I haven’t dared deviate,’ she says. ‘My mum went the other way and had her lovely long hair chopped off in her 40s, having been super-glamorous in the 1980s.
‘She has never regretted it, but there’s no way I could ever change my hair.’
Emma, a magazine editor who lives in Cornwall with her husband and two daughters, aged 16 and 14, remembers that as a young girl she had a short hairdo which led to her being mistaken for a boy. She spent five long years growing it to a length that made her feel suitably attractive — and the passing of the years hasn’t tempted her to change either its colour or its style.
‘People often comment that I haven’t aged over the years,’ she says, ‘and I guess not altering my hair or make-up contributes to that. Which suits me just fine!’