Susan Kanoff is a born helper. Not only is she a social worker who comes to the rescue of low-income families, but she is also a stylist who helps women fight the frump. This 54-year-old fashionista from the Greater Boston area is the creator of The Midlife Fashionista, a popular blog that’s been attracting readers for the last six years.
I recently had a chance to chat with Susan about her style and her work with women over 40. Here’s my interview with this Fabulous After 40 Styleblazer.
Deb: You have an unusual background. How did you go from being a social worker to a fashion stylist/blogger?
Susan: I have always had a passion for style and beauty. As a little girl, I played dress-up and hair salon for hours. My Barbie dolls were the most stylish in the neighborhood, and I held my grandmother hostage while I piled make-up on her face (she was a good sport).
When it came time for me to choose a career path, I wanted to become a hairstylist. However, my father (who was a Harvard graduate) would not hear of it. He persuaded me to go to college, so I ended up choosing social work (no math and I loved to help people!). I graduated, got married, had children, and worked for various social service agencies. However, I never lost my love for clothes.
About nine years ago, I dressed a friend for her brother’s wedding, and my work got noticed! With my friend’s encouragement, I started a business and a blog. So now I do both social work and wardrobe consulting. My goal is to give women easy-to-implement outfit ideas that are stylish and modern. I also infuse the blog with personal stories, inspirational tidbits, and humor (which is so important in midlife!).
Deb: What do you think you bring to your clients/readers because of your background that is unique?
Susan: I think that my background makes me more understanding of issues relating to self-esteem and body image (that so many of us women struggle with). I’ve had many wardrobe sessions that turned into counseling sessions. Clothes can be emotionally charged. I remember a time when one of my clients had a meltdown while we were shopping. It turned out that she had been abused by her ex-husband and for years he had made fun of her body —especially her legs. While we were out shopping for pants, those old messages surfaced, and she broke down crying in the dressing room. After an hour of talking about her feelings over coffee, she was ready to hit the stores again.
I take a kind and gentle approach to my work …it’s very important to me that my clients feel like they can trust me to guide them in an honest and caring way.
Deb: You say that you are determined to do away with frumpy. Why do you think it is so easy for women over 40 to fall into a frumpy rut?
Susan: One word…change. Everything changes once we get into midlife, including our hair, skin, and, of course, our body. Change can be scary, especially when it’s out of our control—and aging certainly is that! I think that frumpy comes into play when women stop caring about what they wear because they just can’t figure out what works for them anymore. Let’s face it; what worked in our 20’s and 30’s probably isn’t going to be flattering in our 40’s and 50’s. My motto is to work with the body you have and dress it to the nines. We have the right to feel beautiful at any age or size (I believe it’s in the Constitution) ☺
Deb: Has there ever been a time in your life when you found yourself starting to slip into this common rut? If so, what did you do to pull yourself out of it?
Susan: Oh definitely! My wardrobe took a major nose-dive after having kids. I was a stay-at-home mom for years, and my days consisted of going to the playground, getting spit up on, and finger-painting. It was so easy to throw on sweats—or even stay in my PJs until noon! When my son was 3, I went back to work part-time, and I was forced to get “dressed” again. That’s when my sense of style re-emerged.
Deb: How would you describe your current style? Have you always had this style or have you evolved into it?
Susan: The main word I would use to describe my style is understated. You’ll never see me dripping with too much jewelry or wearing anything frilly. I tend to gravitate toward simple lines and designs. However having said this, my style can also be a little all over the place ranging from classic to sophisticated or even boho depending on the day and how I’m feeling. Clothes are fun—why not mix things up?
I think I’ve always been drawn to an understated style. However, I was also a product of the times. I cringe when I see photos of myself in bell bottoms or wearing the “Olivia Newton-John look”—a headband, leggings, white scrunched socks, and sneakers. Remember those days?
Deb: Could you tell us about a couple of your current favorite outfits?
Susan: The first is an olive green silk tie-front blouse with high-rise skinny black jeans and comfortable pumps (that I can actually walk in!). My problem area is the mid-section. No matter how many sit-ups I do, I just can’t get rid of the muffin top. I love a silk top because it floats over the tummy—I’m SO done with thin clingy materials! Of course, I had to throw in an animal print handbag because animal print makes me happy. This look is perfect for the holidays.
Also, this year I’m all about faux fur, which is not only warm but also a bit glamorous! I just purchased a coat that is a mix of suede, leather, and faux fur–it’s interesting and different without being “over the top”.
Deb: You recently stepped out of your comfort zone when you wore a printed, fringe top. What was that like for you?
Susan: Scary…very scary! I was collaborating with a local boutique, and the owner wanted me to try on a bold black and white print fringe top. I usually shy away from huge prints because of my smaller frame (big prints can overtake me), but to please Luis I gave it a whirl and was shocked at how much I liked it! It just goes to show you that once in a while we need to step outside our comfort zone and be brave with clothes—or, at least, be brave enough to try them on! I love wearing this open fringe cardigan with waxed jeans and black suede pumps for a night out. I feel chic in this outfit, plus I get a lot of mid-section coverage!
Deb: Do you think women over 40 often shy away from being experimental?
Susan: Absolutely! Stepping out of our comfort zone is hard! But if we don’t try new styles, we’ll get stuck wearing the same old “safe” boring clothes. I encourage my clients to experiment with colors and styles. However, the rule is that they must feel authentic. It doesn’t matter how many compliments we, get, or how “in style” something is, if we feel like we’re pretending to be someone we’re not it won’t work. We’ve heard the expression “trying too hard”…that’s basically what I’m talking about. My advice is to expand your horizons, but be true to who you are.
Quick story, I was in Montreal last year browsing in a fabulous boutique. The lead stylist talked me into letting her “restyle” me.
Although I loved the pieces she chose, I didn’t recognize the woman in the mirror. I felt like an imposter—it just wasn’t “me”. Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything.
Deb: What are some of your favorite accessories to top off a perfect outfit?
Susan: I have a few “signature pieces” including my Michele watch (gift from hubby on our 10th wedding anniversary last year), my blue lapis ring, hoop earrings (they go with everything!), and a few fabulous long necklaces including a multi-strand lariat necklace from my new favorite by designer Sandra Willmer. I’m also loving tassel necklaces, which are so “in” this season.
I’m not a big scarf wearer, and although I love them, they are a killer during hot flashes (of which I have many these days).
Last but not least, I am totally in love with capes and ponchos. They are such easy pieces to wear and can transform an outfit from just “ok” to fabulous.
Deb: You included a quote in a recent blog post. “What a strange power there is in clothing” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. What power does clothing hold for you?
Susan: Clothes ARE powerful—we don’t give them credit for all the wonderful things they can do for us. A great outfit can make you feel confident, beautiful, and even happy!
Clothes not only send external messages to the world about who we are, but they also send internal messages. Think about how you feel when you hate what you’re wearing? You might be thinking “I hope I don’t bump into anyone I know” or you could have a miserable day because you don’t feel good in your clothes. On the flip side, when you love what you’re wearing, you feel like you could conquer the world. It may sound shallow, but it’s real.
Clothes can also help us professionally. When my daughter graduated from college, she interviewed at a major company for a manager position. I dressed her in a modern but powerful outfit. She got the job and the managers who interviewed later her told her that they saw her as a manager when she walked into the room —even before she was interviewed! She also told me that the clothes made her feel professional and confident. Why don’t we tap into this power more often?
For me, the power comes from all of the above, but also from inner creativity that clothes satisfy. I love putting outfits together –it’s fun for me and makes me happy. I also get a lot of joy from giving other women style inspiration and from knowing that I’m helping someone feel beautiful.
Deb: There’s been a lot of talk about age- appropriate dressing in the 40+ community. Where do you stand on that?
Susan: Honestly, I think age-appropriate means something different for everyone. I encourage my clients to work with their body type and to wear flattering styles. Why should we limit ourselves just because of our age?
Having said this, do I think that over 40 women should wear skimpy super short dresses or tight, revealing clothing? No, but I don’t think women of any age should. Remember, it’s all about the messages you’re sending with your clothes.
We’re lucky to have gorgeous over 40 role models who dress youthful and modern like Julianne Moore, Jennifer Anniston, Sandra Bullock, and Nicole Kidman. I’m in love with Helen Mirren’s style, and she’s 70! Style is ageless.
Deb: At 54, you have great hair (and it’s long which is interesting because many women think they can’t wear long hair over 50). How do you keep it so healthy and fresh looking?
Susan: I do? Why thank you! I have struggled with my hair for years—it’s actually very curly and frizzy! The Brazilian Blowout has become my best friend as it gives my hair shine and makes it easier to straighten. I think that the best thing women can do is to find a really fabulous hair stylist. My stylist Helen is a whiz at color—she always gets it right, and I trust her with my life!
I wash my hair every few days (every day dries it out and dulls the color). I find my hair does best when I don’t use the same shampoo all the time, so I switch up brands, always choosing sulfate-free. As far as not wearing long hair, after 50—who made up that rule? It must have been the same person who said we can’t wear short skirts. ☺
Deb: What are some of your favorite stores to shop that you’d suggest to other midlifers?
Susan: Nordstrom hands down for many reasons, but mainly because of their exceptional customer service and liberal return policy. I also shop at Banana Republic, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Bloomingdales, Lord & Taylor, Marshalls/TJ’s, and Loft. I love to boutique shop, but I have to be in love with a piece as the return policies can be conservative. I recently discovered Fabrizio Gianni, a line out of California that is fabulous for midlife women.
Deb: What do you think is the secret to great style in midlife and beyond?
Susan: I have a few.
- Get rid of the notion “I can’t wear that—I’m too old”. I have clients in their 70s who can rock a leather jacket!
- Understand your body type and wear styles that work with it, not against it.
- Constantly reevaluate your wardrobe. I’m finding that what worked for me just last year, doesn’t look so hot this year. Our bodies change and our styles need to as well. This also goes for colors, as our skin tone changes as we get older.
- Have fun with your clothes—they’re an expression of who you are!
Thanks, Susan for sharing your expertise with us. Ladies, be sure to visit Susan’s blog: The Midlife Fashionista, and find out more about her styling services.
- Photos of Susan by Cathleen Trainer