‘How to Be Old’ offers lessons to redefine your style at any age

One day in 2019, Lyn Slater looked at the racks and racks of beautiful clothes in her New York City apartment — and despaired.

Slater was 66, a former social worker turned social media star. She had begun documenting her style on the blog Accidental Icon at age 61. Her sleek gray bob, omnipresent shades and slouchy, twisted Yohji Yamamoto suits gave her a funky hauteur — and hordes of admirers. Her Instagram (@iconaccidental) boasts some 770,000 followers. Designers flew her to Paris and London to attend their runway shows and fragrance launches. Brands showered her with gifts: purses, jackets and so many dresses, in every color of the rainbow. She starred in campaigns for Valentino and Kate Spade.

Yet, at that moment, Slater had an overwhelming desire to go to her sewing kit, take out her seam ripper and “take all those garments apart, piece by piece.”

“I was lost,” Slater, now 70, told The Washington Post.

It’s a feeling that many women have experienced: the anxiety that comes with the realization that your clothes no longer serve you — or the person you’ve become.

“I see my clothes as materials that I use to convey a certain identity, to convey a certain role,” Slater said. Her ensembles communicate her desires, her thoughts and her very soul. “Having what I wear be coherent with who I am makes me feel like a whole person,” she said. When she began letting brands dictate the items she would put on her body, she no longer felt fully herself.

That has changed. Today, Slater calls herself a “reformed influencer.” She has culled her wardrobe, moved from Manhattan to an old house upstate — in Peekskill, N.Y. — and traded her designer duds for vintage Gap overalls and silk pajama tops. She has not posted #sponcon in two years. She spends her days gardening, chasing her two young grandchildren and writing.

Her first book, “How to Be Old” (Penguin Random House, out Tuesday), explores this reinvention, as well as aging, creativity, fashion and identity. It’s part memoir, part guide to “living boldly” — and finding a sartorial style that will allow you to do so.

Slater wants readers to know that this is an exciting process, not a mournful one. “I have all the ages I’ve ever been to draw upon [in] thinking about what I might want to wear or even what I might want to do now at this age,” she said. “That’s how I come to the conclusion that being older is an additive process, not a subtractive process the way that many people view it. It’s not about loss. It is a privilege.”

“At first, the clothes that I wore — on my blog and on my Instagram — were very authentic to me,” Slater said. “I owned them. They were part of my wardrobe. I had chosen them. … But I never had an emotional connection to a lot of the clothes that I started to wear as a [paid] influencer.”

Then, in 2020, while Slater was trying to figure out her next step, the pandemic happened. Slater and her partner, Calvin Lom, 66, decided to move upstate to be closer to Slater’s daughter and young grandchildren. Slater, meanwhile, tackled her closet. “When I moved, I had six racks of clothes. … I’m now down to two.”

Some of her discards she sold for store credit on resale sites — so if she ever felt the urge to shop, she would not buy something new. Others she donated to a woman in her community who repurposes old garments to give them new life. And she gave five bundles to another neighbor who hosts twice-yearly sales of designer fashion at thrift-store prices.

Manifest change through clothes

Slater is no stranger to uprooting her life. “I have always been a reinventor,” she said. “I don’t find change as disorienting or upsetting as some people might.”

Slater grew up working class in Dobbs Ferry, in Westchester County, N.Y. As a child, her family moved frequently. Between the ages of 7 and 9, she said, she went to four elementary schools.

“It made me see that change is a normal part of life, that you can’t always control it,” she said. “And that your power really lies in: How are you going to respond when it happens?”

For Slater, a way to cope with change — and even manifest it — is through dress. She put together outfits modeled after the heroines of books such as “Little Women” and “The Secret Garden.” “My relationship to clothing is really not about fashion,” she said. “It’s really about using clothing more like a costume.”

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Embrace the person you are now

As a young mother and social worker, with a focus on child welfare, she wore conservative suits. Later, as a divorcee in New York City, she wore sneakers and overalls, and then, as a college professor, adopted chic and off-kilter black-and-white ensembles by avant-garde Japanese designers like Yamamoto or Comme des Garçons.

At 60, while she was teaching at Fordham University, she enrolled in classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, learning to analyze and repurpose old garments with a seam ripper — a tool she would use to reevaluate not just her own possessions, but also every aspect of her life (at least metaphorically).

She cited a quote from the artist and former fashion designer Helmut Lang, a hero of hers: “I don’t like to throw things away, but I also have the ability to end chapters of my life.”

“I really identify with that,” she explained. “When I started Accidental Icon, my initial message to people was about dressing from the inside out. And part of that is understanding that our internal selves are really flexible, and they change and morph over time.”

Define your style with three words

Recently, Slater was asked to style three women for the “Today” show. Normally, she refuses such opportunities — she maintains that she can style only herself — but she agreed to help guide these guests into finding their personal styles.

“I told them about my inside-out approach to dressing,” she said. She asked each of the women to identify three words that describe who they are right now. Or, alternatively: who they might want to be and what they might want people to see when they look at you. Then, when they would go shopping — or go through their closet at home — they would have this list on hand. With each article of clothing they picked up, they had to consider, “Does this say these three things about me?”

“It was just amazing,” Slater said of the experience. “The women all came back and were like: ‘I never had a style. I feel like I have a style, I have a way to know how to get clothes now.’”

As for the words Slater chose to identify herself at this moment: writer, community worker, grandmother. “When I wear a denim shirt and overalls, I am all those people,” she said. And as an author ready to embark on her first book tour at the age of 70?

“There will be this big expectation that I’m going to wear something stylish and crazy,” she said. “It’s kind of fun, in a way, to think about how I’m going to convey who I am today in a way that is authentic and real.”