Dare to bare: How much skin is too much skin if you're over 40?

Revealing skin can be daunting, especially with age, no matter how much confidence we acquire in other areas - Getty
Revealing skin can be daunting, especially with age, no matter how much confidence we acquire in other areas - Getty

Are you sitting down? And if so, how’s your neckline doing? After years of demure collars, long sleeves and wall-to-wall prim, ushered in partly by the shock waves of #MeToo, cleavage, thighs and midriffs are back. At a recent party for Diet (obviously) Coke, where she is now a creative director, 48-year-old Kate Moss slithered up in a sheer mesh plunge-front Saint Laurent dress, which was arguably even more daring than the transparent gold slip dress she wore in 1993. Meanwhile, over at the GQ Awards, Salma Hayek, 56, went full Jessica Rabbit in a low-cut corset dress.

Pictures of an unfeasibly toned Moss and a creamy-skinned Hayek – even more than 30-somethings Rita Ora who wore a red sheer dress to The Fashion Awards 2022 at the Royal Albert Hall last night – are as unhelpful as they are helpful. Sure, they show the possibilities now available to women who would previously have been expected to retreat into a form of elegant purdah, but they also set a new bar for toned, unblemished skin that simply isn’t attainable for most women whose job description isn’t supermodel or actress. Ultimately the dress proved quite a challenge even for Moss, with the deep plunge-front doing what gravity always intended it to do – wardrobe malfunction in spectacular tabloid-scandalising fashion.

Same story on the catwalks and in stores – slashes, slits, halter necks… it’s party season and this year, nude skin signals festive.

rita ora - Samir Hussein/WireImage The Fashion Awards 2022 at the Royal Albert Hal
rita ora - Samir Hussein/WireImage The Fashion Awards 2022 at the Royal Albert Hal

Revealing skin can be daunting, especially with age, no matter how much confidence we acquire in other areas. But don’t use that as an excuse to retreat into bland shapelessness. Stepping out of a comfort zone, while hard, “can often lead to a boost in self-confidence”, according to behavioural psychologist and business consultant, Prof Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion.

Comments about women on social media or below the line can read like a toxic sinkhole of misogyny, but in real life we’re inching towards a broader, more nuanced appreciation of what looks good – and perfection isn’t part of that. Crepey skin, loss of muscle tone, a few thread veins – none of this is a felony. Often it’s evidence of a life lived on maximum setting. If cleavage is your default décolleté, don’t let a few sunspots deter you.

48-year-old Kate Moss slithered up in a sheer mesh plunge-front Saint Laurent dress at a Diet Coke party - Dave Benett/Getty Images for Diet Coke
48-year-old Kate Moss slithered up in a sheer mesh plunge-front Saint Laurent dress at a Diet Coke party - Dave Benett/Getty Images for Diet Coke

There’s always a way to dress a perceived body flaw while also pushing against self-imposed boundaries, as Mair can attest. “I have a lovely dress with a bandeau top that I wanted to wear but worried about my arms, so I tried all sorts of tops with it. None of them looked good, but I solved the problem by wearing the dress with long silky gloves. Ultimately, we should feel psychologically and physically comfortable in our clothes, but it’s worth trying something different.”

Sheer, when it’s strategically deployed, can be a useful tool, creating the impression that you’re revealing a daring amount of skin when in fact you’re contouring, blurring and shading it. And it looks fun. It doesn’t have to be the almost-nothing-left-to-the- imagination variety as espoused by Marilyn Monroe when she serenaded JFK in 1962. It could be a soft chiffon swirl that hints at translucency, and in the process boosts your confidence and makes you feel far more alluring than your favourite baggy corduroy smock.

According to Nicola Dunn, a systemic psychotherapist and coach who has worked with clients for over 25 years, both in the NHS and now for herself (nicoladunnconstellations.com), “Skin is our most intimate physical boundary. Showing skin to others is an act of vulnerability, but it can also make us feel confident and free. The act signals to others, ‘I have nothing to hide. This is who I am and I’m happy in my own skin.’ It can be erotic but only if there are other signals that accompany it.”

Approached correctly, so that you feel in control of how much skin you display, this all seems liberating. Women have been deploying sheer since classical times, and in the early noughties a 19-year-old Kate Middleton caught Prince William’s eye when she strode down a university catwalk in a sheer dress. There are some standbys that never grow stale. What changes is the intention.

Nowadays, dressing “sexily” (always subjective) doesn’t have to be about hooking a partner. “I do hate the idea that dressing up was for men, specifically,” Candace Bushnell told The New Yorker earlier this year. “I feel that it’s just a side of my personality and a side I like – the part of me that has fun getting dressed up. Clothes are costumes. It’s a form of play. And the fact of the matter is, people do react better to a person who looks clean and put-together.”

As party season 2022 hurtles towards us, there are plenty of sophisticated, user-friendly sheer tools to help us, whatever our age. An easy place to start is with legs. Sheer black tights have made a comeback on the catwalks, and boosted by Elizabeth Debicki’s recreation of Princess Diana’s revenge-dress moment in series five of The Crown (off-the-shoulder, short black Christina Stambolian and 30-denier black tights), they’re poised to become a cost-effective way to transform your favourite looks. If plain seems too hard-edged, try a playful polka-dot pair, slip on some heels – and that could be enough.

However, there’s nothing scary about Massimo Dutti’s panelled black top, with its opaque torso and sheer yoke and sleeves (£89.95). This is everything that’s good about sheer in small doses, especially the way it allows you to remain covered (in black) while highlighting your neckline and arms and looking anything but sombre. Wear it insouciantly with jeans or dress it up with a velvet maxi or flares.

Maybe you’re looking for something more radical. For most of us outside No 10, this is our first proper party season in three years and we may want to push the boat out. Jigsaw’s 1930s-style black chantilly lace dress with a nude-coloured slip (£285) could be the answer – translucent but also demure, and with a generous amount of fabric in the sleeves and skirt to avert any Moss-style malfunctions.

It really doesn’t take much to shift a tired old party look from frumpy to polished and confident. Obviously, sheer trousers are out – the underwear to cope with the myriad challenges they pose does not yet exist, and besides, it’s just not chic. A skirt that’s 90 per cent see-through isn’t going to do much veiling either.

Then again, maybe your body is your temple and you damn well want to flaunt it. That is your right. Plenty of women work hard to stay in shape their whole lives and want to show off the results.

Counterintuitively, the older you get the more flattering a little bit of bare skin can be, even if it’s just around the collar bones and wrists.

If you just want to show a hint of skin, start with a notched neckline, or a V-neck and work your way to something more daring. Me+Em’s black puff-sleeved silk organza smock top with its matching cami (£225), and sheer bias panel maxi dress (£175) offer a subtle play on light and shadow. For those who find black too harsh, Wyse London’s midnight-blue silk chiffon high-necked blouse with cami is a lovely alternative (£195). Wear it with the label’s satin tiered Saski skirt (£195) and Russell & Bromley’s comfortable (yes, comfortable) Top Notch velvet platforms (£225), or match it with Cefinn’s navy velvet flares (£270) for a glamour that’s polished without any hard spiky edges.

Underwear should be supportive and either nude (if you want it to disappear into the background) or black if you want more of a statement.

If you’d like to prep your skin so it’s in peak condition before you put it on display, regular skin brushing, even for just a couple of minutes every day, will slough off dead skin cells, making it look brighter and activating the lymph glands so they become more effective at transporting nutrients to the skin. Or wear Alexandra Soveral’s biodegradable flax mitts on each hand to do the same job doubly effectively (£30 for the pair). To tone arm and back muscles, press-ups, weights, barre and Ballet Beautiful’s 12-minute “swan arms” sessions (on YouTube) will all yield worthwhile results after a few months.

If speed is of the essence, and money’s no object, EmSculpt can be superlative – speeding up the metabolism and simultaneously building muscle. It’s nonsurgical and there’s no downtime, but I cannot lie, the first time I had it on my thighs and backs of my legs, I found the pain pretty intense. The next sessions were fine, and as an added bonus, my back pain improved massively. I won’t be wearing a miniskirt, but you can bet I’ll be celebrating the bits of my body I’m proudest of (arms, shoulders and my back, since you ask), heating bills allowing. It seems almost ungrateful not to.

Try these festive party pieces

tops
tops

Left to right: Viscose chiffon top, £150 Lily and Lionel; Off-shoulder top, £55 Arket; Organza shirt, £78 Massimo Dutti

dress
dress

Left to right: Halterneck jumpsuit with cut-out, £295 ME+EM; Wool-blend dress, £315 Usisi Sister; Organza trimmed dress, £115 Cos