These Iconic Women Serve The Best Style In The Biz, And They're All Over 40

Women are denied the privilege of aging relatably on screen. Here are the ones doing it anyway.
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost, Photos: Getty Images

A list of older women with iconic style has no business existing. After all, there isn’t one for men ― there are no celebrations of older men or younger men, just men.

You can trot out the trifecta of grand dames in film (Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Glen Close) in defense, but it won’t work. This is because data shows that these women are the exception: The beauty and entertainment industries have been “quiet quittingon older women for decades.

These attitudes create a grimly Darwinian system where younger talent edges older peers out of substantive work opportunities, skewing scripts and visibility in their favor. Older women simply stop existing in the public eye. Men don’t have to contend with this swing-of-the-spotlight phenomenon that leaves an entire demographic’s rich inner lives unilluminated. Research confirms this: Age has no dampening effect on men’s careers. Men continue to headline projects ― and long after their female peers do. The long held artistic belief that women’s experiences are essentially intimate wranglings of little value while men’s are significant events critical to development of theory means that older men get far more airtime than comparably aged female peers.

Maybe that is why no sexy catchall exists for the charismatic older woman, the complement to the silver fox. (The dated, sexist “cougar” is objectifying and loaded with wink-wink insinuations of second-wind libido and desperation. Plus, the word cougar, unlike silver fox, is both inaccurate and disappointingly relational, framing women only as predators, and only in terms of their attraction to men.)

Today a number of metrics build on the Bechdel Test, which evaluates how central women are to a piece of storytelling: The Peirce test, for example, passes a film if it has a female character that “has dimension and exists authentically with needs and desires that she pursues through dramatic action.” The Villarreal test insists on a bit more nuance and fails a film if “a lead female character is introduced as one of three common stereotypes in her first scene: as sexualized; as hardened, expressionless or soulless; or as a matriarch (tired, older or overworked).” Other tests judge extent of diversity: A movie passes if there’s a non-white, female-identifying person in the film who speaks in five or more scenes and is fluent in English (the Ko test), or features a Black woman in position of power at a workplace and in a healthy relationship (the Waithe test).

The past few years have been promising in terms of holistic representation. Below is a roundup of women in film and TV that have given us pause with iconic costuming on the screen, and equally iconic personal style on the red carpet ― gowns that look sprayed-on, dresses that show off skin via risqué panels, colors so juicy they make your brain fizz. Women are doing it all and in some cases, getting better at style as they age.

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Michelle Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All At Once”)
Yeoh emotes with elegant economy in this story about an immigrant failing at life. Her main outfit is a sad-sack riff on Chinese Granny style: gilet over a forgettable floral button-down and plum colored pants, an outfit that feels like the washed out essence of the garments that cycle through her family’s laundromat. Eventually the clothes transcend their ordinariness to become the perfect combat gear.
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Kate Winslet (“Mare Of Easttown”)
As Mare, Winslet is rivetingly dysfunctional in a way reminiscent of that procedural darling ― the rogue male detective. Fetchingly haggard in heavy duty lumberjack-grade winter wear, her bare-faced performance may well inform the now-viral "Cold Girl" makeup look with its illusion of wind-whipped cheeks and lips with a touch of texture that mimics chapping.
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Konkona Sensharma (“Geeli Pucchi”/“Wet Kiss”)
Sensharma’s Bharti is queer and Dalit (the term used for the lowest stratum of India’s caste system), the lone woman at a factory owned and staffed by hostile upper caste men. Naturally she is a wound in a boiler suit. The narrative is familiar to many lower caste individuals routinely thwarted by India’s hidebound caste system. Bharti dresses in the vein of India’s vast male working class ― well-worn cotton shirts and off-brand jeans ― but the intentional tweaks that make these her’s are important: cuffing at the biceps, oil-drenched roots for neat, practical hair, heavy boots that make her antsy gait more pronounced. Indian cinematic productions tend to be stylistically overwrought, so her comfortable checked shirts, face scrubbed of makeup and natural textured hair with their overgrown, choppy ends are a radical departure.
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Jennifer Coolidge (“The White Lotus”)
Tanya McQuoid is a weirdo tormented by unfinished business in this dramatic skewering of rich vacationers. The kooky prints and voluminous trimmings of her wardrobe feel on-brand for the toxic eccentricities of her social class, often expressed at expense of the poors. A gold-flecked black veil worn to a nautical funeral brings the aggressive maximalism of her style to a crescendo. In Season 2, she marries this sensibility with an Italian one ― her long salmon swish of a headscarf tops off a matching dress and the lush, lustrous waves of a Fellini heroine.
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Sandra Oh (“The Chair”)
Oh, who does the cuddly-caustic type well, gives us some great blazer moments in this gently funny take on collegiate intrigue. Her character, the first Asian chair of her department, observes the unsaid rule of it always being autumn in academia: neutrals like navy and russet dominate, tartan and Fair Isle add visual texture. But she makes the gig entirely her own with spunky gold jewelry and crisp buttoned-up collars, proving that professorial need not mean stuffy.
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Poorna Jagannathan (“Never Have I Ever”)
Jagannathan’s Nalini is the queen of the jewel tone. Her fluid, roomy wardrobe hints at a yearning for ease and softness after years of immigrant hustle and the paralyzing grief of losing a soulmate. Traditional gold jewelry from South India and Indian textile, motifs and embroidery anchor her visually to her roots.
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Octavia Spencer (“Self Made”)
This dramatization of pioneering Black entrepreneurship gives us delicious 1900s style steeped in Black sensibilities. As Madam CJ Walker, Spencer’s churchgoing millinery is a treat to behold. The idea of the Sunday best as a form of personal and cultural assertion is rooted in slavery; dehumanized through the week, slaves wore their best threads to service to feel whole and beautiful in their personhood. Walker was born on the same plantation her parents were formerly enslaved at and her style reflects her ambition and growing clout within the community. Her clothes are lavish and have inventive little touches meant to make an impression on investors and rivals alike. A great example is the all-black outfit worn to a pitching opportunity in a New York hotel: The bodice is embroidered with Chinoiserie-style motifs in glowing thread topping a sweeping lace skirt. A chiffon sash adds flair and brings the look together.
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Shefali Shah (“Darlings”)
Terror and tenderness jostle on Shamshu’s face in "Darlings," in which Shah plays a domestic abuse survivor watching her daughter fight the demons that crushed her spirit. Her hair is the real star of the show: romantic honeyed waves at odds with her cut-price salvaar kameezes paint woman determined to feel beautiful despite the ugliness she has endured.
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Gillian Anderson (“Sex Education”)
We often see Dr. Jean Milburn in dishabille, browsing the paper in post-coital serenity and dispatching her one night stands with charming aloofness. Her morning-after uniform of negligee, kimono-ish robe and sleek black-rimmed glasses is so iconic it deserves Halloween costume status. Silk, velvet and linen in sensuous, sophisticated cuts form the building blocks of her everyday style, a lot of which feels vintage. As the plot moves, the wispy gold accents she favors reveal themselves to be the kintsugi glue to her air of put-togetherness and inviolability.
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Hannah Waddingham (“Ted Lasso”)
Football club owner and marriage survivor Rebecca Welton is giving, as Gen Z would say, repressed boardroom siren. Think exquisite tailoring: power blouses in silk, skirts that seem moulded on her form, trousers and trenches that fire up her stride. But it is Welton’s hair that catches your gaze: soft pinup-lite waves that foreshadow an appetite for mischief and joyous risk-taking.
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Kim Hee Ae (“The World Of The Married”)
K dramas are rife with tired takes on aging: doddering grannies, bitter divorcees, chaebol bitches who spy on their kids ― but sometimes you get refreshing complexity. Kim’s Sun Woo, a physician who discovers her husband’s infidelity and slides into self-destruction does all of her unraveling in luxe sleepwear and beautifully cut trenches worn over long skirts.
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Viola Davis (“Woman King”)
Davis may be lovingly roasted for her snotty on-screen crying, but it is really her uncanny mastery of the color wheel on and off the screen that needs to be homage-memed. As Agojie leader General Nanisca in this story of battle in 19th century Benin, a deep brown that should disappear into her skin, adds dimension and stature. Authentically dyed indigo wraps worn over knee-length pants, bronze ankle cuffs and a cowrie-embellished woven leather breastplate show off her gleaming, scarred limbs. Exposed skin is incredibly important to her arc: Hollywood has a documented history of not caring about how poorly Black skin photographs in standard lighting. The brief for the film’s makeup was natural, radiant and dewy skin with increasing scarring ― and Davis delivers beautifully.
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Catherine O’Hara (“Schitt’s Creek”)
Motherhood is an affliction and Moira Rose is its sparkling victim. The mood wigs, avant-garde outfits and woe-is-me theatricality conceal real warmth and vulnerability. Moira shows us that sequins, feathers and shoulder spikes can belong in a grocery store aisle, and that any challenge must be met with a fascinator, statement cuff and a swipe of red lipstick.
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Siobhan McSweeney (“Derry Girls”)
How iconic can a nun’s habit be, really? On Sister George Michael, it is. As chief disciplinarian of an all-girls’ school in a rural Irish outpost, she is allergic to earnest student musicals and wallows in sentimentality. There is nothing she can’t rock with her habit ― judo whites, flip-up shades, even a turquoise studded bolo tie. But she shows us that the best accessories are a glass of whiskey tinkling with ice and an eye roll.
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Anna Mouglalis (“Baron Noir”)
Much like a thunderstorm, Chanel muse Mouglalis is both a visual and aural experience. She plays an ambitious politician on this cult French drama about the double lives of the powerful. Her style (chic, timeless, quintessentially French) is augmented by her gravelly register. Her signature side part is sweet validation for those of us horrified by Zoomer disdain for the style.
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