fashion Subscriber Exclusive

HOLLY WAINWRIGHT: 'I turned 50 and a year later I looked very different.'

Would you like to see me disappear?

It’s a trick I can do. 

I just wake up, wash my face and pull my hair back, leaving a fine halo of frizz around my temples. I put on no make-up. I wear my baggy exercise t-shirt and my trusty activewear leggings. And I get on with my day. 

At the shops, not one eye will flick towards me. Not male, not female. I am immediately invisible – a middle-aged woman with a middle-aged shape in middle-aged clothes. In that uniform, people literally look through me. 

It’s a neat vanishing act.

Compared to the hyper-visibility of some other seasons of your life, notably your teens and 20s, when it feels like every detail of your existence is being observed, measured, judged and weighed up for value, there is a glorious freedom in moving through the world unseen. 

And also, there isn’t. 

Because I am not gone. I am still here.   

And this year, since my big mid-life birthday, I have felt an urgency to prove it, like I never have before. 

Welcome to my midlife makeover. 

Lol. 

I work with Mia Freedman. You might have heard of her. We're the same age, and she's my friend, my co-host, my boss, my work-wife. And famously, she lives and breathes clothes. 

She doesn’t live and breathe ‘fashion’, with all that suggests: hefty price tags and blink-and-you'll-miss-it-trends, she just has an unrivalled sense of what she wants to say, on any given day, with her clothes. She sees dressing as a creative art form, just like writing, broadcasting, creating beautiful spaces. She is an uplifting, walking inspiration for feeling yourself, being yourself, and not playing it safe. 

Me? I’m not that talented in the visual arts department. Or that confident. 

Throughout my life, my wardrobe has been limited by the stories I've told myself about what I "can" and "can’t wear". 

I’m not tall. I’m not thin. I’ve got short legs. I'm too pale for that. I'm too old for that. My boobs are too big for that. My boobs are too small for that...

And limited by my budget, of course. 

So when, this past year, I felt this pressing need to change how I look, how I might be seen in the world, I needed a framework. Some basic principles. 

Your 'midlife makeover', should you choose to accept one, might look different. It might involve more flesh, less flesh, it might involve a sprinkle of injectables, or a big dose of colour. For me, this was enough to feel seen again.  

The perfect pair of jeans.

"Jeans and a nice top" has been my uniform for years. Mine and many, many other ordinary women use this formula as their sartorial fallback. 

Jeans shopping can be a shocker, but once you find the perfect pair (for you, the perfect pair for you), they are the base from which you can add whatever needs to be accomplished that day, style-wise. A bit of sparkle, a plain old t-shirt, the perfect blouse. 

But it would not be an overstatement to say that my 'makeover' began with a specific pair of jeans.

I saw Mia in the Freya by Kireina jeans first. And I loved them, and I asked her where they were from, and I promptly bought a pair. They arrived, and I wasn't sure they'd suit me too, but they did. They're wide-leg but they have shape. They're high-waisted but they don't cut you in two. For whatever reason, they are perfect for me – once taken up an inch or so because I'm short, I always need jeans taken up. 

Immediately, another shade followed. I wear them so much they're a second skin. And they inspired me to take jeans and a nice top to a whole new level this year.

Notably with...

Shirts.

I don't want to encourage anyone to think that there's an age at which you should stop or start wearing anything in particular. There are no rules, no such thing as dressing for your age, etc etc. But for me, it was a revelation that shirts – proper button-through shirts, rather than t-shirts or 'tops' – are the perfect new foil for pretty much everything in my wardrobe. Especially my jeans.

Last Summer I bought up big on little cheese-clothy numbers from Tree Of Life that are great with shorts, or over swimmers, or tucked into my white, wide Trenery jeans. And I still wear those a lot. But this year I've graduated to what we might call a 'blouse' – silk shirts that aren't satin-y. 

My white, ruffled number from Studio Premia has been one of my most-worn 'book event' outfits. I hunted down the perfect black silk short-sleeve shirt from an exxy spot in Byron Bay this year (Mimosa, if you have to know), and I also have done a bit of side-shopping when waiting for my daughter to buy yet another pair of denim shorts in shops like Cotton On Body or Ghanda – grabbing a short-sleeved linen-ish number in a range of colours, even pink. 

My very favourite flowery blouse is from an op shop, and is best far from an open flame. Button-all-the-way is more flattering on my mid-life-middle, if we really have to go there. And, as a nice little side effect, I feel a bit classy in them. 

Shiny skin.

This bit began in lockdown, with an obsession with skincare and finding the perfect base. 

I wasn’t alone in that. Many of us found solace in parcels of silver-topped pots and shiny white tubes that arrived at the door with a regular rhythm that alarmed my partner and added splotches of joy to the relentless groundhog days. Things to rub on my face to plump and glow and hide and fade. 

I fell in love with skincare way too late for it to make much difference to my folds and lines, but it's done some good overall, I’d say. Mostly in delivering me a 'shiny face' that doesn't look quite so dried-out crumply. 

I am not a guru in this department (I have Leigh Campbell and You Beauty for that), but these are the four things I do religiously that I didn’t do before. 

Vitamin C.

Serum. Every morning. I have a fancy, expensive one. And I have a cheaper one, and depending on where we’re at with the world, I use one or the other, but I always use one. What does it do? It brightens. And it really, really does.

Vitamin A.

Every second night. Again, I have a few, of varying strengths. I have a couple of complete resurfacers. I have a gentler option. But I do it, religiously. And more than any other one thing I have started doing for my face over the last few years, it's the one that made the difference. What does it do? It exfoliates. 

Face oil.

Like everything excellent, this is not for everyone. I know people whose skin can't handle a face oil. But I am obsessed. Again, welcome to my collection. Ipsum Skin Face Oil Intense is my favourite, but I have alternatives, including this marvelous blackberry oil that I've just discovered and makes me tingly, juicy and smells like Spring. 

For me, oils don't make me oily, they just feel as if my skin is getting a level of nourishment nothing else can deliver. Completely converted.

Non-foundationy foundation.

Obviously, I love good coverage, and need it. As a clever woman (I think it was Rae Morris), told Mia that evening out your skin tone is actually the most anti-ageing thing you can do to your face. But this year I keep trying to find the best things that do that without sitting heavy on my skin (and in my crinkles). 

When we were on tour with Mamamia Out Loud this year I made a stop at a Brisbane Mecca and the woman who served me was a proper grown-up. She had silver hair, a calm energy in a neon palace full of colour and the most beautiful skin I've seen in forever. I asked her what was on her face (rude, I know, but she was working) and she told me Ilia tinted serum. So I bought some. 

It's oily, and the smell is a bit much for me, but I LOVE the way it looks on my skin. Evens out tone, gives good glow, and juices everything up. Big fan. 

Also, I love my Trinny BFF, which is SPF but also a skin perfector with glow. And I love that Flawless Filter by Charlotte Tilbury that all the influencers use (they're right, I'm afraid, although I do photograph a bit too shiny in it) and if I need proper coverage I go back to my Rageism Mineral All Day foundation

Sometimes I mix up a few of these things. And believe me, I'm often doing this on a dawn train or at the lights in my car, so it's no TikTok dot theory we have going on here. 

A bold lip.

I've spent my entire life with a 'nude' lip. Or maybe a hint of pinky-beige. Handbags full of tinted balms. 

Why didn't I realise that there is no easier and faster route to saying 'I'm here', 'I made an effort', 'I'm dressed up', 'I'm not tired (when I am)' than the perfect red lip? And I know, I know, I know, women have been saying that forever. I just didn't think it applied to me. 

The game changer here was finding ones that are easy to put on, and easy to wear, and – of course – are exactly the right shade for you. Some reds are very hard work and come off on everything, including all over your face for reasons that aren't even clear. Luckily, my favourites don't, and they are the Trinny Lip Luxe in Demon and the Revlon Colorstay Lite Crayon in Ruffled Feathers

Long, long hair.

I think I was supposed to cut my hair at 50. Get something a bit more 'sensible' going on. But I can't. 

I used to go to the hairdressers and ask them to give me a generous trim, you know, to "keep it in good condition" but now I've just been going for a bit of a tidy-up but letting it get long. Like, really long. It's down to my nipps and I'm just fine with that. There's something pleasingly rebellious about having so very much hair at my age. 

Interesting shoes.

I've always loved colourful shoes. Even when I was most "in-hate" with my body, shoes wouldn't let me down. Shoes would always fit. Shoes can make boring clothes exciting. 

Stilettos are way beyond my skill-set, but I've always been into the immediate oomph of a blocky mid-heel. 

Enter my favourite wooden-heeled Sage sandals from South Of the Border. They have a heel but you can walk in them. They come in excellent colours (I have four different ones). I wear them lots and lots. And they last. I bought my first pair in a faded, denim-y blue years and years ago. Still wear them. Now I have gold, black and navy, too.

I also bought a gorgeous pair of suede "rainbow shoes" from Django & Juliette this year, and they have brought me a lot of joy with jeans, too.

I spent the Winter in a pleasing brown, block-heeled boot I bought on The Iconic for less than $200. 

Life is too short for black shoes, friends. And it's just not true that they go with everything. 

A few, easy frocks.

I used to love a frock for work. But in my new phase, I like them more for off-duty. 

My sudden enthusiasm for dressing up has coincided with me moving out of the city, and believe me, I would look really silly clomping around my little town in my heeled-clogs and my wide-leg jeans. I think it's the distinction between home and work getting sharper – of being off and on – that has made me embrace a more put-together 'look at me' vibe for professional days. 

So here at home, if I'm going for lunch at a friend's, or to a day-time thing or a date-dinner with Brent, I'm likely to be in a cotton-y dress, and flat shoes that are gold or red. 

Recently, I discovered a label called Ruby Raisin and I've been wearing her short bright blue dress with my red Twoobs (they're sandals, not lollies, but they come in lolly colours) and loving it. Her Holiday dress in floaty navy gorgeousness is my new relaxed 'going out' dress and a long linen skirt in orange (orange! who am I?) works great with a short, floaty navy shirt.

Selective sparkle.

Again, it was Mia who encouraged me to sparkle. 

For a while there, sequins were so her trademark that it felt impost-ery to wear them. But they bring such joy, and while she is expert enough to mix and clash, for me their power is best used sparingly. 

I have a black sequinned mid-length skirt from Marks & Spencer that I love to wear with a simple shirt or a t-shirt or, best of all, with a denim shirt and trainers. A mix of sparkle and slack. And I have a gold sequin pencil skirt I bought years ago from Veronica Maine that is my hands-down favourite "going out out" thing, worn with a black silk shirt. It's just wow enough.

And then, for the Mamamia Out Loud tour this year, I knew 'jeans and a nice top' needed a lift, and I bought a muted goldy-bronzy shirt from Luxe De La Valentina that cost a bit but is PERFECT with jeans. It has big puffy sleeves, and it makes me feel like a blousy, mid-life pirate.

Well, now, like the invisible midlife woman I am, I feel like a self-indulgent wanker for writing a 'style guide'. And, perhaps, if you see yourself in this story, being invisible brings you relief. Hiding in plain sight can give you a different perspective, after all. 

But for me, my "makeover" has not been about being looked at. It's about not being looked over.

My mid-life invisibility cloak feels like something I can pull on and off at will. On my terms, rather than something that was just thrown over me on a significant birthday. 

Because believe me, it's hard to overlook someone in a gold, puffy pirate shirt.

Feature Image: Supplied + Mamamia. 

Can’t live without your phone or the internet? Take our survey now and you go in the running to win a $100 gift voucher!

TAKE SURVEY ➤

Unlock unlimited access to the best content for women