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The style icon

From her unmistakable lisp and blonde, blow-dried hairdo to her stellar media career and work as an unfailing champion for health and social issues, 73-year-old Ita Buttrose is one of Australia’s most admired – and stylish – women.

When Ita Buttrose walks into a room, there’s a shift in the air, even if you haven’t yet caught a glimpse of her. And when you do meet Ita, she has a refined sense of poise and presence about her. Suddenly, you feel just a bit daggy next to her.

In front of the camera during her photo shoot with Active Retirees, she knows exactly how to hold herself, she understands how to shift her face into the most subtle of smiles and how to raise a perfectly manicured eyebrow. A national treasure and style and media icon, Ita is a seasoned expert in the spotlight.

The former Australian of the Year is also one of the most stylish women in the country, having begun her career as a fashion reporter on the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in the 50s, before being appointed women’s editor at The Telegraph, then moving on to launch the wildly successful Cleo magazine and editing the iconic Australian Women’s Weekly.

Here, Ita chats with us about the changes in fashion she has witnessed over the years, her love of a classic, well-designed garment and the need for stylish seniors to be better catered-for in the fashion industry.

An early education in fashion

As a cadet reporter in the 50s, Ita attended all the major fashion shows in Sydney and was exposed to couture on a regular basis at events. These included the glamorous parades, soirees at Government House and the famous Black and White Ball that was held during the Spring Racing Carnival each year, which was attended by the upper-crust of society. It was an education in refined dressing for young Ita.

At the time, there was a great influx of European migrants, who brought their own elegant sense of style and significantly influenced the way Australian women dressed. Well-known designers included Germaine Rocher, who had escaped from Russia, and French milliner Henriette Lamotte, Ita recalls.

It wasn’t until the late 60s that local designers began to emerge, like Pru Acton, Carla Zampatti, Lisa Ho and Norma Tullo, with her classic suits and pussycat blouses.

“I covered the parades in autumn and winter for a number of years and learnt a lot about how to put an outfit together – how a hem should be, how a cuff shouldn’t hang over your wrists, how to make sure a jacket fits correctly and that the buttons are correct. It’s all to do with finish and how you put it together,” Ita explains.

At the time, there was a much more formal attitude towards the way clothes were worn on different occasions and there were various rituals involved when preparing to attend an event. For example, no woman would have ever dreamt of being seen in public without wearing a properly fitted pair of gloves, a hat and coat.

While working at Australian Consolidated Press when Sir Frank Packer was charman, female reporters were “absolutely forbidden” to ever wear pants or be seen without a pair of stockings. However, Ita remembers one particularly hot day during a heatwave when Sir Frank made an exception to the rule and sent a memo to all his female staff, allowing them to remove their stockings as relief.

According to Ita, women of her generation had an innate sense of style, as many knew how to sew and understood the construction of a garment.

“I could make my own clothes. I did nine Saturdays of a Singer sewing machine class, where I learnt how to cut out a pattern, how to put sleeves in correctly and how to do a collar without it bunching up,” she says.

Hemlines on the rise

In the 60s, Ita went to work in London, where the fashion was edgier than the Australian aesthetic. She was working on a magazine called Woman’s Own at the time.

“They were much more carefree than we were here. I’d wear my hair up in a beehive in London and they’d mock me [in the office]. I was still wearing wrist gloves. But by the time I left London, I’d taken all the pins out of my hair, put the gloves away and taken my hems up quite a lot, because the mini skirt was really alive and well,” says Ita.

Designer Mary Quant and her famous mini skirts that drove men wild, her geometric haircut and bright, Mondrian prints had hit the scene and women everywhere were embracing their bare legs.

“I became pregnant in London with my first child. I used to put curtain weights at the front of my skirts so they’d stay over my baby bump, because we didn’t wear clingy clothes,” explains Ita.

“Dad, who was living in New York, came over to see me before the baby was born and was shocked. He said, ‘Don’t you think that skirt’s a bit short for a pregnant woman?’. And I said, ‘Dad, you’re so square – this is London!’.”

The invisible market

While the days of mini skirts and beehives are over, Ita still has a great appreciation for high-quality Australian design and describes her own personal style as “classic”.

“I think it has always been my preferred style, but I have a better sense of what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel comfortable with who I am and my own sense of style,” she says.

“Most older women would identify with me on this. We are not driven by trends, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep up to date with what’s what in fashion.”

Despite this, magazines, television and the internet are covered in slick, polished advertising campaigns created by on-trend clothing brands, featuring beautiful, young and thin models. Very few – if any – of these labels are actually aimed at older Australians. It’s a common challenge for many seniors to find stylish clothes when they’re shopping, despite the fact that many often have a sizable disposable income.

According to Ita, the fashion industry has no idea of the potential that the older demographic holds and it's a market that is seriously under-catered for.

“There’s a strange attitude to older people in Australia. Younger people think they’re just not into clothes and marketers dismiss them, without thinking about how much disposable income they have, how much they still spend on their children, how much they spend on their grandchildren and how much they do or don’t spend because there’s nothing out there for them to buy,” she says.

“There’s a myth that they’re past it and they’re not interested [in fashion]. And because many of them have grey hair (although most of my friends have anything but grey hair), people think they’re not really worth worrying about, so why cater for them? I think there’s a growing frustration among older Australians that they’ve been written off by so many in our community.”

“I’d like the fashion industry to recognise that the growing population in Australia is the older one and they’re prepared to spend money on fashion if they can find what they’re looking for. But if they can’t, they won’t spend the money or they’ll go online, so the [fashion industry] is losing out on a valuable market.”

In the meantime, Ita suggests over-50s consider finding a tailor or dressmaker who could create beautiful clothes to suit them and perhaps search for services such as Shanghai Goddess, which organises group shopping trips to China. During the tours, guests visit reputable designers to have their clothes made during their trip. Another option is to go online and search for stores worldwide.

However, it’s also important to voice your opinion and let Australian designers and retailers know that you are struggling to find clothes that suit you, Ita says.

“I’d be right onto department stores and anyone else, saying, ‘I love shopping at your store, but you don’t seem to cater for me. How about more items for people over 60?’,” she advises.

“I’d keep raising my voice and keep lobbying. You need to let people know that you’re looking for something that you can’t find. Spread the word. If I was in a retirement village, I’d ask the organisers to find someone who makes nice clothes for older people so you can have a fashion parade. I just wouldn’t accept that there’s nothing around."

How to be an active retiree

There’s no sign of slowing down for 73-year-old Ita Buttrose, who continues to champion health issues such as arthritis, HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease and is a co-host on Channel Ten’s morning program, Studio 10. Here are her tips for keeping fit and active during your golden years.

•          Do some kind of exercise on a regular basis. “Go walking or dancing. Go swimming. Physical exercise not only keeps us fit, but young. The brain also benefits from physical exercise.”

•          Be social. “Get out and about and try not to spend too much time at home alone. If you’re short on friends, volunteer for local community work like Meals on Wheels or visit your local library, where there are always interesting events and activities on offer and like-minded people.”  

•          Keep learning. “Take up a new hobby, learn a new language or a new sport. It’s fun and most importantly, try to always wear a smile on your face.”

•          Invest in your friendships. “Some people have let friendships go, because they were so busy with their family and career. Then they stop working and they don’t have a lot of friends. You've got to work on your friendships all your life so that when you do finish work, you have friends with whom you can share things. I think everything is so much nicer if you can share it.”