Peta Mathias seems not to have heard the news that women over 50 are supposed to be invisible. By the end of the year, she’ll officially be a pensioner but there’s no chance heads will stop turning when she walks by. Not with her trademark flaming red hair and scarlet lipstick, the dangly earrings, bold bangles and chunky rings, and the look-at-me brightness of her clothes.
At 64, Peta’s appearance is just as colourful as her personality.
“I think I’ve got more into colour as I’ve grown older,” she says. “Colour makes me feel happy. If I wake up in the morning feeling terrible or ugly and put on something beautiful, it lifts my mood.”
Peta isn’t obsessed with fashion. She doesn’t pore over every issue of Vogue or shop insatiably. But she does keep an eye out for something special.
“I didn’t really learn about clothes until I was 30 and went to live in Paris,” she recalls. “Before then, I’d dressed like a hippy. Then I saw all these chic Parisian women and realised I was behind the times. That’s when my style really changed.”
Peta started shopping at the dégriffé boutiques (shops selling discount designer fashion with the labels cut out). Returning to New Zealand and carving out a career in television only increased her passion, with pieces from Trelise Cooper, Zambesi and Scotties added to her eclectic wardrobe.
“I did Taste NZ for 12 years and there was a budget for them to dress me. Quite often I could buy the clothes afterwards at a cut rate.”
These days, Italian fashion house Marni is her absolute favourite but she also covets items from Cacharel, Roberto Cavalli and Issey Miyake, mostly picked up in sales when she travels, or from Auckland’s designer recycle boutiques.
“If I see something that I absolutely can’t live without, then I will go mad and buy it at full price,” she confesses.
“I only get buyer’s remorse if I make a mistake and I don’t often do that as I know what suits me. Although there is one fabulous dress I hardly ever wear...”
From her wardrobe, Peta pulls out a frock in muddy shades of brown. “I don’t know why I bought it,” she admits.
Her favourites include a hot-pink Trelise Cooper dress and the multicoloured Roberto Cavalli frock she wears for our shoot (page 10). “I put them on and think, ‘Yes, now I’m happy.’”
It’s not all high price-tag stuff, however. When she’s in India leading one of her gastronomic tours, Peta always makes time for shopping. “I go mad because it’s so cheap,” she admits.
She’s well aware some people would say such an emphasis on looking good is superficial.
“But I disagree entirely. I think it’s profound. You don’t just wear clothes for modesty’s sake. What you wear tells the story of who you are and how you wish other people to see you. You’re giving a message.”
So what does the way Peta dress say about her?
“It says that I’m quite confident because of course people will stare at you if you’re dressed in colourful clothes. I’m saying I want you to see me as creative and different – I don’t want to look like everyone else.”
There are some things she won’t wear now because of her age. “Sleeveless is out because of the upper arm situation,” she explains. “And I wear dresses to my knees, not shorter... no-one wants to see an old lady’s knees!”
There are no jeans in her wardrobe because she finds them uncomfortable. Mention tracksuit bottoms or Lycra shorts and she shrieks.
“I would never wear them even if I was running a marathon,” she swears. “I’ve been known to go for fast walks in Marni pants and a T-shirt.”
Peta thinks as women get older, many sacrifice style for comfort. But she’s discovering it’s possible to have both. Recently she’s become a convert to the Ziera range of footwear – she likes them so much she’s even the NZ company’s ambassador.
“I love fabulous shoes and lately I’ve been wearing more and more Ziera,” she explains. “The designs are stylish but since they’re shaped to support the foot, I can stand in them all night. I’ve got lots of shoes but over summer I lived in a really groovy pair of Ziera sandals.”
Even if she wakes up in the morning to the prospect of a day at home alone, Peta dresses stylishly. She’s not high maintenance but she does have regular Botox in the frown lines between her eyes, and that signature red hair takes fortnightly salon touch-ups to stop the grey creeping through. She buys her favourite Coral Colours scarlet lipstick in bulk from Australia.
“As you get older, you lose the natural colour in your skin and that’s why you should wear a bit of make-up whether you want to or not,” she advises.
As for the idea that women have to become invisible once past a certain age, Peta shrugs. “Yes, perhaps invisible to men because they no longer see you as a sexual being, but not to the whole world.”
She recounts the story of having to go and sign up for her pension recently. “The pension office is in this big place and you have to walk down to the very end where there is a big sign that says SENIORS,” Peta shudders. “You go in there and you think, ‘This is the beginning of the end.’ And then I sat down and all the ladies in the office said, ‘Where did you get that dress?’ and ‘Ooh, look at her shoes.’ And I thought, ‘Well, maybe it isn’t over after all.’”
Workwise, Peta is as busy as she was in her thirties. As well as her Fete Accomplie gastronomic tours, she performs in a live stage show and later in the year will publish a food and travel book she has co-authored with Julie Le Clerc. She has about as much intention of retiring at 65 as she does of toning down her flamboyant style.
“I’m going to be in the old people’s home at 94 with bright red hair and lipstick,” she promises.
Peta's top 10 style tips:
- Even if you’re a bit round, please wear clothes that fit, don’t go baggy. It doesn’t matter how big you are, baggy is never going to look good.
- Wear underwear that fits properly. Lots of women wear bras that are too small. It changes how your clothes fall.
- White is a flattering shade and you can put colourful things with it.
- Things that look great on the hangar often don’t work when you try them on... you have to try things on. Find a mirror where you can see the back and have a good look.
- Push yourself a little and wear things you think perhaps you shouldn’t. I never imagined I’d have the courage to wear my Roberto Cavalli dress, but the girls in the shop made me try it on and it looked good.
- If you don’t wear any other make-up, wear lipstick.
- Don’t wear what’s in fashion, wear what suits you. If in doubt, ask a teenager what they think because they are brutally honest.
- Look after your shoes. Shoddy, dirty shoes tell you a lot about a person’s character. And look after your feet too! Don’t force them into shoes, you’ll end up with foot problems, blisters and rubbing. Get your feet measured so you know your proper shoe size.
- Remember there’s beautiful colour and then there’s garish ugly colour.
- My mother used to say when you’re flush, buy good clothes so when you’re poor you look good.