Catherine Edgerton of Rockville, who just celebrated her 96th birthday, has always prided herself on looking good. She'd never be caught wearing pants, and she still enjoys high heels and lipstick. But a few months back, she was unable to get her dress off after returning from an outing. "I could not reach the little handle on the zipper in the back," Edgerton recalls, laughing. She wound up sleeping in her dress and didn't remove it until her caregiver helped her the next morning.

Severe arthritis, a bad back and other problems make it hard for 81-year-old Phyllis Smink of Bethesda to fasten dresses and manage buttons. She points out that once you have trouble getting dressed, you also have a hard time shopping and trying on clothes. And like many older people, she does not have access to the Internet to order clothes online.

"Jewelry is another problem," she says. Tiny clasps make it impossible for her to wear favorite necklaces unless someone helps her.

The issue of clothing for people like Smink and Edgerton has received little attention. In part, that's because experts say older people who are physically and socially active are sometimes reluctant to admit it's hard for them to perform such mundane tasks as buttoning buttons, zipping zippers and reaching their arms over their heads. The fashion world hasn't done much to explore the large niche that falls between middle age and being bedridden -- a niche more Americans are destined to occupy for longer periods over the coming decades. Nearly 35 million people in the United States are now 65 years or older, and the Census Bureau projects that number will double by 2030.

Caregivers have long been able to purchase "adaptive" clothing designed for people who need assistance getting dressed. But typically these "fashions" are little more than floral-patterned hospital gowns or muumuus -- not likely to make the wearer feel very attractive. Yet the desire to look and feel your best does not wane with age or disability, say many who work with this population. Elinor Ginzler, manager for independent living and long-term care for the senior advocacy group AARP, has encountered women in nursing homes suffering from dementia who still love getting dressed up every day: "Shoes, hose, dress, jewelry, a purse -- that brought them incredible satisfaction," she says.

Patty Mascari, owner of the Home Instead Senior Care franchise that employs Edgerton's aide, agrees. "The stereotype that as someone grows older they no longer care about their appearance is simply not true," she says. "When I go out on service visits, the seniors I'm meeting with are often dressed to the nines."

Experts say the impetus is no mystery.

"No matter what their level of functioning, older people strive for a sense of control over their lives," says Ginzler. "That kind of control can be threatened when you are facing something as basic as being able to button a shirt."

Knowing Where to Go

But keeping up those appearances can be difficult. Major clothing manufacturers and retailers ignore how aging affects both the shape of our bodies and our dexterity, says Colette Wong, assistant chair of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Only a few independent designers focus on this market, according to Wong.

In 1999, Wong, in collaboration with the National Osteoporosis Foundation, held a design competition, called Beauty in All Forms, to encourage the industry to produce lines of clothing aimed at people with osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease that can result in restricted movement. "The biggest [design] challenge was to fit the changing body shape of the older woman and man," she says. "We have a tendency to shrink, to stoop over more and to hold our arms and shoulders differently than we did when were younger."

Manufacturers' response? Zilch, says Wong -- for one key reason. "When you're talking about producing patterns that may be different in sizing and shape [from the usual range of mass-manufactured products], it gets more costly," she says.

Ginzler hopes manufacturers will realize there's money to be made in this market -- just as they did when they shifted to Velcro-fastened shoes for youngsters 20 years ago.

In the meantime, where do you go to find stylish, easy-on clothes?

Home Instead Senior Care, based in Omaha, conducted a national search this spring, consulting with Women's Wear Daily and the Los Angeles Fashion Institute, to find stylish, affordable clothing designed to meet older people's needs. They identified two online catalogues that met their criteria: Silvert's Clothing Company (www.silverts.com; 800-387-7088) and Wishing Wells Collections (www.dawnwells.com). In addition, they found that Talbots, a national retailer with stores in the Washington area, also carries clothing for this specialized market.

For example, the Wishing Wells Collection -- created by actor Dawn Wells, aka "Mary Ann" on the '60s sitcom "Gilligan's Island" -- features a denim jumper with a front Velcro closure and a bright red velvet caftan. A pantsuit from Silvert's has a top with large snaps at the shoulders and pants fastened by Velcro closures on each side.

Wells was inspired to create her clothing line for older women and men after visiting a close friend in a nursing home. She was appalled by the dreary sight of women sitting around in hospital gowns that tied in the back. Wells adapted what she'd learned from doing quick costume changes in the theater and designed easy-on, easy-off clothes she describes as "fashionable looking" -- clothing, she says, that doesn't make "dignity [go] out the window."

Silvert's has been selling clothes exclusively to older people for decades. "Ninety percent of our line is for the frail senior who has become infirmed in some way," says owner Jeffrey Alter. "But the [people] purchasing on their behalf are mostly baby boomers, who tend to impose their own sense of fashion on what they buy for their parent." Silvert's offers the usual pastel floral-patterned hospital gowns and muumuus, but also carries tailored styles in a range of colors from turquoise to mauve and fuchsia that use Velcro, snaps, oversized buttons and other design features that make them easy to don. They also carry men's clothing, including easy-on sports and dress shirts.

But while these collections are a definite improvement over the traditional nursing home garb, they aren't targeted to the fashion-conscious older woman who is still independent. "I didn't see anything there that appealed to me," says the 81-year-old Smink, after seeing photos from these collections.

What About the Boomers?

Aging baby boomers will likely be an even tougher sell.

Retired teacher Kathy Anderson, 58, of Takoma Park, applauds the idea of easy-to-get-on clothes, especially since she developed mild arthritis. But she too turned up her nose at the styles, which she found "dorky." Her solution for finding clothes that are comfortable but also fashionable: Shop at stores that aren't targeted at elderly people but carry trendy, loose-fitting styles and interesting fabrics, such as Amano's in Takoma Park and Chico's, a national retailer with several stores in the area.

Although Chico's target market is affluent, 35- to 55-year-old women, the store has many older customers as well, says Robin Martin, business manager at Chico's corporate headquarters in Fort Myers, Fla. "We try to think of the woman whose waistline may be a thing of the past but who wants to be stylish," she says.

Similarly, Talbots carries plenty of clothing to satisfy people who have trouble with zippers and buttons, says Betsy Thompson, fashion spokesperson for the Hingham, Mass.-based chain.

"We appeal to customers from a broad age range," she says. "We have a lot of multigenerational shoppers." Among features that she says are popular with older women: fabric that feels soft and is easy to care for, large neck holes that fit over the head easily but don't gap at the neck, and Spandex insets for skirts and pants.

Anderson recalls an 89-year-old friend who called her from Ohio for fashion advice because she didn't want to "look old" when going to a special event.

Anderson found her a stylish, brightly colored jacket at a small specialty store to wear with slacks.

"That's how the baby boomers will be," predicts Anderson. "Even when we're 90, we won't want to look like we're 90."

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Beth Baker last wrote for the Health section about why more people don't die the way they'd like to.

Dawn Wells, aka Mary Ann of "Gilligan's Island" fame, designed a line of "fashionable" senior clothing by borrowing easy-on tricks from stage wardrobes. Clockwise from left, a Silvert's diagram shows velcro closing; a Wishing Wells caftan; a matte jersey dress from Talbots; a Chico's pants set with wide neck and elastic waist.Silvert's, a catalogue retailer deemed to carry senior-friendly but stylish fashions, offers this tailored pant suit with an easily reachable

back closure.