Is Ageism in Fashion About to Change?

Vintage Dior is coveted for its glamorous, nostalgic aesthetic. Vintage diamonds are charming and special in their own unique way — and celebrated as such. Vintage wine? Don’t even get us started! Yet the vintage woman remains overlooked, and sometimes even shunned…

But is all that about to change?

Image: Grazia via The Pool

Image: Grazia via The Pool

Have you seen Liz Hurley on the cover of the latest Grazia? The 53-year-old face of Estée Lauder is adorned in a black leather Versace cap and dungarees, without a pinch of exposed flesh — and not a safety pin in sight! She looks wholly irresistible…

And actually, Coco Chanel once quipped that “after 40 nobody is young, but one can be irresistible at any age.” But, until recently, we weren’t seeing anyone with delicate wrinkles appearing in the media… And certainly no celebration of the fact that older women are cool too. It was almost as if our favourite leading ladies were disappearing off the radar once they hit middle age.

Image: Vogue Australia

Photo via Vogue Australia

Kylie Minogue turned 50 at the end of last month and, pending the big Birthday, celebrated with a shoot for Vogue. Doesn’t she look magnificent? She’s not fighting it, she says, she is “feeling it.” More and more in the media these days, this kind of sentiment is what we hear from ladies reaching the big half-century milestone, as well as hearing things like “I’m totally comfortable in my own skin now,” and, “This is the best I’ve ever felt.”

We can’t help but wonder, though, if what these gorgeous ladies are really thinking is, “Do not tarnish me with that fifty-something brush… I will not be associated with those other ageing women.” And can you blame them? When talking about a woman in her later years, people tend to use qualifiers when complementing them, saying things like “she looks great, for her age,” instead of “she’s beautiful, regardless of her age.” Frankly, it’s insulting.

At a time in our lives when we are still evolving emotionally and psychologically, we are rejected physically by society. And even worse: if we should attempt to slow down the physical aging process — botox, peels, “youthful” fashion — we are likely to be belittled for our efforts.

In fact, ageism is rife in Britain, according to a recent study from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH). The study found that half of women felt pressure to stay looking young, and the Society called for a ban on use of the term “anti-ageing” in the cosmetics and beauty industry. Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of RSPH, said:

“If we can begin to remove the stubborn barriers that reinforce societal ageism, we can expect many more to look forward to later life as a period of opportunity for growth and new experiences, rather than a set of mental and physical challenges.”

A love for fashion, or simply wanting to look good, has nothing to do with the decade you were born in. But a vast majority of clothing aimed at middle-aged and older women is frumpy and boring. It consists of unflattering tailoring, elasticated waists, twinsets, lots of layers — all of which hints that mature bodies should be hidden away rather than celebrated, and is anything but inspiring for fashionable ladies of any age.

But, thankfully, we’ve witnessed the stirrings of change in recent years, with the Chanel’s sentiment finally having caught on (better late than never!), as fashion brands seem to be moving towards a somewhat older group of models. At 80 years old, author Joan Didion was announced as the new face of Céline… And she certainly isn’t the first older woman to have been chosen as a big brand ambassador.

Photo: Nars, via Vogue Australia

Photo: Nars, via Vogue Australia

She joins other older models Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren for L’Oreal (despite Helen’s admission that their moisturizer “probably does f*** all” but that she wears whatever makes her feel better) , Charlotte Rampling for Nars lipstick, Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent, Lauren Hutton as the face of Calvin Klein lingerie, and Julia Roberts continuing as the face of Lancôme. But that doesn’t mean these models aren’t feeling the pressure:

“By Hollywood standards, I guess I’ve already taken a big risk in not having had a facelift,” Roberts has told You Magazine. “I’ve told Lancôme that I want to be an aging model – so they have to keep me for at least five more years until I’m over 50.”
Interestingly, fashion editor Alyson Walsh (who blogs at thatsnotmyage.blogspot.co.uk) has spoken on the subject, saying that:

The majority of women want to look good, regardless of age… I am 53 and simply want to look healthy, stylish and modern, not younger. And I want to be relevant, even with my wrinkles. We are important role models to younger women, and I love looking to older women who are leading the way. Finally, some brands are talking to me, but it took them a long time to catch on to the power of the silver spend.

Similarly, Allure took a brave, progressive step in declaring that they ‘will no longer use the term “anti-aging.”‘ Their statement revealed that changing the way we think about aging starts with changing the way we talk about aging:
With that in mind, and starting with this issue, we are making a resolution to stop using the term “anti-aging.” Whether we know it or not, we’re subtly reinforcing the message that aging is a condition we need to battle — think antianxiety meds, antivirus software, or antifungal spray.
Photo: L'Oreal, via Telegraph Fashion

Photo: L’Oreal, via Telegraph Fashion

This brings into question what it means to be beautiful for the modern woman. For older models, it’s still important to have an element of aspiration: they must be exceptional looking – fit and healthy with glossy hair and clear eyes. Brands might not mind wrinkles as much these days, which is great… But if we’re to encourage real beauty perhaps we need to look to even more diversity in models.

Debra Bourne, co-founder and director of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, lobbies for increased diversity in the fashion industry. In an interview with The Guardian, she said:
I would still like to see advertising and marketing shift towards a proposition built on a wider set of values than purely appearance, particularly in that older market. I am slowly seeing a shift where marketeers are recognising attributes and achievements of individuals rather than just the way they look. By the age of 50, we have lived for a sizeable amount of time and most of us have had some incredible and interesting experiences, which mean so much more than sublimely coiffed grey hair.
Female models represent a change in how we think of women in general. Their presence in the media can teach little girls imagining their future as marriage and children that they can also grow up to have a career outside the home. It is more important than ever to see the important women from all fields in our society  and hear their voices of experience.
Image: Celine, via The Independent

Image: Celine, via The Independent

Yes, we know that our boobs don’t look quite as perky as they did when we were 18. And we definitely need a more intense facial moisturiser most days… But that doesn’t mean that we’re hurtling towards being absolutely hideous as soon as we hit our fiftieth birthday! And it also asks us to question things like: Who determines what beauty is, anyway? Is it the point at which other people can consider us attractive? Or is it something that we get from within?

A huge congrats to those in fashion who have already taken the plunge in representing older women and starting to question this judgmental anti-aging thang… The media plays nicely sometimes and every now and then we receive a smattering of assent rejoicing in the older woman and her graceful demeanor.

But real change comes about when we make conscious decisions to step away from the confines of what we are told we must adhere to. It’s time to let go of the stigma surrounding older women. It’s time to redefine the stereotype and let each individual claim their own beauty… For us, that means we need to make conscious changes for fashion to finally recognise middle age…

So, the next time you’re about to write off a trend as too young or old for you, do yourself and your fifty-someting peers a favour, try something modern and stylish: you might surprise yourself!

Image via Saint Laurent

Image via Saint Laurent

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