Popular media has forced countless expectations onto women for centuries, and one of the worst ways media represents women is through aging, or an apparent lack thereof. According to the acclaimed documentary, Miss Representation, more than 70 percent of women represented in mass media are only in their twenties and thirties. Gloria Steinem explains in the documentary, “A male dominant system values women as child bearers so it limits their value to the time that they are sexually and reproductively active, and they become much less valuable after that.” While it might be an unconscious effort to exclude these women, this phenomenon is the reason why older women essentially cease to exist in media. Age has long been a double standard between males and females. Many women are familiar with the circulating notion that men seem to look better with age, while women do not. Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she was too old at 37 to play a leading 55-year-old man’s love interest, and the data confirms that Hollywood leading men are cast alongside much younger women. Society’s current double standard for ideal femininity demands a certain youthful look, especially in the fashion industry in which mostly older women participate as consumers.
Where does this bizarre standard come from? Unlike other forms of identity discrimination, aging happens to us all, but men who control the castings of women have created a norm where younger women are used exclusively in the fashion industry. Aging, though a natural cycle of life, is seen as extremely negative among women, and the pervasive idea that asking a woman her age is rude because she should be so embarrassed by it is merely proof. These inundated ideas are not a natural response, but rather a symptom of a culture that shames women for getting older. The cosmetic and skincare industry generate significant amounts of money from their female audience by playing into the fear stemming from this cultural norm. Women in their teens and 20s are already beginning their anti-wrinkle skincare regimes. Still, there does seem to be change starting to occur in the representation of older women in fashion.
A notable example of recent change, however, is in January 2015 when luxury fashion house Céline set the world ablaze with their spring campaign that featured their new octogenarian face, Joan Didion. Pictured in all black with oversized sunglasses, Joan is chic incarnate. Céline celebrates Joan’s age by highlighting her sleek, grey hair and her commendable bone structure. Her small frame is elegantly and unequivocally the center of attention. She is clearly a woman that is regarded as a style icon and has made a lot of money for Céline. This new wave of defiance has found its way into a number of labels. Yves Saint Laurent has featured 71-year-old Joni Mitchell, Kate Spade has campaigned with 95-year-old Iris Apfel, and Louis Vuitton highlighted the 71-year-old Catherine Deneuve. Even high-end makeup brands Nars and Marc Jacobs Beauty have used the 69-year-old Charlotte Rampling and the 65-year-old Jessica Lange in their campaigns respectively. In a differing and remarkable story, Isabella Rossellini who was once fired by the beauty company Lancôme when she hit age 40, has recently partnered with them again, shocking the fashion world. Her official statement was, “I am overwhelmed with emotion to come back to Lancôme. Our collaboration meant so much to me in my life. Continuing it fills me with immense joy and great expectations. I am also well aware that this decision goes well beyond me: it’s a strong indication of Lancôme’s inclusiveness and celebration of all women.”
This slow tendency to cast older models is unwavered in recent years. In May 2016, Bo Gilbert, a model for British department store Harvey Nichols, was the first 100-year-old to be featured in Vogue. While many know her as the famous mother of Elon Musk, the 68-year-old Maye Musk was the reported break-out star of 2016’s Paris Fashion Week and has been on the receiving end of many job offers since. Just this past month, 73-year-old runway model Lauren Hutton was named the star of Bottega Veneta’s spring campaign. In a beautifully well-done achievement that steered away from the hypersexualized imagery prevalent in swimsuit and underwear modelling, the lingerie brand Land of Women featured 61-year old Yazemeenah Rossi who they chose because she exhibited health and vitality. Just a few days ago, 85-year-old Carmen Dell’Orefice closed Guo Pei’s couture show at Paris Couture Week clad in a royally avant garde ensemble.
While the inclusion of a previously ignored demographic should not be a fleeting fancy, many have accused this trend as an attempt to shock. Sandra Howard, a former model in her 70s, has said, “For the way in which these older women are photographed by the fashion industry — all sagging skin and lifeless hair and stark lighting with its deep, dark shadows — does them no favours. The images are striking and headline-grabbing, but they are not designed to lure my generation into the shops.” She points out that the ads still are meant to attract a younger demographic. According to this point of view, these ads could be accused of further disenfranchising older women from the market in which they are the largest consumers. However, while it is true that younger women seem to look at older women as a genuine fashion trend, this can still be beneficial to older demographics. Grey hair has made its rounds among many trendsetters like Kelly Osbourne, Nicole Richie, and Kylie Jenner. By making grey hair a sleek and stylistic option for younger women, it becomes more acceptable to all women, as is the case for most fashion trends. The fashion blog Advanced Style, which showcases older women with the intent to flatter and respect these women, has a young but sizable following. Iris, the 2015 documentary about Iris Apfel who, as mentioned before has campaigned with Kate Spade, was met with reviews from all ages praising the fashion icon. While these efforts seem to have an end goal of appealing to younger demographics, they still create a new scene of acceptance for aging.
Older women are a major portion of the consumers for luxury brands, and it makes sense that they are included in advertising. According to to the consulting firm A.T. Kearney, people over 60 are the fastest growing group of consumers in the world. And people over the age of 50 control more than 80 percent of all financial assets and account for 60 percent of consumer spending. Studies indicate that older consumers are more likely than the young to pay more for luxury goods, which isn’t exactly a surprising statistic given their excessive wealth. The previous norm of exclusively young models in luxury fashion brands simply disregards the immense information that has been gathered on older demographics. These provocative advertisements are making a statement in the right direction by acknowledging the market that the fashion industry has simultaneously ignored and depended on for so long.
The fashion industry, like every other industry, still has a long way to go in combating prejudicial attitudes; and mistakes may be made, but accepting underrepresented groups in the industry is something to be celebrated. Diversity in fashion is something we can all be excited about as fashion moves forward into a new and more accepting world.