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How Fashion Brands Are Redefining ‘Old’

Joan Didion for Celine

Over the past few years, older women have continued to pop up on the fashion world’s radar. We’ve seen French fashion house Celine cast American writing legend Joan Didion as the face of their campaign; Dame Helen Mirren as a primary ambassador for L’Oreal; Joni Mitchell as the driving force of Saint Laurent; Charlotte Rampling as the face of Nars. This trend of ditching blank-faced 20-somethings for women with stories and wisdom continues to be growing—and it’s not only fashion brands at the helm. On social media, the blog Advanced Style – featuring street-style photos of older men and women in New York with some sort of chutzpah about them – has over 300,000 views per month, its popularity spurring the much-loved documentary Advanced Style. Instagram accounts like Fashion Grandpas (stylish older men) and Oldushka (Russian seniors in Moscow) have thousands and thousands of followers. Cult style magazines like The Gentlewoman are putting older women on the cover, and magazine editors like Justine Picardie from Harper’s Bazaar happily admit that most of the stories they feature are about older people, not younger.

Of course, a lot of this comes back down to cold, hard finances. Fashion brands are well aware that people over 60 make up the fastest growing group of consumers in many countries: in the UK, example, 79% of disposable wealth in the UK is in the hands of people over 50. It makes sense that brands want to leverage that knowledge by showing their consumers people they’re more likely to relate to over yet another fresh-faced young thing. Even so, this financial motivation does lead to a positive outcome: it reflects and continues to impact a growing cultural shift around physical and lifestyle ideals. As The Observer writes, millennials as well as other generations want more than beautiful people to look at: they want people whose identities reflect stories, wisdom and confidence—and in many cases, the natural representations of those values are people who have lived longer lives and accumulated more knowledge on the way. So although Celine casting Joan Didion does exploit the shock value of portraying age in a traditionally youth-obsessed culture to be ‘edgy’, it also uses Didion’s personal history and reputation to equate brains and experience with beauty and desirability.

The Oldushka Project

Admittedly, there is something fishy about the rapidness of it all. It’s not as if we’ve seen a slow increase in the use of older men and women as the driving forces of brand campaigns: the majority of it happened in the last four years, seemingly one brand after the other. Although this makes it tempting to look at the sudden presence of older women in fashion and media as a vapid trend using shock value to sell things, it may also simply be a natural evolution of things. As Justine Picardie, EIC of Harper’s Bazaar, says, “the pendulum does sometimes swing – You look at the 1950s when they liked that very sophisticated, elegant, grown-up looking woman. And then there was the youth-quake of the 60s, when youth was fetishised. One shouldn’t over-simplify and say this is the first time we’ve ever had an industry where older women have been remarked upon … maybe we’re just seeing a natural shift.”

If we’re to side with Picardie on this one, it’s useful to look at the growing presence of older women in fashion in combination with other phenomenons. An accessible discussion around feminism is growing; the fashion industry is being forced to address and regulating unhealthy body standards; women are gaining more recognition and power to take over key global roles (if Hillary Clinton becomes president, for example, three of the world’s most influential countries will be run by women). All of this means that both younger and older women are cluing in to new standards of empowerment for themselves—a part of which is feeling confident, no matter what age you’re at. As 53 year old Rosie Arnold, deputy ECD at Advertising Agency BBH London, says, “What most people have failed to realise is it’s a fascinating time of our lives as a woman…. You are more solvent, more confident, and have – please God – your health. I’m aware that the kids have left home, and I’ve got money, I’ve got confidence…. I’ve actually got more time on my hands, or more money, and there isn’t a brand out there saying ‘this is cool’ or ‘you can have this’.”

Joni Mitchell for Yves Saint Laurent

So although the fashion world’s sudden fascination with older women is far from perfect – not everyone can be a cultural figure like Joan Didion, or have aged as gracefully as Dame Helen Mirren – we prefer to see it for its positives over its negatives. By continuously elevating the roles of older women in their campaigns, these brands are also elevating the roles of older women in overall culture. Every time a brand or magazine features an older women as its face or cover, the shock value of ‘age’ pushing ‘youth’ to the side slowly disappears. Instead, it’s slowly but surely replaced by a genuine comfort with seeing older women in roles of cultural importance—a comfort that trickles down to consumers of all genders and ages. So, as we like to say: Age is the New Black. Get with it.