Beauty, Style, and the Ageing Modern Woman

30 March 2015 | By Sign Salad
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In the 2015 campaign for French luxury women’s clothing brand Céline, a model sits, poised and unsmiling, on a floral sofa. She stares in our direction, her opaque black sunglasses and plain dark jumper setting off the glint of her light bob.

It is not only her reserved demeanor that adds to her gravitas; her reputation in the literary world does too: the model is Joan Didion, the legendary American essayist, memoirist, and novelist … who also happens to be 80 years old.

In an industry incessantly obsessed with finding and creating the ‘next new thing’, signaled by seasonally replenished cohorts of widely-unknown fresh-faced 20-somethings, the seemingly sudden appearance of faces that reveal lines is striking: what gives?

You might have noticed this cavalcade of silver-haired models in premium/luxury ads recently: Kate Spade and Lanvin have recently featured older models (Harlem-based former dancer Jacquie Murdock, 84, and New York socialite and doyenne of style Iris Apfel, 93) in new campaigns; Dolce & Gabbana has chosen vivacious, elderly Sicilian ladies to represent their matador-inspired summer 2015 collection; M&S has invited Emma Thompson, Annie Lennox, and Baroness Lawrence to star alongside younger models and singers; and Selfridges’ cheeky “Bright Old Things” campaign has put 14 pioneers of the ‘retirement renaissance’ (read: active older creatives) front and centre. Advanced Style, the hugely popular American street style blog for women 60+, has turned six of its spirited, joyful, and confident regulars into the stars of a documentary of the same name.

Is this apparent fascination with older women the start of an evolution away from stigmatising (female) ageing as an unfortunate, undignified obstacle or just another tokenistic blip in fashion’s ongoing pulse?

It’s difficult to be optimistic. When women who stray from the narrow depiction of high-end beauty (i.e. willowy, pale, dewy-faced ingénues) are portrayed in global media, their ‘difference’ often becomes the thesis. The quality that sets them apart can become definitive, undermining the inclusiveness that their presence in fashion represents and reducing their identity to simplified tokenistic representation of a homogenised group. Dolce & Gabbana’s use of a trio of older Italian women tries to celebrate their colourful dynamism and entertainingly outspoken personalities, but also typifies them as ‘amusing older neighborhood gossips’, laughably down-to-earth against the backdrop of serious young, perfectly sculpted and glossy models.

Over the years, some brands have attempted to address the pressures of the demands of beauty placed on women. In 2013, Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign compared illustrations of women’s perceptions of their physical selves against the way strangers viewed them. Because the images of the latter were shown to be more conventionally attractive than the former, women were portrayed as ruthlessly harsh in their self-judgment – thus Dove’s conclusive mantra: “You are more beautiful than you think.”

Critics of the video argued that despite the reassuring mantra, the message still emphasises physical beauty as paramount. The tears of relieved pain of the women featured betrayed a sudden release from the consuming fear of being aesthetically unremarkable (and thus unremarkable, full stop). This fear is not balanced with the assurance that they’d ever be judged according other criteria: wisdom, tenacity, humour, vivacity, courage…

Like personal care brands, luxury fashion houses also appeal to a desire for aesthetic beauty. But putting the spotlight on advanced age does not simply broaden the definition of what physical beauty should entail – potentially, it takes the singular focus away from superficial appearance, toward other qualities that matter: time-tested resilience, creative accomplishment, no-nonsense know-how – in other words, authentic individuality.

Céline understands this – that though beauty according to fashion may shift at the blink of an eye, fashion defined by style is a self-defined creation that caters to the individual. Céline – with its understated, clean-line pragmatism – employs Didion to show its devotion to the singular customer, not general trends. The brand offers the sensible simplicity that complements the customer, who, like Didion, is ever-evolving, complex, and enigmatic.

Fashion thus reaches beyond adhering to beauty – a rigid ideal of physical attractiveness – and becomes an experiment in style – fluid, fascinating, individual experience that reflects the depth of character and richness of personality for which women yearn to be celebrated. Designers, activists, lawyers, painters, mothers: a salute to each woman as they are, through honouring what they do, would be advanced indeed.

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