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Age on the Runway: Breaking Through The Final Frontier

By Jackie Mallon

Oct 9, 2017


Latest reports show that the Spring/Summer 2018 round of fashion weeks amounted to a banner season for diversity on the runways. Already since Fall 2017, according to studies conducted by The Fashion Spot, NYFW leads the charge with diversity in size, race, and transgender visibility. But there is one area in which we appear to be lagging behind Europe: age. A total of 21 models over 50 walked the runways of New York, London, Milan and Paris for Fall, more than ever recorded. As scandals around abusive casting agents and new laws against the use of underweight and underage models have exposed some cracks in the system, age appears to be the final frontier, but it is ready to be conquered.

It was the ‘Summer of Céline’––Dion, that is, not that of Phoebe Philo. Many of us continue to bathe in the afterglow of the 49-year-old singer’s stylistic occupancy of our Instagram accounts. It was as adrenaline-filled, and as extra, as her Las Vegas residency. Dressed head-to-toe in Parisian couture’s most extravagant looks, the diva owned her eminence and we were mere subjects in her kingdom. Currently hitting the stores as the leaves change color are all the lush Fall prints and ornate textures worn with smiles on the runway by Dries Van Noten’s ‘girls’ whose ages spanned into their 50s. The bell tolls not just on a new season but a new age.

Attention: High Visibility Ahead

Just last week Jane Fonda responded to criticism that she was too long in the tooth to wear the high ponytail she sported at the Emmys by flying to Paris to stalk the L’oréal runway and throwing peace signs sheathed in skintight animal print Balmain. Sharing the L’oréal limelight with her was ever-glamourous Helen Mirren who in contrast worked a wide-legged traditionally masculine style pant, flat shoes, twirling a gentleman’s cane. Their outfits were remarkable because women of that certain age (79 and 72 respectively) usually only get offered invisibility cloaks.

Grandma, don’t embarrass me

As an educator in fashion school, I recall an enlightening contemporary topics class a few years ago during which I showed a group of 20-year-olds media images questioning the various ‘isms’ common to the fashion industry. They accepted without hesitation the beauty of diverse skin color, and agreed variety of size and non-binary gender depictions should be more visible. But one image that did not sit well with them was an editorial photo of model Daphne Selfe, then in her mid-70s, lying on her side, her long grey mane tumbling free, her dress hitched up on her thigh, and her fingers lingering at her décolleté while she eyed the camera. The sexy pose was nothing new, but the model elicited comments such as “ew, that could be my grandma,” “she should be ashamed,” and “yuck.” I left class convinced the idea of age on the runway was still a distant possibility. But we’ve come a long way in a short time.

A post shared by Daphne Selfe (@daphneselfe) on

The Super Supermodels

For spring Donatella Versace took the baton from Van Noten and delivered a coup de grâce to ageism by draping a quintet of supermodels in silver chainmail and raising them up on plinths. Some of the females among us, disappointingly, found ourselves commenting on the amount of surgery above the décolleté and the wrinkly knees protruding from slits. But it’s no great wonder we react like my former class of 20-year-olds. We’re having difficulty processing what we’re not used to seeing and might even be convinced is somehow wrong. We’ve been led to worship the appearance of youth, whether natural or delivered by surgery and science, and then to be confronted so boldly with our idols from two decades ago, some of whom are the mothers of the runway’s hottest new stars, we’re shaken out of our certainties, and short circuiting in our reactions. Age is never served up in goddess packaging.

Half a century and beyond

But with 56-year old Julianne Moore adorning the cover of InStyle’s October Beauty issue and Stella Tennant opening the Balenciaga show, which also featured Alec Wek, and Robin Wright Penn lighting up the front row of Valentino, our hardwiring is finally being updated at lightning speed. A cursory flick through the current issue of style bible, Love, reveals photos of Candice Bergen (71), Laura Dern (50), Christie Brinkley (63), Brooke Shields (52), Sally Field (70), Susan Sarandon (71), Iman (62), and a nude Stephanie Seymour (49), whose gaze incidentally is challenging, just as Daphne Selfe’s was––challenging other women to accept, to celebrate, and to resist temptation to dismiss, or worse, diss. Because we’re in this together and up to our necks in it, literally, and there’s no turning back.

As society demands authentic visions of femininity, age is central to the conversation. And if as a designer you’re still in some doubt perhaps bear in mind that women who’ve had time to build careers have built bank accounts along the way. Those who have money to spend now hold currency in the media like never before. None of us can ever experience life as a person of a different skin color than our own; we may never be gender questioning; we may or may not get to see the world from within a larger body than the one we currently occupy. But we are all aging, every one of us. Now it’s desperately chasing youth that’s old.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos: Homepage image from Catwalkpictures, Versace SS18