THIS YEAR BEAUTY GIANT Lancôme recently rehired 63-year-old Isabella Rossellini as the face of its brand, despite having ceased her contract in 2002 for, according to Rossellini herself, being ‘too old,’ i.e. over forty.
I began modelling in my late forties, some ten years ago, and I am certain this could have not happened a decade earlier, when fashion models were only recruited among the very young. In this past decade fashion has attempted to engage with the more complex aesthetics of ageing by featuring an increasing number of ‘ageless’ faces. These older models are presented as transcending age, their appearances sometimes doctored to remove natural signs of actual ageing, like wrinkles. The prevalence of this category of model, the ‘classic,’ has been prompted by an increasing demand from older consumers that fashion be inclusive of the ageing men and women, and their dollar, in society.
We have witnessed this push towards a representation of the older consumer in magazine spreads and features which claim to introduce ‘fashionable ageing,’ but in practice only further differentiate what is appropriate to different age groups.1 The presence of grey-haired models, generally Caucasian, on magazine pages has notably increased, like Philipp Plein’s recent campaign shot by Steven Klein, which featured the ‘ageless’ eighty-five-year-old Carmen dell’Orefice.2 Having, now in my late fifties, recently modeled for British high street brand JD Williams’ autumn/winter 2016 lookbook, I too find I am receiving offers by designers in response to the demand of the high street.
Often these approaches emphasise, and appear to celebrate, the eccentricity and quirkiness of old age. This is, arguably, in effect another form of ‘Othering’ – stereotyping older women as colourful characters, often defined by their particularly flamboyant approach to styling and accessories, as in the case of Iris Apfel, now a fashion icon, and other protagonists featured by Advanced Style blogger, photographer and casting agent Ari Seth Cohen.3
Unlike similar discussions on body image and retouching, the ‘agelessness’ dictum seems to have escaped interrogation. Though an impression of individuality is delivered in these cases, there is an underlying contradiction in which the aesthetic of individualism pushes towards conforming to a group identity of ‘agelessness.’ This image fails to represent the physiological realities of ageing, and instead promotes a discourse that if one cannot be young, at least one should avoid showing marked signs of ageing.
The majority of model agencies embrace this genre and now – more so in recent years – maintain a category of models known as ‘classic.’ The classic model is a known prototype in the modelling industry, underpinned by a discourse of enduring youthfulness, a woman whose image embodies an ageless beauty, rather than an ageing reality. Classic models are often men and women with long careers behind them, models like dell’Orefice, whose beautifully structured face is totally wrinkle-free, perhaps after cosmetic surgery. From my experience in the industry I know that many of these models rarely work full time, but make themselves available should there be a casting request. These classic models appear in high fashion representing an aspirational agelessness; they are called upon to fill stereotypical roles for older women. This creates an impossible standard, one out of reach without external interventions, such as cosmetic surgery, which plays on insecurities of looking old to sell to the older market.
Despite this, there seems to be some moves towards more inclusive and authentic representations of older women. For example, the London-based Grey Model Agency, which currently represents me, eschews the ‘classic’ model template and strategically positions older, greyer men and women as ageing individuals, with personality.4 The agency’s model recruitment reflects this mission and the models are put forward for roles ordinarily filled by younger models in an attempt to break away from perceptions of age and subvert the industry’s ‘classic’ template.5
The relative success of the agency suggests that the modelling industry is ready for an overhaul. There are several examples from high fashion, such as Linda Rodin, chosen for a recent campaign by The Row, as well as in the beauty industry. Rossellini’s poignant rehire by virtue of her ‘agelessness,’ at the age of sixty-three, at Lancôme this year is yet another example.
The availability and manufacturing of ‘grey’ fashion models relates to the perpetuation of the construction of stereotyped identities in the older age bracket, with ‘agelessness’ as a countering of ‘ageing.’ It is indeed rare to see the aged represented in fashion, without being exoticised in this way. When Elle India featured seventy-two-year-old Belgian model and designer Loulou Van Damme on their pages this year, with minimal retouching, the issue was met with criticism.6
Van Damme’s appearance in the issue was at odds with the accepted wisdom that older models should not display recognisable signs of ageing.
What, then, is being negated by imposing ‘agelessness’? As a frame, objectively, ‘agelessness’ has much to offer, economically, to the fashion industry, through an alliance with the beauty industry and a bolstering by the advertising industry. But ‘agelessness’ makes a mockery of ageing – it is a euphemism for achieving ‘youthfulness’ at all costs.
Despite a recent popularity and demand for ageing models, the trend for high-end designers and fashion magazines should be exposed to questions around the authentic representation of age. ‘Ageless’ fashion, ‘ageless’ models, ‘ageless’ consumers are, I would contend, fictional and ultimately, highly dangerous labels. They have become a euphemism for achieving youthfulness at all costs. It is therefore incumbent upon us, as members of the fashion community and as consumers of fashion, to assess what claims are being submitted through these labels and who they advantage.
Alessandra ‘Alex Bruni’ Lopez y Royo is a freelance writer, researcher and model based in London.
See for example “How to dress your age for spring 2015” in Harper’s Bazaar March 2015 by Lisa Armstrong available at http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/trends/a10437/dressing-your-age-0415/ ↩
See the post ‘50+ style: the eccentric, the elegant and the space in between’ written in 2011 by Canadian blogger Duchesse in which she discusses the Advanced Style ladies and very plainly draws out the difference between elegance and eccentricity as perceived in popular culture available at: http://passagedesperles.blogspot.it/2011/03/50-style-eccentric-elegant-and-space-in.html ↩
See Rebecca Valentine ‘Festival of Marketing to the 50+. Making the horse drink’ available at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/festival-marketing-50-making-horse-drink-rebecca-valentine ↩
See the comments on the blog post ‘Ageless beauty: 72 year old Loulou van Damme’ in That’s not my Age, the blog by fashion journalist Alyson Walsh http://thatsnotmyage.com/beauty-over-40/ageless-beauty-72-year-old-loulou-van-damme-elle-india. ↩