One Way or Another: Has Fashion Awoken to Ageless Style?

Whilst lately we’ve undeniably seen an influx in the use of older models in editorial campaigns and on the catwalks, has the fashion industry really overcome its lifelong problem with ageism? 

Take a quick glimpse at the campaigns of most high street retailers, or flick through the pages of the glossy magazines that line the shelves of newsagents in the UK, and you’re likely to find one very common denominator when it comes to the models they use. They’re all compellingly young (alarmingly so, in fact). But this seemingly innate insistence on selecting youthful models has become the norm, often meaning that anything outside of this realm is met with a frenzied reaction of both distaste and praise.

When H&M cast 60-year-old Scottish stylist Gillean McLeod in their 2016 summer swimwear campaign, she quickly became the focal point of global news. After posting the photograph to their Instagram account, the high street retailer amassed a hefty amount of attention. Inundated with hundreds of likes and comments, McLeod became an internet sensation overnight. A refreshingly positive image for those of us who’ve grown tired of swimwear campaigns that rely solely on conventionally pretty and overwhelmingly young models, yet one that undoubtedly shocked and perplexed others.

Perhaps we have to ask ourselves, why is it that we’re instinctively shocked to see such images? Why has inclusivity not been wholly extended to the older woman? Speaking to The Telegraph, McLeod expressed her confusion at the fuss over the swim campaign. “We are inundated with these images of scrawny women in their swimsuits, and they are very young,” she noted. “Every single person is very different and we need to learn to become really comfortable with ourselves, and that’s something that happens with age.”

This season, 63-year-old New York university professor Lyn Slater also became the face of high street retailer Mango’s new marketing campaign entitled “A Story of Uniqueness”. More commonly known to her 216,000 Instagram followers as ‘Accidental Icon’, Slater has a penchant for quirky, age defining style, citing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane as her key inspiration. Appearing in the campaign gracefully dressed in pinstripe trousers and a classic cotton white shirt with traditional black braces, Slater proved that style really does have no upper age limitation.

Whilst Mango’s decision to depart from using youthful models again defied the norm, economically it couldn’t make more sense. Over 65s reportedly spend £6.7million a year on clothes in Britain, whilst over 50s account for around 47% of all UK consumer spending. It’s even predicted that by next year, over-55s will account for one third of the population. So why only now are we only seeing this reflected in marketing campaigns on the high street?

“We’ve been wrong in the past to assume that people stop caring about what they wear when they reach a certain age” notes Laurie Jones, a retail marketing expert. “Whilst there are shops that aim to specifically cater for older women, why shouldn’t they also be able to shop in the same stores as younger women? Essentially, they’re responsible for contributing towards a colossal amount of consumer spending here in the UK. I think high street stores have finally realised that their marketing campaigns need to reflect this.”

The realm of designer fashion is no exception to this realisation. In April 2017, 73-year-old Lauren Hutton was revealed as one of the stars of Calvin Klein’s new underwear campaign. Appearing in a grainy black and white promotional video shot by Sofia Coppola, Hutton reignited the debate concerning ageism in the fashion industry. British Vogue were quick to graciously praise the campaign, noting that it proves that there’s “no age limit to being a model”.

It’s arguably not just brands defying ageism, but magazines too. This year, Debbie Harry graced the cover of Wonderland’s Spring ’17 issue to promote Blondie’s newest album Pollinator. Dressed in alluring Saint Laurent fishnets and Manolo Blahnik for Vetements over-the-knee emerald heeled boots, the 71-year-old looked nothing short of radiant and youthful. Provocative, vivacious and playful, it’s almost impossible to not feel an overwhelming urge to throw on a band t-shirt and some punchy red lipstick when flicking through the glossy images.

Radiating the same illustrious, ferocious spirit that previously led an entire generation to fall in love with her, Debbie Harry is still the girl we all so desperately long to be. Passionately embracing designer Pam Hogg, Harry couldn’t look any more comfortable in herself, as though she’s furiously shaken free from the shackles of age. And why shouldn’t she have? Isn’t now the right time for us to throw our preconceptions about age out of the window?

“Whilst I think that rock and roll stars like Debbie Harry have always been an exception to the rule, I do think that we’re starting to not see age as a hindrance anymore”, notes Hattie Underwood, a fashion communication student from London. “I look at women like Benedetta Barzini, Kim Gordon and Lyn Slater and just think fuck me, I hope I have that penchant for style when I’m older. I hope I’m that cool sort of thing. Even though, I think they’re probably more stylish than I am now. I guess age means nothing anymore.”

A recent surge in the availability of street style blogs and mature Instagram influencers has bestowed women with the opportunity to find their own style icons. Instead of skimming through the pages of fashion magazines, older women can now consult their laptops to discover fresh and invigorating ways to experiment with their style. By discovering bloggers who have a similar lifestyle to them, older women are able to engage with aspirational role models.

For instance, Maye Musk and her ‘grey renaissance’ are leading the way for older women with a penchant for eloquent fashion. Boasting a modest 44,000 followers on Instagram, Musk attributes much of her success to the advancement of digital media. Speaking to The Guardian, Musk notes that “social media has given all women a voice and platform. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have done wonders for me, and I love being able to share my experiences directly with those who are interested.”

Over the last few years we’ve witnessed a whole cohort of stylish older women emerge to alter fashion’s seemingly inherent problem with ageism. Alyson Walsh launched her ‘That’s Not My Age’ blog nine years ago, amassing a huge online readership, whilst Rebecca Valentine launched her Grey Model Agency in 2015 and now has 300 men and women on her books. That’s not to mention the steady increase in designers choosing to use older women in their shows. Both Dries Van Noten’s Paris show in March and Simone Rocha’s London show in February oversaw older women descending onto the catwalk.

However, whilst steps in the right direction are being taken, we mustn’t be so quick as to assume fashion’s turbulent problem with ageism is over. Campaigns by high street retailers like Mango and H&M featuring older women remain a rarity. Most designers still favour using young, conventional models so not as to attract too much attention away from the clothes. Regardless, however, fashion’s landscape is shifting once again and this time it’s to extend an inviting hand to the older woman. And I say, hell yes, it’s about time we really celebrated women of all ages from all walks of life.


Words by Katie Macpherson