The fashion industry is built on promises: promises that if you wear these fabulous clothes you will be imbued with some of their sparkle; promises of greater diversity and inclusion; promises to move away from tiny sample sizes and worryingly thin models; and promises to stop perpetuating the idea that youth is the only way to sell clothes.
With the big four fashion weeks now behind us – I always keep an eye out to see how well midlife women are represented – it’s clear that, although we’re moving in the right direction on some questions, particularly where body diversity is concerned, there is still a long way to go on the issue of age.
Before we go any further, let me make one thing clear: I LOVE fashion. I love the spectacular parade of vivid colours and extravagant designs on the catwalks of New York, London, Milan and Paris. I love the analysis in newspapers and magazines. The whole spectacle lifts my spirits – even though the majority of those clothes won’t ever grace my wardrobe. But they provide inspiration for the more affordable designs that will trickle down to the high street. They fuel my fantasy life. And they give me plenty to think about as a PRO AGE activist.
Brands have relied on the image of youth to sell their clothes for so long now, most of us take it for granted. We don’t even blink when we see yet another ad for a high-end fashion house featuring a young, thin, white model. But who has the spending power? According to Girl Power Marketing, women aged 50+ in the US spend, on average, 250% of the budget of the population in general. We are way more likely than a younger woman to be able to afford some version of those clothes coming down the catwalk (or, at least, we were before the cost-of-living crisis hit). Yet brands use women less than half our age to model the styles we will be buying.
So which of the brands actually put their money where their mouth is for the spring/summer 2023 shows and sent midlife warriors down the runway? Carla Bruni, 54, opened the Tod’s défilé in Milan in a camel-blush outfit (more on that later). She was joined by Naomi Campbell, 52, who featured at the Burberry show in London, too, along with Karen Elson and Erin O’Connor, both of whom are in their mid-40s. But on the whole, there were fewer midlife models than we have seen here in previous seasons. Does that mean older women on the catwalk were just a flash in the pan? Designers jumping onto the midlife bandwagon, only to hop off it six months later? If that’s the case, they are robbing the runway of the ageless beauty these women represent.
That dearth of midlifers on the recent catwalks is symptomatic of the ageism still prevalent in great swathes of society. Remember that kerfuffle last year when Davina McCall was trolled for a Retrofête slip dress she wore on The Masked Singer? “Old, sun-kissed woman should cover up… Demure for the mature,” opined one woman on social media. McCall’s response? “Really sorry. Absolutely no chance of demure over here… Growing old disgracefully is far more fun.” Good for her. But if other women are judging us, what hope is there? Whatever happened to the idea of sisterhood?
In a piece for The Telegraph – “How growing old just disgracefully enough became our goal” – fashion director and my favourite columnist Lisa Armstrong says: “In the end, it should surely come down to personal taste and judgment. What I do know is that pushing the fashion boundaries, whatever your age, is a good thing, because it’s fun, challenging and suggests an open mind.” Many of the designers at the recent fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris may have been pushing boundaries on the design front, but on the question of age they were firmly fenced in.
Tod’s creative director Walter Chiapponi was one of the few to feature midlife models in his show. And it’s no surprise that the one colour that stood out on his runway was – wait for it – camel. It’s a shade loved by Italian women, particularly midlifers, and it’s everywhere this season and next. I’m all for it – it looks far less harsh on mature complexions than black, navy or grey. To my eye, there’s nothing boring about beige – though now we’re calling it cappuccino, panna cotta, chocolate and tiramisu!
There’s a shade to suit every skin tone. Women of colour look amazing in the darker iterations of camel, blondes look great in the pinkier hues, while those with olive skins and darker hair favour the coffee-creamy end of the spectrum. But however you wear it, it’s a colour that exudes warmth and sophistication. It’s little wonder that labels such as Max Mara and Armani have made it one of their signature shades – though it’s trickled down to mass-market brands such as Zara this season, too.
So while, on many of the catwalks, midlifers are still woefully underrepresented, we know there are labels out there who really are listening to us. Change is coming – just not fast enough for my liking.