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We may be seeing more mature women on fashion magazine covers, but is this genuinely liberating or – ...
2021-02-05 09:00:00
A Hat for the Matron
A Hat for the Matron

There used to be a style that expressed dignity and stood for the attributes of seniority. Long ago, however, we lost the willingness to dress in a mature way. Age has become fluid, dotage has become optional, while fashion beguiles us with the promise of eternal youth.

Read in 12 minutes

Let’s pose a question. Do older women, say, after 60, appear on the covers of prestigious fashion magazines? Two decades ago, it would have been unthinkable. Nevertheless, things stand differently today. The cover of the June 2019 issue of British Vogue was graced by a black-and-white photo of Madonna (born 1958). Let’s take a closer look at that picture, at its somewhat nostalgic and dark vibe. On it, the artist, wearing a black, gem-studded top, lies in a bathtub filled with milk. She’s gazing pensively at something we can’t see, staring into space. Her flawless, unblemished face makes her look like one of the old Hollywood stars. She seems lost in thought, perhaps moved by some passage from the book she’s pressing to her chest.

On the cover of another issue of the same magazine (May 2019), this time dedicated to mature women, we find Jane Fonda (born 1937). The actress poses wearing a chic white blouse that partly exposes her shoulders. She’s subtly propping her chin with her right hand and seems as if in contemplation of the issue’s motto, Pablo Picasso’s words: “It takes a long time to become young.” Finally, on the cover of the June 2020 British Vogue issue, we can see the steely-eyed Dame Judi Dench (born 1934) sporting a floral Dolce & Gabbana trench coat. The Oscar-winning actress is the oldest model as yet to have appeared on the cover of a magazine long associated with youth and perfect bodies.

A lady of a certain age…

I think back to my grandmother, Michalina (born 1920), who turned 70 at the cusp of the 1990s. Grey hair partly covered by a mink pillbox hat, a fur-lined winter coat, a simple below-the-knee skirt, an elegant buttoned-up blouse. She wouldn’t have liked the Madonna and Fonda covers. Who lies in a bathtub fully dressed, with a book? A nice picture, to be sure, but nothing more than a whimsical fantasy for teenagers. Where’s the gravitas that comes with age? Grandma would be outraged at baring shoulders and cleavage, too. What woman in her right mind, she’d undoubtedly ask, would pretend to be younger than she is? Granny was very elegant and, being a tailor’s wife, read fashion magazines and cultivated different standards.

In 1948, British Vogue printed a cover with a silver-haired model on it. The stylish lady was wearing a toque and an elegant jacket with a brooch in one lapel. She was photographed against a September landscape chosen to correspond symbolically with the model’s own autumn years. Who was this sophisticated woman? Meet Mrs. Exeter, a fictional smart dresser created by the magazine’s editors and stylists as the embodiment of Vogue’s ideas and ideals, addressed to its more mature readership. Mrs. Exeter would ‘write’ her own columns and appear in photo shoots ‘as herself’. Her phenomenon was explored by Charlotte Greenhalgh in her book, Aging in Twentieth-Century Britain.

Mrs. Exeter’s age wasn’t a mystery. To quote: “Approaching 60, Mrs. Exeter does not look a day younger.” Although the models who would pose as her at photoshoots were younger than that, Mrs. Exeter’s presence and attire clearly communicated a certain sentiment – she was a woman of a certain age. An age she’d made peace with and that had conferred upon her a long list of virtues, including wisdom, composure, dignity and prudence. These she personified every time she appeared on the pages of Vogue. She was said to be quite matter-of-fact at business meetings and to radiate a humble kind of beauty at dinner parties. Always serious and refined, she spoke of her age with acceptance: “I, for example, forgive myself a 33-inch waist. I’ve made my peace with my upper arms and my disappearing eyebrows. I’ve forgiven the yellowing (mellowing? Thank you, dear) of my complexion…”

Dior for a dame

Mrs. Exeter’s virtues were reflected in her clothes. They were displayed in the tasteful details, the subtle colours, and cuts that harmonized with the model’s figure. Her style, however, was anything but old-fashioned. In fact, Mrs. Exeter was a trendy lady! The fashion of her time – the elite offerings based on sartorial craft, made from high-quality fabrics – was aimed at a narrow group of women of a certain social class. Yet it’s worth noting that at the time, middle age started around 30, sometimes earlier if the woman married. A Christian Dior cinched waist suit jacket, together with a gathered circle skirt or dress – a style that fashion history would remember as the New Look – suited mature women well. Designers like Coco Chanel, Hubert de Givenchy and Cristóbal Balenciaga also created lines for middle-aged women. The Spanish designer in particular seemed fond of his more mature clientele, over whom he fondly draped his streamlined cuts. His employees joked around the atelier along the lines that Maestro is quite happy when a lady sports a belly.

Young girls could only dream of such sophisticated garments. Nobody invested in expensive clothes for growing young ladies. When teenage girls left home for college, they would pack maybe a dress or two, a skirt, a few blouses, a sweater, and a jacket or a coat. Youth fashion was modest, but pretty much non-existent. It drew from the styles worn by the parents.

The new is now

Everything changed in the 1960s. Diana Vreeland, who at that time served as Vogue’s editor-in-chief, called the cultural revolution that swept Europe and America “the Youthquake”. That powerful young people’s movement changed not only fashion, but other areas of culture as well, including cinema, popular music, social customs and attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Advancement of technology and underage labour regulations came together and for the first time in history allowed teenagers to participate in their own culture and decide on their identity. Young artists composed music, wrote lyrics and literature, describing life in their own new language. Youth culture was born – with its separate aesthetics markedly different from the tastes and preferences of their parents.

Grown-ups came to be seen as advocates of the worst policies – supporters of the Vietnam war, prejudiced against women and African Americans. The slogan “Never trust anybody over 30” appeared on banners flown by rebellious rock fans during concerts. But it wasn’t only young Americans who saw adult age as something terrible. Their European peers, too, were vocal in their defiance of the status quo.

The youth fashion thus created was cheap, colourful, gaudy and easily affordable thanks to new technologies and industrial developments. Both in Europe and overseas, the post-war baby boomer generation made for a great spike in purchasing power. The market could no longer ignore its needs. It didn’t have too, either. Ever since PVC fashion became de rigueur, no-one had to scrimp on fabrics. In the US, denim clothes were gaining increasing popularity. Levi Strauss released new cuts designed to accentuate the female figure. In France, Saint Laurent Paris launched short dresses with geometric prints inspired by modern art. Women’s bodies became less and less curvy, and tended, on the whole, towards the girlish H-figure. In swinging London sprang up the first boutiques with ready-to-wear, cheap, mass-produced clothes. “Expensive things are simply immoral and we find the New Look irrelevant,” the designer Mary Quant would say, as she proposed a new skirt length – one with the hem cut some inches above the knee.

The miniskirt reflected the most important change in fashion – breaking off with adulthood and maturity. Instead, the designers drew inspiration from styles previously reserved for little girls. The daring short skirt that revealed the wearer’s legs became an important symbol of women’s sexual liberation, especially as their economic independence was one of the central driving forces behind the cultural upheaval of the 1960s.

Innovative trapeze skirts and expressive op-art patterns somehow made their way even beyond the Iron Curtain. Creative director of the state-owned enterprise Moda Polska (‘Polish Fashion’), Jadwiga Grabowska, who at that time was pushing 60, was fascinated by the new culture and youth fashion. The models who worked under her remembered her as a woman of modern views and tastes. Her colleagues and associates, however, saw her quite differently. “To us, she seemed to be absurdly old, although I’ll risk saying she was younger then than I am now. But her turban, her well-fitting skirt suit, her tiny Queen-of-England-style handbag – well, those did the job,” says fashion designer Kalina Paroll in Aleksandra Boćkowska’s book, To nie są moje wielbłądy. O modzie w PRL [“These Are Not My Camels”: On Fashion in the Polish People’s Republic].

The revolution of the 1960s did away with the worship of old-fashioned looks. “In the Sears Roebuck catalog into the ‘50s, they’d say ‘hats for matrons,’ so you would be willing to buy them. And now it’s clear, to be older is bad,” writes Linda Przybyszewski, author of The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, quoted in Rebecca Huval’s Racked column. A decade after such advertisements, the world of ‘old-lady values’ became anachronistic.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Mrs. Exeter disappeared from the pages of Vogue. Women her age no longer fit in. They wouldn’t wear thigh-high boots, mini-dresses, fake eyelashes or anything hippie. Fashion journals and other magazines stared promoting unattainable standards of beauty and slimness. Those were set by the youthquakers; the likes of Veruschka, Edie Sedgwick or Twiggy, with her infantile nickname and girlish figure. In 1965, Helen Brockman, the American fashion designer and professor, author of The Theory of Fashion Design handbook, taught her students that the only choice they could make was between “young styling” and “youthful styling”. There was no point in troubling oneself with sophisticated attire for mature women. Clothing factories simply didn’t make those.

Maturity in demand

Eventually, the elders grew envious of the young in their freedom and their catchy new style, and started to emulate them. The fashion industry quickly caught on to the growing trend, simply because its offerings were easy to mass-produce. The youth canons of beauty were formed, in great part, by cosmetic companies – or beauty brands – that profited from making their clients look younger. “This was true mostly for the magazines that sold advertising space to cosmetic companies, which started influencing and changing the way women, and women’s fashion, were presented in print media. The 90s brought on the obsession with being thin, lobbied by pharmaceutical companies that sold weight-loss products,” notes Janusz Noniewicz, lecturer and head of the Fashion Department at the Faculty of Design, Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. It’s hard not to agree with his words, seeing as, for example, the Jane Fonda Vogue cover described earlier was sponsored by one of the cosmetics giants (L’Oréal), and the actress herself is one of the company’s faces.

With time, aesthetic medicine emerged – and the market for supplements aimed at preserving health and beauty. The cult of youth was supported and reinforced by big businesses. Older women disappeared from magazine covers and advertising campaigns for decades. The change came recently, in the second decade of the 21st century, with the discovery that said age group represents an important consumer sector. A report published by the International Longevity Centre (a specialist think-tank analysing the impact of longevity on society), as quoted last year by The Guardian, shows that potential exclusion of older consumers from the scope of beauty and fashion industries could cost those branches a total of £11 billion over the next 20 years. According to the study, The Guardian reports, between 2011 and 2018, older British citizens increased their spending on clothing by 21%, or £2.9 billion.

The report predicts that by 2040, the key customers of said industries will be people over 50. That’s why advertising campaigns have seen the return of older models and actresses, and fashion magazines have brought back women of Mrs. Exeter’s age. Women, it’s worth noting, dressed in denim trousers, shirts and ‘ageless’ dresses – clothes for any age bracket. Those new styles were based on mainstream trends and absolute classics. To sell those, the companies reached out to new ambassadors – charismatic women who, ever since their youth, have been seen as stylish and beautiful.

Negotiating one’s age

In 2015, Joni Mitchell (born 1943) appeared in a Saint Laurent campaign. In the shoot, the singer can be seen sitting down with her guitar, dressed in a black, folky tunic and a wide-brimmed hat. The frames exude a rock-and-roll decadence. Hedi Slimane’s photoshoots of Kim Gordon (born 1953), Jane Birkin (born 1946) and Juliette Gréco (born 1927) follow in a similar vein. The 2020 Spring/Summer campaign by Givenchy starred Charlotte Rampling (born 1946), who in one photo appeared in a bicoloured denim coat, and in another, in a pair of oversized shades, combining elegance with the boldness typically associated with 20-year-olds.

In her 2018 article “Fashion, the media and age: how women’s magazines use fashion to negotiate age identities”, Julia Twigg, professor of social policy and sociology at the University of Kent, observes the following: “In order to be part of the mainstream, older women need to engage with the requirement to be fashionable, to shape their appearance to the cultural norms of acceptable femininity.” This could be tied to mass production, the so-called fast fashion, and the emergence of the third-age identity. The discussed age bracket (roughly spanning the years between the late fifties and the age of 75) has become a new cultural area, synonymous with lots of leisure that can be spent on personal growth, self-realization and consumption of goods.

Clothes made with women of all ages in mind correspond with the new emerging lifestyle. Women remain professionally and socially active, they take up sports and travel around the world. “The ageless style lets them function in a world that makes ageing difficult. It helps negotiate one’s age, helps women remain attractive both in the labour market and sexually. On the other hand, it is rooted in ageism, as its goals are to hide and blur one’s age,” notes Janusz Noniewicz.

Buying clothes no different to those worn by other age groups, older citizens can be more visible in the public space, as well as in both the traditional and social media. Instagram profiles of 60+ influencers like the French writer, journalist and stylist Sophie Fontanel, Linda Fargo (women’s fashion director with Bergdorf Goodman), or Lyn Slater (professor at New York’s Fordham University), are followed by thousands of frequently much younger women. Yet this sort of online activity requires a lot of work and commitment. Influencers need to invest in their looks to rise up to the beauty standards currently in force. Mature stars of advertising campaigns are mostly slim and beautiful women – as dictated by the convention en vogue. Yet 60+ bodies follow their own rules, as noted by Mrs. Exeter – the hips broaden, the waist disappears, breasts and shoulders sag. The ageless style doesn’t take such changes into account.

Many women regret the fact that their figures no longer harmonize with the clothes they wear. In her publications and speeches, Twigg emphasizes that what they experience is alienation from their own bodies, a feeling nowadays synonymous with the loss of femininity – an attribute that our culture equates with youth and sex appeal. Twigg also points to the fact that older women are not a uniform group. They differ among each other. Some feel uncomfortable wearing sexy or teenage-style clothes. That kind of style doesn’t match their ideas of a mature woman’s attire. The expectation that they should dress their age, deeply rooted in our culture, remains ingrained in their sensibilities. Such women remain invisible to fashion magazines that promote only one version and vision of mature femininity.

One acceptable alternative seems to be that of the eccentric fashionista, like Iris Apfel (born 1921), or the cast of Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style. Such women are mostly wealthy socialites – often from New York or other big cities. They dress boldly and extravagantly – in wide-brimmed hats, colourful ethno- and boho-style clothes – or in a fashion more often associated with teenagers, putting on baseball jackets and dungarees. Taking such excessive care of one’s style and appearance is also one of the forms of denying or negating one’s old age. “It’s a message that even older women can, or rather should, remain creative and invested in fashion,” observes Noniewicz. “The world likes that, younger people like that. A woman gets to be seen and admired. But what’s left for those women, who, at a certain age, just no longer feel like they want to engage in this kind of pursuit?”

Eternal youth?

In one of the photos from the October 1953 issue of British Vogue, Mrs. Exeter stands behind a handsomely set table. Behind her – crystal ceiling lamps and works of art. She’s wearing a modest dress of black velvet. A white rose decorates her waist, and from her neck hangs a sparkling necklace. As Charlotte Greenhalgh explains in Aging in Twentieth-Century Britain, although few Vogue readers of Mrs. Exeter’s age would have been able to pose in such a dignified manner, they could nonetheless be inspired by the elegance and confidence radiating from that photo. Looking at Mrs. Exeter, you felt you could grow old without a care in the world. Modern-day culture has deprived that stage of our lives of the power it once held.

Today, age is fluid, and dotage – optional. Youth and creativity are what counts. There is no style in fashion that could highlight and underline the wisdom, dignity and prudence that come with age. “Fashion lacks the kind of representation that Mrs. Exeter provided. Today’s paradigm of old age, the archetype in effect, is a person who remains inwardly young, and whose youth emanates outside, shows up in their appearance,” says Noniewicz.

All the optimistic slogans about transcending the limitations of time have a dark side – ageism and fear of growing old. Will we ever be able to, like Mrs. Exeter once did, display the majesty of our age in style? In the words of Noniewicz: “You can’t deny your old age indefinitely. High-end fashion dictates the rules. In a capitalist economy, power lies with money. And money lies mostly with people over fifty. Who is to say whether those people will want to appear younger and younger despite their age?”


Translated from the Polish by Karolina Sofulak

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