‘Becoming Old and Becoming Extinct’ : Challenging Ageism in Fashion & Lingerie

LCF #BetterLives lecture // 10.02.14

Over the course of February and March 2014, London College of Fashion are having a series of lectures on ‘isms’ in fashion as part of their Better Lives series. Each lecture has fantastic guest speakers.

This first week, on Ageism in Fashion, had the brilliant Dr. Paul Matts PhD, a leading scientist in the field of skin care research, offering a unique perspective on ageism through the eyes of biology and evolution. Also speaking was wonderwoman Dr. Ros Jennings, director of WAM and writer of ‘Rock On: Women, Ageing and Popular Music’, offering a fascinating comparison of the ways two ageing pop stars face ageing through their on-stage personas and strategies. I shall be writing my personal response to this lecture and the further 3 over the next week or so, the first of which is this.

Side note: I have many, many more things to say on this topic but as this write-up is approaching a novella already, they will have to be left for another time. Sadly — or perhaps luckily! — as it was the first lecture I attended, I foolishly decided not to attend the post lecture winetime and get a chance to chat to the speakers and others in attendance, otherwise I’d likely have even more to say on the topic!

Carmen Dell’Orefice, of course. Always Carmen.

We know we live in an ageist society, especially when it comes to the fashion industry. There is evidence upon evidence piled up against the case that women past a certain age are valued in fashion. We see it everywhere and not enough is being done to represent and embrace the diversity, beauty and most importantly, realism that age brings. TV and film on the whole doesn’t present it, neither do fashion ad campaigns and there is a lack of diverse, desirable designs specifically for the ageing body. We know the factors that contribute to ageism so I shan’t discuss them at length here for fear of boring you with an essay. I shall, however, discuss a factor you may not have considered, as I certainly did not before hearing Paul’s talk at this event: Evolution.

Now, evolution has served us very well in the history of humankind. It gave us thumbs after all, for which I am very grateful. Currently, we don’t need survival of the fittest or to evolve our skills and bodies to thrive but evolution’s power can still be felt in the psychology of attraction. This is where ageism comes in. As Paul Matts so eloquently explained, there is evidence to show that we pick up on certain physical characteristics — skin tone and texture especially — to judge a person, not just in their suitability for procreation, but in terms of trustworthiness, leadership skills and general worth and goodness. As age affects our face more than anything, our evolutionary perceptions kick in to tell us that the person we are viewing is less valuable. Exploring how these leftover survivalist ticks affect our attitudes about which aesthetics and people are valuable, not only aids the understanding of human psychology, but also highlights just what we need to fight against.

If humans listened to everything their evolutionary instincts said, there would be anarchy and the fact there is not anarchy seems a fairly good indicator that we can put aside nature’s influence, so any arguments that ageism is a purely natural reaction and attempts to justify that through science are not gonna fly with me. We can challenge these biological preferences, and we absolutely must. We live in an age where people are living far longer, battling disease and enjoying enriched, active, sexual and fabulous lives long beyond what we used to, so what is the holy point in listening to an instinct that tells us that the cut-off point for being useful is at 40? Sexuality plays such a key role in this supposed ‘usefulness’ in that one of the key things our evolutionary instincts seek out is signs of youth and fertility. The assumption that women above a certain age become utterly sexless is absurd, and I would say that anyone reading this would agree that the 40+ demographic — spoiler alert — do have sex and would like to be seen as sexual beings every now and then. But if we all agree on this, why does the fashion industry, and specifically the lingerie industry, continue to promote only youth as consumers of their products?

I believe that the idea of being ‘age appropriate’ has an enormous influence on this. Sex is inappropriate for a woman beyond a certain age. As is body confidence and feeling beautiful after you are told you are past your peak and will never feel as good about yourself again. If you are old, you have beige M&S bras and sensible shoes and if you deviate from that formula, well, you’re a radical and will inevitably have the question raised of whether you should be like that ‘at your age’. The photos at the top of this post and to the left are sourced from a Daily Mail article with the headline “As Madonna poses for yet ANOTHER raunchy album picture, will she still be doing this at 70?” with various other delightful comments as ‘no intention of growing old gracefully’ or ‘taking a rest.’ I know the Mail is no shining beacon of truth, but this illustrates just what the media think of a woman past 50 who is not settling into her Sunday slippers and is instead still wishing to express, embrace and celebrate her sexuality. ‘Madonna looks all trussed up with nowhere to go’ they say, as if she is trapped by trying to define herself through youthful eroticism and not, in fact, breaking out of the image of a sexless, invisible, older woman being imposed on her.

Fanny Karst’s Old Ladies’ Rebellion ‘Not At Your Age’ collection. All of her designs are wonderful, witty and gorgeous — check her out now!

In the end, what does age-appropriate even mean?

Does it even mean anything? Is it simply to grow old in the ‘right way’? The only ‘appropriate’ way to my mind would be to grow in a way that makes you happy. And if the way to do that is through wearing fantabulous lingerie, then I want you to have every power to do that — which is sadly not the case. Those factors of sex, self-esteem are body confidence all intrinsically linked to the lingerie and why we wear it. As is the idea of elevated femininity. No one seems to want to associate these things with older women or see them in lingerie despite it being by no means a young woman’s industry. And so these women are not being catered to.

I would argue that yes, that lingerie is not at all age-appropriate. But only in the terms of the deficit of garments available designed to meet the needs of an ageing body. We know that age does not define sexuality, so why does it define what lingerie you have access to in order to express that?

But things are being done, if ever so slowly. It is likely you have heard about American Apparel using a 62 year old woman, Jacky O’Shaughnessy to model lingerie recently. The reaction has been widely positive, so we can hope more images like this will follow their example. (And hey, we can hope that American Apparel clean up their act over their horrendously sexist ads as well, right?) In other media, Elementary once again proves it’s winning the race against Sherlock in terms of positive representation by recently featuring a glamourous woman played by Jane Alexander who helps them with a case and is notorious for her erotic letters, without so much of a whiff of that predatory Mrs. Robinson vibe that you see so often in the media when representing older, sexual women. Debenhams and M&S often feature older women in their ad campaigns but more often than not their designs to cater for those women are uninspiring and morbidly typical. These steps are too small, too infrequent. We need to dismantle all of the anti-ageing we have been taught, we need to challenge our biology and we need to, when we look at a photograph of an older woman in an era defined by the image, see not an absence of youth, but an abundance of experience.

Image of Cher taken from the Daily Mirror website (Headline was ‘ Cher looks stunning at 67 years old proving she CAN Turn Back Time’ if you were interested. Oh, who doesn’t love tabloids?)

Recently, Cher, when talking frankly about her cosmetic surgery and the reasons behind it, said that ‘ becoming old and becoming extinct are one and the same [in the pop industry]’; a phrase which stuck with me when it was quoted by Ros Jennings in her speech and is still at the forefront of my mind as I write this essay. It relates back to our evolutionary psychology as described by Paul Matts and it relates to women nowadays being put on the sexual scrap heap of life. To become old is to become invisible to fashion and lingerie. It is to become extinct from its considerations and respect. And this quote shows exactly why it is imperative to challenge our biological hard-wiring and push for change in the media that reflects it. Despite our medical advances, technology and our lengthly, enriched lives, have we really still not progressed further than believing life ends at 40?

It is worth noting that there are many, many women who will have no wish to wear lingerie or embrace sexuality within their lives currently, and will also not want to as they age. It also needs to be acknowledged that not every older woman who wears lingerie is a Mrs. Robinson-esque figure. But even to wear lingerie for oneself and for enjoyment of the fabric and luxury is apparently inappropriate for a certain age group and I use these broad terms just to save you from enduring an even longer essay. This also applies for my use of ‘women’ — the whole of the Better Lives lecture series is based around how the issues are experienced by women and this write-up reflects that — sorry lingerie lads!

I could also find no photos of older women of colour in editorials etc — the one that I’m sure I have seen I couldn’t for the life of me find — so it cannot be ignored that this issue is even more prevalent for people who further do not meet the typical white, thin, abled beauty. However, that does lead nicely into next week’s lecture — Racism in Fashion — in the write-up of which I would like to explore this issue further.