The Twiggy effect? Older women as models in fashion and beauty campaigns

Old is the new black by Ari Seth Cohen

Old is the new black by Ari Seth Cohen

Over the past 12 months there’s been an increase in the number of female celebrities aged 50 and older appearing in fashion and beauty campaigns. Women such as Helen Mirren, Joan Didion, Jane Fonda, and Charlotte Rampling have been signed for campaigns by Céline, L’Oreal and Nars. And there has been a lot of interest in this shift, particularly from journalists, fashion bloggers and academics.

Lisa Armstrong, the beauty editor of The Telegraph, recently described older female models as ‘beauty’s secret weapon’, arguing that the ‘fashion and beauty houses are wising up to the pulling power of the older lady’. In her view, employing older women as models is a clear marketing strategy to increase sales by more visibly tapping into this key group of consumers.

She questioned its longevity on the basis that seasons pass and so does interest in the current trend. But she is optimistic too, asserting that if older female models become ‘a new normality… then that surely is progress’.

Lynne Segal on the other hand is more sceptical. To her, the consumer angle remains key and older female models represent the drive of beauty and fashion industries to encourage women to continue working on the body project. After all, people are living longer and that means that women are able to spend more.

Yet there is more to it than this. Segal positions the visibility of older female models alongside the disdain shown towards older people, the perceived health ‘burden’ of ageing, and the material reality of older women’s lives; the inequalities they face due to ageist and sexist practices. The models, according to Segal, represent the ‘cheery resilience that the government and media look for in those older women who are allowed a certain visibility to grow old gracefully’, they look ‘healthy and feisty’ and do not demand too much from other people ‘or the public purse’.

I agree with the points made by Lisa Armstrong and Lynne Segal. The beauty and fashion industries are concerned with making financial profit, and they advertise in ways that will draw the money in. Tapping into the ‘grey market’ is not new as marketing companies have long recognised the ‘gold in grey’, yet older women as models in such high profile beauty and fashion campaigns represents a shift in how women are being targeted as consumers.

In my view it is better to see older women in these campaigns than to not see them. Yes they are targeted as consumers (aren’t we all) and it is market driven. But it increases the visibility of older women in areas where previously there was no visibility at all. These campaigns challenge social attitudes about older women, and they are a frim step away from the adverts that reinforce stereotypes around ageing and gender.

Of course we need to be mindful that these older models do not represent the majority of older women: those who are frail or living in poverty, those with disabilities. Indeed, they do not represent the diversity of older women in Western societies very much at all.

And we need to be mindful of a potential danger of promoting a specific type of older female beauty: the possibility of creating a stereotype that to age successfully we must look healthy, attractive and trendy. Just like the women in these fashion and beauty campaigns!

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  1. Hi Sharron. Just loved this post! I work as a commercial model, commercial actress, and voice-over talent. (I began 9 years ago. I’m now 57.) It’s stimulating and challenging and also daunting sometimes, but I do feel I am walking point on this issue. My blog is another attempt to keep natural images of aging women in the minds of those who choose not to see us after a certain age. Whenever I discuss this issue with women over fifty, it seems to resonate with them. We no longer have image or behavior templates to guide us during advanced middle age. We must create our own. I hope we find the courage to reject the lifelong co-dependent partnership with the beauty industry, but that is where the advertising dollars lie. If we can sell products other than image related ones (financial services, cars, non-personal care items), we may be successful. It would phenomenal if we could be seen and heard in a way that validates our wisdom and life experience. Just like men! Stay tuned. 🙂

    • Hi Amy – thanks for your kind words, and for your insight into the modelling industry for ‘older’ women. It’s very interesting. I absolutely love the point that you make: “We no longer have image or behavior templates to guide us during advanced middle age. We must create our own.” It says so much!

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