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Aging, but Make It Fashion

The fashion industry’s fascination with older models doesn’t impress me, a 55-year-old woman, very much.

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All hail her grace Lauren Hutton, First of Her Name, Queen of ’70s Insouciance, Lady of Flowing Palazzo Pants, and Insignia of Women of a Certain Age.

Born in 1943, Hutton has been modeling for almost 50 years, and these days she’s kind of a poster girl for … something. Body positivity in the septuagenarian set? Fashion diversity? Aging with grace and a low BMI? A canny grab at aging women’s disposable income? Who can say? It’s aging, but make it fashion.

Hutton is beautiful, and her face has lines upon lines, wrinkles spreading from her smile like crepuscular rays from the sun. Though she is visibly older, her looks still stun, and in the past few years, she has been featured in major campaigns (Alexander Wang in 2015, Tod’s in 2016, and H&M in 2017), become the oldest cover girl for Vogue (Vogue Italia October 2017), worked as an underwear model (Calvin Klein fall 2017), and closed a major runway show arm in arm with Bella Hadid (Bottega Veneta spring 2017).

Hutton may be the longest-working, most iconic fashion Old, but she’s not alone. Alongside her is 66-year-old Isabella Rossellini regaining her place as Lancôme’s face after a 25-year-absence; then-68-year-old Charlotte Rampling as the façade for Nars in 2014; Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda, then both in their 70s, walking for L’Oréal last year; Maye Musk getting featured in Harper’s Bazaar at 70; Saint Laurent showcasing 70-something Joni Mitchell in its 2015 campaign; and 85-year-old Carmen Dell’Orefice closing Guo Pei’s 2017 show to a blissed-out chorus of “YAS KWEEN” from the Youngs.

It’s a lot of gray hair and wrinkled skin in the name of fashion. You could get breathless over these women, all old, and all magnificent. (And all, it must be noted, blindingly white.)

Hutton, though, laid the foundation and unfurled the red carpet that these other Olds tread on, for in 1988, at the ancient age of 43, she appeared in a campaign for Barney’s New York. A year later, she was photographed by Steven Meisel for the Gap’s “Real People” campaign. In 1993, she, along with Patti Hansen, then an unthinkable 37, walked for Calvin Klein during Fashion Week in April. In 1996, Revlon hired Hutton to be the face of its “Results” skin care line (called “Resilience” in Europe), a revival that came after a 20-year absence from the company.

As a model, Hutton has always been bigger than herself. Models by profession act as giant silver screens for our own projections — who we want to be, how we want to look, what we want for ourselves, and, yes, whom we imagine others (or ourselves) fucking. When a company chooses a model, it’s banking on our collective ideation, making a complex computation based on an esoteric algorithm of image, marketability, press, and buzz.

It’s not just about who looks “good” in your clothes or your makeup; it’s also about a calculated guess at the narratives your would-be customers will literally buy. Someone like Hutton tells a clearly glamorous, extremely American story; she is shorthand for an independent life lived well.

And older models, like any others, should tell a story, but the most facile way to understand why companies choose them for their campaigns is cold, hard cash. While often undervalued by advertisers, 55- to 64-year-old women spend the most on their clothes. And while millennials stoke the financial fire of makeup and skin care, higher-income women spend more on beauty. Therefore, if you’re a company with stuff to sell women, you want to entice older women — but you want do it without alienating younger women.

Céline

Which is how we ended up with Joan Didion. When the super-chic French clothing line Céline revealed the then-80-year-old Didion would be the company’s new “poster girl” in January 2015, Vogue gushed, “Do you have two eyes and a heart?” (The italics are original, as is the breathless tone.)

Didion, who, like Hutton, modeled for the Gap in 1989, is an ideal silvered screen for our collective projection because her surface is sleek and seamless. Sphinx-like and press-wary, Didion closely curates her life — and what we see is often polished, circumspect cool. If there could be an Old who would appeal to the Youngs, and especially to Youngs working in publishing, it was Didion. In picking her, Céline chose a woman every cool girl wanted to either be or be blessed by. It was some canny-ass marketing.

Let’s face it: Picking women over 40 to advertise your product will get your company easy press — and often praise. “There’s something else being signaled by Céline choosing Didion: the idea of women writers and intellectuals as the new cool girls,” exclaimed the Washington Post. When the tire manufacturer Pirelli featured Rampling, Mirren, and Julianne Moore, among others, in its famous 2017 calendar, the New York Times suggested that Pirelli had broken “fashion’s last taboo,” which apparently is aged flesh. So transgressive, to imagine that women over 50 could be, like, attractive.

The issue with the fashion industry, as everyone has said since forever, is that it upholds unrealistic beauty standards. No living person — not even a model — is that perfectly thin, that flawlessly skinned, that artfully coy, that frozen in time. Grudgingly, the fashion and beauty industries have collectively sighed, “My bad,” and made moves to show diversity in body size and skin hue.

These changes arguably represent a wider, arguably healthier range of female bodies. However, that kind of active diversity is nonexistent in older models. It should be enough, fashion seems to tell us, that they’re serving gray hair and wrinkled white women. To ask for older fat models, older black models, or older trans models — well, we’d just be getting greedy.

The biggest difference between young models and older models: Older models are almost always already known. They are writers. They are actresses. They are dancers. They are the mother of that tech titan who’s dating Grimes. They are legendary models with clippings and books that run into the hundreds of pages. With the exception of Jacky O’Shaughnessey, who headed America Apparel’s “Advanced Basics” campaign in 2012, and Tziporah Salamon, a “street style star” who posed for Lanvin the same year, every old face has been a someone for a long time.

So what these women are selling isn’t effortless aging (which is a fantasy), and it isn’t diversity (which for aging models is virtually nonexistent). It’s fame. It’s backstory. It’s a complex web of fictions that to me, a 55-year-old woman, is a mildly interesting, somewhat relieving break from the onslaught of images of very young women. I know I’m supposed to feel grateful that the fashion gods have deigned to care about mortal women my age, but mostly I feel bored. Caught between the Scylla of ageism and the Charybdis of capitalism, the older model is something I side-eye.

I’m old enough to remember Hutton’s Barney’s and Gap campaigns, which came out just about the same time I moved to New York. She seemed impossibly old and impossibly glamorous. I myself could never be that old or that glamorous, until, of course, I was. Old, that is. My glamour, like anyone’s, shimmers like a heat devil, more of an abstract notion than a concrete reality. No product, no frock, no lipstick, and no handbag will ever solidify my glamour — not even when it’s being hawked by someone as grand as Lauren Hutton, who is, let’s face it, pretty fucking great.

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