Fashion + Diversity

Does Fashion Have an Ageism Problem?

Diversity is a hot topic in the fashion world, however, one of its lesser known elements – ageism – is rarely covered. We are used to seeing young, vibrant figures lining the pages of magazines or striding down the catwalk, but we never think to question it. Why aren’t there more older models, and why does most fashion seem to be aimed at younger people? Unfortunately, ageism is an issue that is rife across a wide variety of industries, but fashion’s unwillingness to accommodate for older people is particularly glaring in an age of mass consumption and rapid fashion industry growth.

Missing mature models

Models are a major part of the fashion ecosystem. Not only do they present the styles created by the designers, they emblemise the entire form. However, the fact that most models’ careers are over by their mid-20’s is a clear sign that the industry doesn’t take kindly to ageing. In fact, the fashion industry is so averse to ageing that it frequently employs underaged models, who often have to adhere to stringent chaperone and curfew rules to the detriment of the industry’s time and money.

When older models do get to see the runway, it’s usually due to their fame from their younger days, or more commonly, because they’re an icon from another industry like art or film (Joan Didion for Celine, Helen Mirren for L’Oréal, and so on).

Is this intentional or do younger models just happen to fit the designers’ criteria more often? Well, it turns out that a lot of designers are very specific about the ages of the models they seek to employ, leading to casting calls containing very strict age limits.

This is a clear indication of ageism within the fashion industry, preventing older models from taking part in the process and therefore leaving large sections of the population without representation in the fashion world. To these designers older people are seen as unbefitting of their work – a truly regressive stance.

Brands such as Marks & Spencer and L.L. Bean are well known for catering to older customers, but their clothing is seen by many to lean too far into the ‘frumpy’ and dated looks we associate with mature fashion. These uninspiring styles seem to be one of the only avenues for older models to consistently gain work, which is a poor substitute for modelling for high fashion and the latest ready-to-wear trends.

Breaking the mould

However, some designers are breaking the mould. Tracy Reece’s Spring 2017 collection used models from a wide age range in order to give a more holistic and realistic representation of women, which she saw as an authentic and empowering endeavour.

Brazilian designer Helena Schargel created a line of lingerie aimed at over-60s with the intention of shattering negative perceptions surrounding age and to help make older people more visible in the industry. With the support of influential designers, industry practises may gradually start to change, leading to the creation of fashion for older people becoming more commonplace.

Thanks to the growth of social media, the fashion industry is now beginning to pick up on older influencers to use for their campaigns. For example, Mango used Lyn Slater, creator of the mature fashion blog: Accidental Icon, for their “A Story of Uniqueness.” project in 2017. Yazemeenah Rossi modelled for The Dreslyn in their 2016 swimwear campaign. These are encouraging indications that relatively new phenomenon like social media can be a force to permanently change long-held social attitudes and industry practises for the better.

Although using older models solely due to their icon status from other fields isn’t quite as transgressive as using totally unknown older models, it still presents older people in a fashionable and savvy light, challenging mainstream views and providing inspiration and confidence. The normalisation of utilising older bodies in fashion is a welcome trend, no matter the pretext.

Market forces

Some fashion retailers have spotted the gap in the market and have sought to create inclusive and stylish lines specifically made for fashion conscious older people. Not Your Daughter’s Jeans is a Los Angeles based store that aims to provide fashionable and well-fitting jeans for people of all ages and body types, making consistent use of a diverse cast of models on their website. Soft Surroundings is another retailer that makes decisive efforts to be inclusive of all ages, providing timeless bohemian styles especially suitable for women over 50.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the simpler and perhaps more utilitarian styles aimed at older people are representative of their demands – that they tend to prioritise comfort over looks in an item of clothing. In this regard, there are plenty of options for older people with brands such as Universal Standard and Dorothy Perkins bringing a lot to the table. However, this outlook still fails to justify the industry’s lack of support for older people in search of aesthetically pleasing clothing.

The old are the future

Some academics believe that the fashion industry’s reluctance to fulfil the needs of older people, particularly women, is a reflection of society’s negative view of ageing bodies. This dynamic can lead to a myriad of negative effects such as depression and eating disorders. Fashion designers should focus on working around the elegance and dignity of the older generation, instead of using a fear of mortality and ageist propaganda to guilt them about their bodies.

Not only is ageism unfair on older people – it’s damaging for the industry too, causing it to miss out on a major section of the market. Middle-aged and older people have major spending power and the profits earned by catering to their needs could be used to fund exciting new projects and to improve industry working conditions.

The industry’s current focus on younger people also limits its creative horizons, giving designers a needlessly narrow range of body types and talent to work with. The inclusion of older people will lead to a wider variety of looks and take fashion in new sartorial directions.

With a rapidly ageing population across the Western world, there’s little doubt that market forces will eventually shift towards incorporating older people into their clothing lines, but the sooner this change starts to take place, the better.

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