Reclaiming the word ‘old’: How fashion is fighting ageism

Jacky O’Shaughnessy had just moved back to New York after a 20-year stint in Los Angeles and was staying with friends in the West Village when she stepped outside to have a cigarette. It was 9 p.m., and she was relishing the sights and sounds of her former home, when a woman walked out of a nearby restaurant and approached her.

“You look so regal,” she said to the surprise of O’Shaughnessy, who was then 60 years old. As she began to interject, the woman said, “It doesn’t matter, you’re beautiful,” and walked off into the night.

O’Shaughnessy was flattered but didn’t think much of the interaction, until she ran into the mysterious woman a few weeks later at a different restaurant near their initial encounter. The two decided to have dinner together and talked for several hours, exchanging contact information before parting ways. Over the course of the next few weeks, the pair met up regularly around town, until one day, the woman asked if O’Shaughnessy would like to have her photo taken. She knew O’Shaughnessy had a background in acting and was interested in experimenting with mature modeling.

It was then she learned the woman she knew simply as Marsha Brady was actually the creative director of American Apparel. Brady asked O’Shaughnessy to be the face of her next campaign, and O’Shaughnessy said yes. After posing in a series of portraits, including several poses in a set of lingerie, she went off about her day. Next thing she knew, she was a viral sensation.


Jacky O’Shaughnessy posing for a 2012 American Apparel campaign.

An untapped market
An estimated 50 percent of the U.S. population is expected to hit 50 years of age or older this year, according to a Nielsen study that examined Baby Boomers, a portion of the population born in the post-World War II era between 1946 and 1964. What’s more, this group is expected to control 70 percent of disposable income in the U.S. by the end of 2017.

This has inspired a shift within fashion, an industry in large part built upon appearances and ingrained standards of beauty, which in America has long been synonymous with youth. This is particularly true if you’re a woman — just take one look at Hollywood, where according to a University of Southern California study examining the 25 best picture nominations from 2014 to 2016, 78 percent of the actors over 60 were men, compared to just 12 percent of women.

It’s also led to a challenging dichotomy for luxury brands that sell products with exorbitant price tags, but have for decades featured women as young as 15 on runways, when women over age 50 hold more spending power.

“The interesting thing about fashion is it’s a paradox because of its extreme focus on beauty,” said Ashton Applewhite, author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.” “Of course, we do idolize youth and equate youth with beauty, but aging and beauty can and do co-exist. Hiring older models is a validation of that.”

Author Joan Didion in a 2015 ad for Céline.

This February, 21 models over age 50 walked runways during global fashion weeks in New York, Paris, London and Milan, an uptick from the 13 models featured the previous fall, according to a study by the Fashion Spot. In New York, brands like Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Tom Ford, J. Crew, Rachel Comey and Tome, for which O’Shaughnessy walked, led the charge on age inclusivity.

“We have been fed this notion that youth equals beauty, and once the powers that be decided to sexualize young women for commerce, it became the normal way to cast an ad or a show,” said Tome designer Ramon Martin. “What that method of casting is ignoring is the rest of womankind, and a large group of older women who have the budget and lifestyle to afford designer clothes. I think for those women, seeing someone their age resonates with them more.”

Designer Tracy Reese has also played a significant role in age inclusivity, an effort that communications manager Alyssa Jones said is a reflection of understanding her brand’s consumer base. “We know that our customer ranges over a lot of different age groups, and we felt like we needed to represent that. It makes a difference when your customer sees someone who represents them in the clothes.”


An image from Tracy Reese’s spring 2017 campaign.

Though women over 50 make up a relatively small percentage of models in runway shows and marketing campaigns, their presence is making waves. Just this week Calvin Klein announced that 73-year-old actress Lauren Hutton will star in the brand’s latest underwear campaign, while former model Tyra Banks announced in March she is removing the age restriction for contestants in her popular reality show, “America’s Next Top Model.” There are also global reverberations that point to promising signs of change, like the new Moscow-based modeling agency Oldushka that is exclusively open to clients over age 45.

Changing perception
Brady told O’Shaughnessy during her American Apparel shoot she was inspired to cast an older woman after stumbling upon Advanced Style, a blog started by 35-year-old Ari Seth Cohen in 2008. At the time, Cohen had moved to New York and was spending quality time with his late grandmother, a woman he said had a particularly positive view of aging contrary to most older people he knew. Inspired by her, and the stylish older women he encountered on the streets, he began taking photos of them and sharing them online, during a period in which street style blogging was just emerging.

“I wasn’t seeing these women represented in lifestyle and fashion media, and they inspired me,” he said. “The fashion industry is ageist because the world is ageist, and the industry reflects many world views. I had the opportunity to put something different out there and represent aging in a different way.”

Cohen has since become a figurehead for embracing aging in the industry, a movement New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman has, in part, credited him with advancing. He has since written two books on the subject and helped direct a documentary, also called “Advanced Style,” as well as worked with designer Karen Walker on a campaign that featured models exclusively between the ages of 62 and 93. He said when the campaign was over, Walker called him directly to say suddenly older women had started coming into her stores in droves.

“We’re working to reclaim the word ‘old,’” he said. “People are ashamed of that word; they don’t want it to be used. There’s a huge culture of fear around aging and a whole world of anti-aging. It makes it difficult to fight.”


Ari Seth Cohen and a photo subject on his blog, Advanced Style. 

David Weiss, assistant professor of socio-medical sciences and psychology at Columbia University’s Aging Center, echoed Cohen and said the primary challenge is changing the perception of aging in American society. Through his research, Weiss has found pervasive negative sentiments about growing older that lead to a sense of denial called age disassociation.

“As people grow older, they distance themselves from old age. This behavior maintains ageism and the notion that nobody wants to be old. It’s hard to impose a positive meaning of old age in that case, and potentially difficult to counteract negative age stereotypes.”

The future of aging in fashion 
Applewhite said the sluggishness of fashion and beauty to embrace aging is perpetuated by consumers themselves who shy away from the concept of getting older. This is exacerbated by the bevy of products marketed to women to remove wrinkles and increase youthfulness, in addition to the clothing that advances a false notion of “age appropriate” behavior, she said.

“Every so often, someone will ask me a question on my blog like, ‘Should an older woman wear a mini skirt?’” she said. “I think you should wear whatever you want. If the world isn’t comfortable looking at you, that’s their problem.”

She said, in order to mitigate this cycle, marketing to older women should focus more on showing off their features, rather than minimizing or obscuring problem areas.

“It’s amazing that ageism trumps even the bottom line,” she said. “The market has become deficit-oriented. It focuses on baggy clothes you can wear if you no longer have a waistline or ‘hip’ hearing aids for when you’ve lost your hearing.”

Cohen fears older women may start being commoditized as a fleeting trend, and if not marketed appropriately, it may ultimately lead to further alienation or fetishization of older consumers.

“I’m disappointed to see older women being used as an accessory, sandwiched between two younger people. The main focus isn’t about age. It’s about capitalizing on what people think is a trend. That, for me, isn’t really making progress.”

He anticipated that change will happen as American society continues to reconsider the notion of aging. “We have to realize that we all have to get old, so it’s important to talk about it and create a conversation around aging. Women are increasingly feeling empowered to be themselves and show their age. They’re creating a discourse between younger people and older people. So many of them are allowing their hair to go gray.”

However, O’Shaughnessy is hopeful this movement is more than a flash in the pan. After her Tome appearance, she received several emails from people of all ages, praising her work, including a number of young fans who told her they are no longer frightened of aging.

“The trend is to continue going forward as people speak out,” she said. “I’m not anti-aging. I embrace getting older.”

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