Are older women finally in fashion?

Fashion ads are filled with cool older women at the moment, from Joan Didion for Céline and Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent, to Helen Mirren for L’Oreal and Charlotte Rampling for Nars. Does this mean that brands are finally waking up to the style – and the buying power – of the older generations?

Photo: Japanese Forms

Fashion ads are filled with cool older women at the moment, from Joan Didion for Céline and Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent, to Helen Mirren for L’Oreal and Charlotte Rampling for Nars. Does this mean that brands are finally waking up to the style – and the buying power – of the older generations?

For those of us weary of the endless parade of blank-faced young models, the arrival of some older faces – complete with both wrinkles and a story to tell – come as a relief. But what does it mean? Could we finally be seeing a shift away from the obsession with youth and a renewed respect for older womenkind? Could we?

I’m suspicious. Having been fed a daily diet of articles for decades saying, in essence, youth is great, age means invisibility, I can’t help wondering if this sudden interest in older women is a flash in the pan, a fad. But Justine Picardie, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, offers up a different perspective: “We’ve been seeing this for a while now – if it was just Joan Didion and Céline you could say that’s the exception, but I look at the ads we’re running in Harper’s Bazaar and there’s quite a lot of issues where a sizeable proportion of the ad campaigns we’re running are using older women…. I think it’s partly [that] in the fashion and beauty industry there are a lot of people in positions of power who are themselves older…. This is not a business run by 20-somethings.

“The pendulum does sometimes swing,” she continues. “You look at the 1950s when they liked that very sophisticated, elegant, grown-up looking woman. And then there was the youth-quake of the 60s, when youth was fetishised. One shouldn’t over-simplify and say this is the first time we’ve ever had an industry where older women have been remarked upon … maybe we’re just seeing a natural shift.”


Top: Céline magazine ad starring Joan Didion, photograph by japanese forms; Above: Cover of Riposte issue 2, starring the late designer Deborah Sussman; Cover of The Gentlewomen issue 6, featuring actor Angela Lansbury

The ads have arrived at the same time that a number of independent women’s magazines have been creating a stir, by offering more intelligent, thoughtful editorial for women than we are used to seeing in the mainstream titles. And alongside the different content, there has been a different approach to cover imagery, with both The Gentlewoman and Riposte drawing attention by featuring older women on their covers: actor Angela Lansbury for The Gentlewoman and the late designer Deborah Sussman for Riposte.

“We normally have an idea of who we’re going to feature on the cover,” says Danielle Pender, editor of Riposte. “Visually we like the image to be striking and something that reflects the woman’s personality – we feature pretty powerful women so this is normally pretty easy…. [Deborah Sussman] was such a legend, it was a really easy choice. The photography that came back was also really beautiful so this helped. She was so generous with her time and her energy. She was really ill when we met her but she was so full of life and fun it really came across in the shoot. We had a great response from our readers because I think they sensed this level of enthusiasm for life.

“Whenever we put together our wishlist for an issue of who we’d like to feature, the number of older women on the list far outweighs the younger women,” Pender continues. “I’m fascinated and inspired by their stories. Older women have wisdom, they’ve achieved things in their lives through times when it wasn’t as easy as it is now. Today things aren’t perfect or 100% equal but as a woman your gender isn’t as much of a stumbling block than it used to be. Some older women really had to fight to be heard and fight for what they believe in and I find that really inspiring.”

Despite this optimism, the approach from mainstream magazines remains stubbornly focused on youth, and while Picardie says she’d be very happy to put 65 year-old Miuccia Prada on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, she admits that the oldest recent cover star was Gwyneth Paltrow, at 42. The current cover features actor Kristen Stewart, 25.

And of the general portrayal of women in women’s magazines, Pender is damning. “I think it’s still pretty dire,” she says. “There’s still so much retouching and Photoshopping that we’re still faced with a level of perfection that is completely unattainable. The range of topics covered is still very narrow and superficial, the questions asked of really smart women are often embarrassing and focus on their clothes, beauty regimes or childcare, and the spectrum of women we see is very limited. There’s still a real focus on models, actresses and famous-for-nothing celebs.”


Above: Westfield Shopping Centre Christmas campaign, starring model Jean Woods; The Kooples ad with model Tanya Drouginska (both models represented by Mrs Robinson Management)


It is also worth examining in more depth who the fashion ads starring older women are actually aimed at. There has been much talk recently of how ignored the older generation is by advertising – both men and women. Despite the fact that 79% of disposable wealth in the UK is in the hands of people aged over 50, a recent report by JWT London states that “less than 5% of ad budgets worldwide focus on this incredibly important group, and that 82% of [older people] don’t recognise themselves in those ads that do”. If we conflate these facts with the sudden arrival of ‘cool older women’ in fashion ads, one might draw the conclusion that fashion is waking up to this new reality and actually creating some ads for the older market.

But this is not necessarily the case. According to Rebi Merilion and Fleur Brady, founders of Mrs Robinson, a model agency specialising in older female models, the surge in interest in using these women has come from the younger generation, and thus the ads are largely still directed at them. “I think young bloggers and fashionistas are finding that older people are more interesting and they’re writing about them and they want to know about their style and their fashion,” says Brady. “They’re really interesting people, and young people seemed to have latched onto that.”

Tellingly, for the models on Mrs Robinson’s books in their 40s, little has changed in terms of how they are required to look. Whereas characterful faces and a back story are valued in the over 60s model (it is no coincidence that many of the older models used by the major fashion brands are already famous, coming with a well-known narrative as well as a compelling face), for those younger, youthful looks are still prized. “I think they want [character] with the older ladies but there is still a demand for the women between 40 and 55 to look a certain way, comparable with movie stars,” says Brady. “There is a bit more demand for retouching I think there.”


Model Pia Gronning in J Crew ad; Vogue Nippon fashion page, featuring Tanya Drouginska (both models represented by Mrs Robinson Management), illustration by Nawel


It is likely then that the desired audience for these high fashion ads is the ever-popular millennials demographic, who are drawn to the figures featured in the ads in the way they are drawn to websites such as Advanced Style, which showcases images of stylish older people. The technique of using an older model to stand out and surprise isn’t a new thing, either. Back in the 1990s, Levi’s created a striking series of ads featuring older men and women modelling 501 jeans. The campaign was dynamic and successful, but not particularly aimed at the age group of the models. “It celebrated how fabulous you could look when you were old, and the originality of the jeans, but … it was more like what Céline [is doing] at the moment,” says Rosie Arnold, deputy ECD at BBH London, the agency behind the campaign.

Arnold sees a difference between the fashion campaigns that are using older models for controversial purposes and those that might be trying to reach out to an older consumer. “I’m in my early 50s, so I am the demographic,” she says. “As an older woman I look at [the Céline ad] and I go ‘yeah, you’ve used her to be different in the fashion sense, but I think you’re appealing to 20 year-olds still’, whereas advertising using Helen Mirren [the face of L’Oreal Paris’ Age Perfect beauty product] appeals to me more because she’s somebody I can relate to more, or aspire to be.

“I think there is a massive gap in the way people are talking to us because I feel I’m constantly being told that I need to look younger, act younger, be younger, and that as an older woman I’m kind of on the scrapheap unless I look a lot younger. What most people have failed to realise is it’s a fascinating time of our lives as a woman…. You are more solvent, more confident, and have – please God – your health. I’m aware that the kids have left home, and I’ve got money, I’ve got confidence…. I’ve actually got more time on my hands, or more money, and there isn’t a brand out there saying ‘this is cool’ or ‘you can have this’.”


Photograph of Mrs Robinson Management model ‘Valerie’, by Natalia Lipchanskaya (hair and make up by Marina Keri)

While earlier in her life, Arnold felt that there were brands falling over themselves to tell her how she should dress, where she should go on holiday and what car she should drive, they have begun ignoring her since 50, leaving her to find her own path alone. And contrary to a prevailing theory that older women don’t want to see models of their own age in ads, and would rather see younger ones, Arnold believes that this just makes it even harder to judge what the right brand decisions are. “There are not a lot of brands reaffirming stylish choices for people in their 50s,” she says. “I have to find my own way. There’s no handbook to being a stylish 50 year-old. So I’ll look at a Chanel ad with Cara Delevingne with a handbag in it, and I’ll go ‘it’s too young for me’. Yet I’m probably one of the people who can afford a Chanel handbag. I want to be reinforced when I walk in the room with that outfit on that I am a stylish, attractive woman in command of myself, as opposed to just desperately trying to look like a 20 year-old.”

There is obviously a massive commercial opportunity being missed here by brands, though perhaps advertising alone isn’t to blame for this. There is an absence of older women generally in the public eye – particularly on television and in politics – and as such brands are given few clues as to the right way to speak to this demographic. While it is great to see cultural heroes such as Didion and Mitchell celebrated by fashion brands and the younger generations, significant leaps will need to be made in both advertising and the wider culture before a more genuine image of the modern woman emerges in our ads, one that might speak to an older audience.

“I would like to see people being braver in their choices of how they depict older women,” says Arnold. “By bravery, I mean by showing a stylish, attractive woman, you don’t know her, and we’re not even going to make a song-and-dance about how old she is, she’s just there. It has to be appropriate, but I think there’s an untapped seam that could be really interesting. “This whole thing about becoming invisible when you’re 50 – I don’t want to feel that,” she concludes. “I want to feel that I’m still a human being and that people are interested in me…. We should all be doing something about it because there’s a lot of women feeling insecure and on the scrapheap, when they’re not.”

This article appears in CR’s Age issue, available now. Subscribe to CR here.  

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