Is ageism in the fashion industry finally diminishing?



Is the tide turning against ageism in fashion?

With the current widespread obsession with Emily in Paris Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu (the 58-year-old actress plays Sylvie in the Netflix hit), the return of Carrie from SATC (with the character now in her 50s) and current royal family fandom Meghan and Kate (both now in their 40s), it seems like we’re really embracing the style of older women in legitimate fashion circles.

So what has suddenly made older women’s style so alluring in the fashion world?

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As diversity has increasingly seeped into the industry – propelled by social media campaigns, consumer demands and widespread social change – it seemed for a time that tackling the problem of the ageism of fashion was left to the basket too hard.

Runways has occasionally featured older models, as a nod to editorials denouncing the ongoing obsession with youth, but rarely have we been honored with true age diversity represented in fashion media, selling fashion retail or marketing campaigns. Even advertisements for miracle anti-aging creams were plagued with smiling faces of twenty-somethings, rather than the target population most likely to buy such a product.

But lately, something has changed. Is it the pandemic, giving rise to our acceptance of our natural selves, as we’ve ditched restrictive skinny jeans and contouring high-shine makeup? Is it a realization that true diversity should represent everyone, not just young people who are pushing for change?

If there’s anyone who can give us some insight into the mechanics behind fashion’s historic resistance to older women, it would be the prolific Kellie Hush, former editor of Harper’s Bazaar Australia and now senior adviser to the Australian Fashion Council, director of marketing agency Entente and board member of the Melbourne Fashion Festival.

“If I had one criticism to make, it would be that fashion brands are still very youth-oriented,” she tells me. “Putting a token mature model on a runway for a show doesn’t tick the box. I always see campaigns with baby-faced models and as a woman in her 40s who loves fashion and still spends a lot on fashion, those images definitely don’t sell me, or make me want to buy a brand … or a new bag.

“There is still a long way to go. Too many fashion brands still sell exclusively to the under 30s, forgetting that there is a massive consumer group with plenty of disposable income to spend on fashion. Is it a middle-aged male management thing? I think this is also a question worth discussing.

At first glance, rampant ageism in the fashion industry doesn’t seem logical – especially considering that a recent study showed that ignoring older consumers could potentially will cost the industry over A$20 billion over the next 20 years in missed opportunities.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover the complex marketing forces at play here. Interestingly, the beauty industry is one of fashion’s most powerful engines. The industry spends millions on fashion media advertising and sponsorships at fashion weeks around the world. At the center of it all is female aging, one of the biggest industries in the world, which should be worth a staggering A$125 billion by 2026.

So how do we advocate for the acceptance of age when we are bombarded with marketing messages positioning youth as the ultimate status symbol?

There are definitely some women who are shamelessly breaking the mold, despite the wave of youth-focused posts weighing against them — and they’re gaining popularity more than ever.

Local style bloggers Ginger and Carman are gaining traction for their chic take on the Melbourne fashion scene, while Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu dominated fashion news last week, appearing in a transparent dress at Paris Fashion Week.

“Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu is the perfect example of an incredibly chic and sexy mature woman,” says Hush. “My former colleague from Harper’s Bazaar Carine Roitfeld is also amazing. Every time we met in Milan or Paris, she turned the most heads in the room. Her style is effortless and she has been a muse for decades for women of all ages.

“And it’s not just a French thing either. Model Carolyn Murphy looks even more stunning in her 40s, and Paulina Porizkova is making huge waves on social media showing us how beautiful 56 is.

So, as we look to a post-pandemic fashion future, where diversity is not a slogan, but rather an expected norm, will age diversity remain? Or will we forget about older women again, dismissing them as another trend we once thought was cool for a little while?

“He’s definitely here to stay,” Hush says. “During my time as editor at Harper’s Bazaar was when the cultural change started. It was a slow start, but it became extremely important for my team that Bazaar represented various beauties, shapes and sizes. Age is less, and in retrospect we should have done more to fight ageism.

“Since I left media in 2018 there has been a bigger change in the industry, not just in fashion media. I don’t see it as a trend now, I see it as the norm, and I am convinced that this is the only way forward for the industry.”

In a post-pandemic world where traditional retail is struggling, but luxury goods – now even more geared towards the older consumer than younger generations ditch them for niche brands – take steam, it seems like a no-brainer.

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