Instagram’s most stylish accounts have been going wild today for a photograph of 80-year-old literary star Joan Didion, the new face of French fashion giant Céline. Shot by Juergen Teller – in typically hyper-raw style – the image encapsulates all that is considered chic right now: the clothes are understated, the colours are muted. Didion’s age is not hidden but celebrated – she’s all sleek grey hair and formidable bone structure.
This is a fabulous picture. It is also right on brand for Céline, whose fans – an affluent army of thoughtful dressers – have been praising the design house for “fixing the internet” by venerating intelligence and saving us all from photographs of Kim Kardashian’s bum. The best thing about the campaign is that it respectfully celebrates a woman of substance for her 80 years of achievements and not just for her pretty, on-brand wrinkles.
But isn’t there something a bit odd about fashion’s current obsession with age? Isn’t it weird that, in 2015, old age is a trend? This has been bubbling away for years: most trace it to Advanced Style, the hugely successful street style blog focusing on older men and women, which launched in 2008 and inspired a documentary. In 2012, Angela Lansbury, then 87, was shot for the cover of cult style magazine The Gentlewoman, while Lanvin cast 82-year-old Jacquie Murdock in a recent campaign. Daphne Selfe (84) and Carmen Dell’Orefice (83) are veritable supermodels, having recently appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and W. Dolce Gabbana has featured older models in its advertising for years – campaigns are usually set in 1950s Sicilian piazzas, where grandparents bounce toddlers on their knees – but the brand still won headlines when it cast elderly Italian women for spring/summer 2015. It’s no coincidence that Selfridges’ big spring marketing campaign is this year called “Bright Old Things”, focusing on creatives from their 40s to their 80s enjoying “retirement renaissance”.
The use of older models would be wonderful if it took place casually and habitually, but instead it is a story, often arch, kitsch or novel. Last year, American Apparel – which sells skimpy basics to twentysomethings – used 62-year-old Jacky O’Shaughnessy for a series of weird yoga-inspired campaign images that focused inordinately on her pubic mound. The recent Instagram hit Fashion Grandpas means well but often feels patronising, featuring pictures of older men whose outfits are copied by a twentysomething female blogger – the adorable pictures posted for comparison.
While buzz beats invisibility, why aren’t there more representations of age in fashion and less fuss? The beauty industry’s images of older women, on the other hand, tend to be less fetishistic and more commercial. In her campaign for Nars, Charlotte Rampling looks cool and strong. Helen Mirren’s recent advertising shots for L’Oréal are simple and pretty – both seem to have been conceived with the booming market of consumers of a similar age in mind.
Much of the appeal of Céline’s campaign lies in the fact that it speaks to the label’s key target market – affluent women in their 40s and 50s – who appreciate the fact that they are open-minded and edgy and educated enough to get it. These women are sick of being bombarded with images of dewy-skinned youth, and will drink up suggestions that 80 is the new 18. Céline’s campaign is classy, of course, and respectfully celebrates a woman its creative director admirers. But there is something about the wider trend for casting older women to make middle-aged and younger women feel great that feels rather cynical.