Her body is lithe, her full lips bright red, her hair thick and tumbling. There’s just one thing that distinguishes Jacky O’Shaughnessy, the latest face of American Apparel, from the models in any other fashion campaign: she’s got grey hair. American Apparel’s choice of a 62-year-old model to represent their brand coincides with Vivienne Westwood’s 2013/14 campaign, shot by Juergen Teller, which features 60-year-old musician Leslie Winer. Meanwhile, 70-year-old Catherine Deneuve fronts the latest Louis Vuitton campaign.
O’Shaughnessy used to be an actor, and had only just moved back to New York from Los Angeles when she struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to her in a Greenwich Village restaurant. Her neighbour turned out to work for American Apparel, and she was invited to do a shoot. The first set of images included one of her sitting, fully clothed, with her legs wide open. “A morning talk show said it was distasteful to see a woman my age – I loved this! – in that position. Here, I thought, was rampant ageism.” At the same time, O’Shaughnessy has found herself enthusiastically liked on Facebook, mainly by young women who find her inspirational. “A lot of them said, ‘I want to look like her when I get older’, and were encouraged that things don’t have to be a downhill slide.”
So are older models the new fashion favourites? Certainly O’Shaughnessy, Winer and Deneuve are all very handsome, as is Daphne Selfe, perhaps the best-known British older model at (her emphasis) 85-and-a-half. Selfe interrupted a successful modelling career in her 20s to have children. Since she resumed it at 70, the work hasn’t stopped coming. Jenni Rhodes, who has just turned 82, tells a similar story, insisting that she’s “about to retire for the fifth time. I’m getting less able to cope with high heels.” Jan de Villeneuve turns 70 in April; she has worked with David Bailey, Norman Parkinson and Helmut Newton, and is still in demand.
Photographer Nick Knight believes the success of older models is part of a broader cultural change. “We don’t live in such a youth-based culture as we did 50 years ago,” he says. “The internet is where most people get their fashion information from now, and we’re seeing all manner of different cultures and values.”
Winer, a musician and poet, first worked with Westwood 30 years ago on her punk-inspired Buffalo Girl collection. She now lives in France, hasn’t yet seen Teller’s photographs and describes her own style as “Neil Young circa 1971”. Why did she agree to the shoot? “Because Vivienne Westwood is presently greatly admired by three of my five daughters and somewhat of a role model for them. Plus, she’s a pretty nice dame. The shoot was un-rushed, no fashion talk. We talked about the NSA, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning. Fashion is not my strong suit.”
What O’Shaughnessy, De Villeneuve and Selfe share, apart from great bone structure and industrial quantities of energy, is exuberance. All are delighted by their longevity in a career in which your adolescence, if not your prepubescence, is usually your prime. As Selfe says, “Younger models I work with are very sweet – I’m no competition. But they also want to be like me: you give them hope that they’ll have a long career.”
But the idea that modelling is becoming a career for life, or that “grey is the new black”, turns out to be too simplistic. Look closely at the American Apparel campaign, and you’ll see that, although O’Shaughnessy is decades away from her high-school prom, any markers of ageing are counteracted by her girlish slimness, along with an ability to extend her right leg at a 90-degree angle to her left. And while it’s pleasing to see a positive image of an older woman, representative it isn’t. In fact, the more you dig, the clearer it becomes that, most of the time, a strict set of rules operates. Here’s my potted rulebook:
1 You can get work as a model if you’re older – as long as you don’t look it. Visible signs of age remain, for the most part, so shameful that you need to take all possible steps to erase them. Rhodes thinks that 45- to 60-year-old models have it hardest, unsure whether to try to look younger, or to go the older model route. Digital retouching has become the norm, but some models are prepared to take more drastic measures. When Carmen Dell’Orefice, who sounds like a Scunthorpe drag artist but, at 82, is the world’s longest-working model, was asked by Vogue whether she had had cosmetic surgery, she said, “If you had the ceiling fall down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?”
2 You can get work as a model if you’re older – as long as you’re thin. Models 1’s book for Selfe spells out her credentials: dress size 10, 28-inch waist. Selfe thinks the prejudice against larger models is, if anything, greater than that against older ones.
3 You can get work as a model if you’re older – as long as you’re not too sexy. In our culture, sexiness in older women is disturbing: we associate older women with our mothers, and we don’t like to think of our mothers and sex. Photographer Roberto Aguilar discovered this in 2012 when, commissioned by a British magazine to take pictures on the theme of cash, he photographed two young men drooling over a smouldering De Villeneuve wearing expensive watches and oozing sexiness. The magazine deemed the pictures too “sexually aggressive” and refused to publish them. Eventually, they appeared in the American magazine Huf.
4 You can get work as a model if you’re older – but your agent will still call you a “girl” (not that De Villeneuve minds). And you’ll be consigned to the Classics Division, for anyone over 28.
5 You can get work as a model if you’re older – as long as you don’t expect to advertise certain products. What you’ll be called on to advertise, frequently, is: walk-in baths, stair-lifts, retirement homes, wills, health and medical aids. Oh, and anything where grandparents are required. What you won’t be called on to advertise is: expensive cosmetics, mobile phones, cars and, with some notable exceptions, fashion. In their recent evidence to the Labour party’s Commission on Older Women, launched by Harriet Harman, researchers Josephine Dolan and Estella Tincknell claimed that “it’s almost unknown for a prestige or glamorous product/brand to associate itself with older women unless that product promises to dispel the signs of ageing (as in Jane Fonda’s advertisements for L’Oréal).” On the other hand, it is common “for ageing male stars like George Clooney to feature as the face of such brands”. No woman, in this context, aspires to be old.
6 And, finally, you can get work as a model if you’re older – but your age will always be an issue. You may be used to confirm a stereotype or to challenge one, but you’ll never be age-neutral. The campaign featuring O’Shaughnessy refers to “classic, ageless clothing”, while Rhodes observes that a lot of the work she does has a “not giving up” subtext. An ad for a washing machine had her dressed as a punk in pink. The caption read: “Help prevent clothes ageing.”
Why are advertisers so cautious about alienating a younger audience? Shouldn’t they worry more about alienating older (and richer) consumers? When Ben Barry, founding director of the Fashion Diversity Lab at Ryerson University, Canada, surveyed women over the age of 35 in 2012, he discovered that they were 200% more likely to buy a product when they saw it advertised by someone who reflected their age, and 65% less likely to when they didn’t. Much of the power to choose older models lies with the advertising agencies, and the majority of creative directors are men. And most of them, as Caitlin Ryan, group executive creative director of Karmarama ad agency, drily points out, are young men.
Harriet Close founded her agency, Close Models, specifically to represent older models aged 25 to 82, and is one herself. She says things are changing, albeit slowly. “I don’t think they’re used as much as they should be: it’s great to see a garment meant for a woman worn by a woman and not a child. We’re an ageing population, and people need to see themselves reflected in the fashion industry. Sometimes it’s a token thing: they might do it for one season, then go back to the same as they had before.”
Last year, the US accessories company Cole Haan celebrated its 85th anniversary with a campaign called “Born in 1928”, featuring striking portraits of well-known 85-year-olds, including Maya Angelou. But their website has since been age-cleansed. Even John Lewis, which has flirted with older models, has reverted to youth.
Nick Knight says that, while he is frustrated by the slow pace of change, he believes there has been a significant shift since the 1980s. “Magazines like the Face, Dazed Confused and i-D gave rise to a proliferation of different faces and voices,” he says. “And designers like Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier grew up in that time, with a different sense of what’s beautiful. I don’t think it’s gone far enough: there’s beauty in so many different sorts of people, including ethnic, older and larger models. That’s what’s so exciting.”
While the work comes and goes, Rhodes says, it has increased in the past five or six years. There was a surge in demand last year, after Channel 4 broadcast its Fabulous Fashionistas series. Selfe has never been busier, and says the same goes for her model friends, too.
Of course, for many women, the representation of old age is far less important than their actual experience of it. But in the face of all the noise about “the battle against ageing”, there are many others who struggle to accept their changing bodies even while they celebrate their growing contentment. For them, the arrival of older models matters. As O’Shaughnessy says, “I don’t wake up in the morning and tell myself, I’m now a 62-year-old, and think about my age before I go out the door. What’s more important is your attitude and how you feel about the ageing process.” Every time a Jacky O’Shaughnessy gazes out unapologetically from an ad, or Vivienne Westwood casts a Leslie Winer, ageing gets paired with vitality, and our visual vocabulary grows just that tiny bit more.
• How To Age, by Anne Karpf, is published by Macmillan at £7.99. To order a copy for £5.99, including UK mainlandpp, call 0330 333 6846, or go to theguardian.com/bookshop.