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Oz stylewatch: older women used to sell clothes they’ll never wear

On stage last week at Sydney’s Independent Theatre, the star of the show and its choreographer was 100 year-old Eileen Kramer. Born in 1914, Kramer was a dancer with Australia’s first modern dance company, the Bodenwieser Ballet. She was also a life model for artist Norman Lindsay and mixed with performers including Ella Fitzgerald, Vivien Leigh and Louis Armstrong. She moved to Paris, then journeyed through India and America before returning to Australia last year aged 99 because she “missed the kookaburras.”

On stage last week Kramer moved with grace and emotion, in a lilac gown with an iridescent bodice she had designed herself.

Fashion brands have recently been using creative older women like Kramer to sell their clothes.

Singer Joni Mitchell, 71, stars in the new Saint Laurent advertisements plucking her guitar, and writer Joan Didion, 80, appears sphinx-like in Céline’s latest shoot complete with oversize sunglasses and an oversize pendant. At 93 Iris Apfel is in more demand than ever; she was recently the face of Other Stories and also stars in the new Alexis Bittar campaign, while Dolce Gabbana cast a trio of elderly women for its spring 2015 campaign.

‘Half child and half sphinx’: Joan Didion in the new Céline campaign. Photograph: Juergen Teller/Céline

But the new collections by the brands using these women as marketing tools are not necessarily designed with mature women in mind. In Paris earlier this month Saint Laurent showed micro minis, lurex skirts and sparkly 80s party dresses more appropriate for the younger generation than a grandma, while Dolce Gabbana sent models down its Milan runway wearing crazily ornate tiara iPhone headphones that will retail for over US$7,000.

Iris Apfel in conversation. Photograph: Dustin Wayne Harris/Sipa USA / R/Dustin Wayne Harris/Sipa USA / R

Women my mother’s age – including my mother, actually – ask me why the fashion industry doesn’t better cater to the needs of a mature customer, such as putting a sleeve on more tops, lowering hemlines and increasing clothing sizes beyond a 12.

No fashion brand is ever going to do this out of the goodness of its heart, but given our ageing population they could certainly turn a bigger buck if they focused on older women to boost their bottom lines.

When tickets went on sale for the Melbourne Fashion Festival’s Don’t Stop Me Now show featuring elderly designers from the University of the Third Age, they sold out almost immediately.

But maybe the way forward is for women to ignore the major fashion houses and follow their own style. Look at the success of the New York-based blog Advanced Style, which spawned a popular film of the same name and celebrates eldery women with idiosyncratic approaches to fashion ranging from turbans and tiaras to latex leggings and kaftans.

True personal style is about self-expression rather than mindlessly following fashion. In the words of Kramer in a short film screened before her dance performance last week: “Look forward, be creative, don’t let yourself be swamped by reality.”

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