The Timeless Issue of Ageism in Fashion

Bill Cunningham, an American fashion photographer, once described the fashion world as a mirror reflecting the culture of society.

In recent years, the industry has prided itself on its progression in being more inclusive.

However, according to The Fashion Spot’s Annual Runway Diversity Report, London Fashion Week’s Spring 2020 showcase only featured seven over-50 models in its entirety.

So, if age is just a number why have women over the age of 50 become increasingly invisible?

Jacynth Basset has actively campaigned for the visibility of women over 50 in fashion.

Named by Global Health Ageing as an ‘Ageism-Fighting Trailblazer, Jacynth is the founder of the first age-inclusive online independent fashion boutique – The Bias-Cut.

She studied law at Cambridge but throughout her degree, she became passionate about starting a business.

“Diversity is a buzzword at the moment, but age is often forgotten about concerning inclusivity. It’s something we need to talk about more.”

She became increasingly aware of ageism in fashion faced by older women.

This ignited her passion to change their discriminatory treatment, subsequently sparking the idea for her business.

“I started my mission to fight ageism by setting up my business and launching the movement ‘Ageism is Never in Style’ to discuss and challenge age-diversity in the fashion world.

“I saw how the industry is tailored towards younger women when my mum was dismissed in shops and struggled to shop online as there weren’t any clothes modelled by women her age.”

With fashion focusing its attention towards the younger generation, it risks alienating the possible multi-billion dollar industry on the other end of the scale.

A study by the International Longevity Centre-UK said that ageism could cost the fashion industry £11 billion over the next two decades.

There have been progressive changes to stop ageism in fashion by including older models.

 There was the then 82-year-old author, Joan Didion, who starred in the 2015 campaign for Celine, the French luxury house and  76-year-old singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell who, also in 2015, was part of a campaign with Saint Laurent.

However, for Jacynth, the fashion media continues to promote age-old clichés about how women express their style later in life.

“There’s a lot of fear-mongering of being ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ which is ingrained in us from a young age.

“And there’s not nearly enough older models on our runways to represent that market of fashion lovers.”

Whilst there are celebratory cases such as Iris Apfel, the 92-year-old who signed a modelling contract with IMG, within the modelling sector, ageism is present in the views society places on older models.

Supermodel Cindy Crawford was criticised for continuing to pose nude in her 50’s.

However, younger women and men trying to break into the industry also face age discrimination.

Nicole Russin-McFarland, 32, is a model from Los Angeles who experienced ageism before her career even started.

At barely 21, Nicole had to begin networking quickly to be hired by modelling agencies.

Nicole told me that 10-years-ago, in her experience, the age cut off for hiring undiscovered models was 22, the cusp of adulthood.

“That is the setup. You have a ticking time limit on how long to get modelling representation”.

Throughout her 10-year career, Nicole has found that ageism had affected her on both ends of the spectrum.

“I am never the right age. When I was younger, I was deemed ‘too old’ or ‘too young’. Now, I’m seen as ‘too old’. I am never the ‘right’ age for anything.”

Over the last decade, there has been a steep rise of Influencers, dubbed the modern celebrity. 

More and more women 40-plus have started their blogs to encourage women to express their inner fashionista.

Karen James-Welton, a 55-year-old blogger from Norwich, first began her blog, The Fabulous Miss K, almost 10-years-ago to combat the lack of voices for women over 40 who love fashion. 

“I’ve always had a quirky sense of style. I wanted to show other women that you can still have fun with fashion despite your age.”

“My philosophy is ‘if you love it – just wear it’. At the end of the day it’s meant to be fun and if you’ve got great legs at 50 then wear a mini skirt. It shouldn’t matter”, she said.

Karen believes that the fashion world’s lack of age-representation has gotten better despite the low figures on recent runways.

“I think it’s getting there. When I was in my twenties, there was no diversity whatsoever but now we’re seeing more and more.”

On the contrary, Jacynth does not see the industry making any drastic changes in the next few years.

Part of her mission is continuing the conversation in hopes that it won’t’ fade into the background as many women are forced to do.

She said: “The conversation is still relatively fresh and often misunderstood as we’ve only been talking about it for the last three years.

“It’s going to take a long time to permeate through the whole of society.”

Sadly, it seems that Bill Cunningham’s view of the fashion world is an outdated, distorted reality.

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