The New Model Subject: “Coolness” and the Turn to Older Women Models in Lifestyle and Fashion Advertising
The desirability of youth is a core value long held dear by fashion and lifestyle advertising. Yet numerous recent campaigns by the likes of Lanvin and The Row have been fronted by older women. This chapter examines the implications of this shift for understanding the cultural value that older women can, or cannot, signify at this time in these spheres. Focussing particularly on the 2015 Céline campaign featuring Joan Didion, and the 2017 Pirelli calendar, this chapter argues that crucially the notion of cool is reinscribed across these labels by way of the “edgy” older woman subject, and examines to what extent this challenges (or merely relocates) established norms pertaining to what kinds of bodies warrant our desire and attention.
Even the most casual observer of fashion marketing and aspirational advertising will have noted that a core value these arenas have long held dear is the desirability of youth. With the exception of noted style mavericks like Anna Wintour or Carine Roitfeld, as they age, older “ordinary” women are positioned as moving progressively to the margins of the world of fashion, and are expected to more or less relinquish the pleasure they might once have taken in it. For that matter too, older subjects are typically excluded broadly from the fashionable world of major lifestyle brands; the ageing body does not sit comfortably with notions of wishful longing.
Thus it is that the fashion and related industries have long entrenched a marketplace in which young, even adolescent, models are co-opted to sell clothes, accessories, all manner of beauty products and more, to adult women. As Julia Twigg notes, labels and designers commonly hold anxieties about being seen to speak to or “for” older women, fearing negative repercussions for their brand value (2013, 126–127). Yet we live now in an era of a rapidly ageing population, one in which the “grey consumer”1 is becoming ever more prevalent; still, they are somehow both commercially desirable (in terms of the share of the market they make up) and undesirable (in terms of the longstanding cultural distaste for ageing they obviously embody). In a marketplace marked by such tensions, it is intriguing to note that of late we find ourselves in a cultural moment where this landscape appears, in some instances at least, to be shifting. Brands ranging from Marks & Spencer, to TK Maxx, to Lanvin have all in recent years adopted women models markedly older than the “norm” in their advertising campaigns, albeit styled in different ways. What are the implications of this shift, then, for understanding the cultural value that older women can, or cannot, hold at this time in the fashion sphere? In what follows, we look at how the rearticulation of the older woman as model and/or brand ambassador has taken place in two high-profile instances—the 2015 Céline campaign featuring Joan Didion, and the 2017 Pirelli calendar—arguing that the notion of cool is reinscribed across the brand meaning of each by way of the older woman subject.
As a preamble to this, one might note that fashion editorials and ads are about creating a certain fashionable look. In her study of the fashion world backstage, Ashley Mears (2011) distinguishes between a commercial look associated with traditional notions of a beautiful model and mainstream magazines and commercials, and an edgy, “strange” look in fashion editorials and ads in more niche magazines, in which “imperfect beauty” (Cotton 2000) and non-conformity (Evans 2003) are favoured. In her outlining of the difference between these two kinds of looks in fashion media, Mears furthermore opposes a thin and a skinny look; the commercial look is “young” and “thin,” in contrast to the edgy look which is “teenage” and “skinny” (2011, 39). However, the many older women in fashion ads today show that the intertwining of youth and skinniness in fashion has loosened to some degree. The non-conformist, skinny look may be created not only through the body of the teenage waif, but also by means of the older woman’s body. Accordingly, there is a contemporary tendency in a fashion context to combine the ageing face with extreme bodily thinness, creating an updated, striking version of a sought-after fashionable edgy look.
The older woman in fashion ads does not resemble the typical older body; her skinny-ness does not equate with the more commonly found characteristics of the ageing female body, such as a thickening of the waistline. The skinny older female body‚ by contrast, constitutes the perfect “hanger-body” (Mears 2011, 181)‚ which is sought after by the “trendiest” luxury brands (cf.‚ for example, minimalist luxury brand The Row‚ which cast 65-year-old former model, fashion editor and stylist Linda Rodin for their pre-fall 2014 collection). In addition to favouring an appearance which accords with the undisputed fashion credo that clothes look best on a thin body, the old age of the model signals that the brand may appeal to a broader age group, and it confers upon the clothes the air of (celebrity) history attached to the model. Finally, such ads adhere to fashion logic, which is always seeking the new‚ and, furthermore, a newness which is audacious without being scandalous.
Joan Didion for Céline
Céline is a much-hyped influential French luxury fashion brand, and acclaimed designer Phoebe Philo has been its creative director since 2008. Labelled “impeachably cool” (Hoby 2015), Céline’s campaigns have been easily recognisable for several years: plain yet subtle; elegant, yet trendy, just like the clothes. Often the model is shot on the background of a bright monochrome screen or otherwise simple background; often she poses erect, unglamorous. The ads are usually shot by Jürgen Teller‚ and Céline often uses the same, mostly up-and-coming fashion models. Despite the ads’ apparently simple, unglamorous look, they are trendsetting in fashion photography and often discretely allude to popular cultural history on the edge of the mainstream; hence, Céline has cultivated a reputation for making clothes for an intellectual audience.
The Spring/Summer (s/s) 2015 campaign confirms this brand image. By choosing writer Joan Didion (b. 1934) as the face of the campaign, it constructs a kind of cerebral aura around the brand. Essential to what was enthusiastically proclaimed the campaign’s audaciousness by a host of online media commentators when the campaign was released, is the very realist inscription of the ageing female body and face within the field of fashion. Here, centre stage is taken not by the middle-aged, gorgeous even when “sombre” Julia Roberts (for Givenchy s/s 2015), not by the glamorous but obviously manipulated close-ups of Helen Mirren (for L’Oreal), not by the delicate and beautiful near-70 Maye Musk (for James Perse Fall/Winter (f/w) 2016). Rather, it is the over-80-year-old and old-looking American writer who is cast by Céline to confirm the brand’s image of cool minimalism—of being edgy without being avant-garde.
Joan Didion is not the first older woman to appear in a Céline ad, nor is she the first older woman in a Céline ad shot by Jürgen Teller. Already for the f/w campaign 2010/112 the brand featured former model Gitte Lee (b. 1935), after Lee had been featured on Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog in July 2010. However, contrary to the 2010 Céline ad, where the shot of Gitte Lee is medium long, the portrait of Didion is a (medium) close-up in which Teller’s recognisable hard and frontal, realist and almost ruthless lighting of his model is pushed to the limit.
The photograph portrays the “literary celebrity” (Ohlsson et al. 2014; Marsh 2015) Joan Didion slightly angled from above.3 Teller’s frontal lighting of her face casts a black shadow on the upper part of the wall to the left of her face; thus a balance is created with the black surface of the tight dress she is wearing, the upper part of which resembles a black turtleneck Didion wore in an ad for Gap’s 1989 campaign Individuals of Style, in which she was photographed tête-à-tête with her adopted daughter Quintana Roe. Didion is sitting on a kind of sofa in her private home (cf. Jacobs 2015); erect but also a bit sunken, her right arm stretched to the side, the other resting on her lap and her red lips closed. She is wearing large black Céline sunglasses that, together with the black dress and a large golden pendant necklace, provide a fashionable and luxurious version of the attitude of detachment for which she is known (cf. Daum 2015). Black sunglasses have been the writer’s signature accessory since she was photographed for the cover of her first collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in 1968. Didion’s features are sharp and her figure skinny, appearing fragile. Moreover, the harsh frontal light and the over-sized dark glasses make the ageing face look pale and emphasise her wrinkled skin above the turtleneck as well as the thinness of both her facial features and the carefully combed grey page-style hair.
The dark glasses prevent us from seeing whether she looks directly at the photographer or has adopted a more withdrawn look. However, both the harsh lighting—which creates a sense of paparazzi photography—and the dark glasses worn indoors‚ emphasise Didion’s celebrity status, and give the impression of capturing a random moment‚ which confers a sense of exclusivity and immediacy to the photograph. Didion is seemingly not posing, captured almost as if caught unawares, and yet the closed lips make her seem a little tense, too, as if she was not completely at ease in her home. The brand name Céline is written in large white capital letters on the background of Didion’s black dress and anchors as fashionable not only clothes and accessories but also the look of the photograph as such.
Besides photographing Joan Didion for a fashion ad and simultaneously borrowing and lending her fashionability, Teller’s style gives the impression of offering a realist portrait of the elderly writer: Joan Didion just like she looks now. It provides likeness as well as a “manifestation of [her] ‘essence’ or ‘air’” (Freeland 2010, 74). The fashion photograph constructs an unsentimental, edgy clash between a temporality of time passed inscribed in the ageing face and body, and a temporality of cool presence.
Not least by virtue of the detached look accentuated by the dark glasses, the image inscribes itself within a tradition of photographing and understanding the renowned writer Joan Didion as cool (see, for example, Daum 2015). A look of coolness is inscribed not only across the writer’s ageing appearance but across the whole ad through its invisible web of references to Didion’s history and iconic portraits of her from past decades (cf. Jerslev 2017). Moreover, Joan Didion’s elderly appearance boosts the coolness which has been attached to the brand for many years, and vice versa, as being connected with this trendy brand attaches renewed coolness to Joan Didion, the ageing yet still topical writer. This synergistic cross-fertilisation begs the question: what is cool and what is cool in a fashion context? What goes on at the intersection of cool fashion photography and the ageing Joan Didion?
Vanessa Brown (2015) suggests that sunglasses are signs of cool with “an incredible staying power” (2015, 2; cf. also Pountain and Robins 2000), even though Brown (like Mears 2011) also claims that what is considered cool is shifting: “cool is well known to be a slippery thing—subjective, elusive and ever changing” (2015, 2). Sunglasses are thus a means for constructing the contradictory attitude of involvement and detachment, of presence and absence, of fashionability and individuality, which epitomises cool.
As evident in the Didion ad, sunglasses and black clothes have come to signal and accentuate the cool attitude. The dress emphasises a certain individual composure and restrained affect (cf. Geiger et al. 2010). Cool is an attitude towards the world, a strategy for making sense of everyday life, a coping mechanism, a body technique and an aesthetic sensibility performed by people or in media representations. What has most often been connected with cool, though, is a sense of individual rebellion, understood as a non-conformist attitude, a tribute to a position outside of the mainstream and common. Cool is an attitude of detachment and aloofness that expresses a thought-out, individualist position on the edge meant to reject “the aesthetic values of those ‘others’ with whom you do not wish to be associated” (Brown 2014, 4); thus the cool sensibility is as much defined by what it is not as by what it is. As such, cool is elitist and uncompromising; its emphasis is on individual style and visibility as superior to everyone else’s.
Some of the writing on cool analyses the term as a (masculine) way of communicating strength and coping with oppressive social circumstances (cf. Majors and Billson 1993; Geiger et al. 2010; Brown 2015). By contrast, cultural theorists and writers Dick Pountain and David Robins claim that the cool pose is an aesthetic kind of rebellion and therefore merely significant as a powerful mark of distinction: “The essence of Cool has always been, first of all, to look Cool” (2000, 114), hence the importance of clothes as signals of cool (cf. also Mentges 2000). Moreover, Pountain and Robins claim that “Cool does not gaze at others but appears to others; it does not gaze but wishes to be gazed at” (2000, 117); thus the importance of sunglasses, which may, however, also conceal that even though the cool attitude is detached, it is simultaneously seismographically occupied with breaking away from the mainstream.
Today, cool functions not least as a powerful and valuable signifier of distinction in consumer culture, a position of being culturally “in the know” (Nancarrow et al. 2002, 313). A cool person—or brand—inhabits a certain cultural capital and a sense of the new edgy in consumer culture. Cool therefore occupies an ambiguous position in relation to fashion; in opposition to fashion as a system and yet sharing with fashion the logic of constant renewal, the necessity of being at the forefront and the connection with commodification. Because cool is not an avant-garde sensibility, mainstream fashion brands may well work to confer a cool factor on their clothes—exemplified by high-street retailer Gap’s autumn 1993 black-and-white ads for khakis featuring, among others, icons of coolness James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol and Steve McQueen. Yet, at any rate, cool both presupposes and acknowledges the system of fashion in order for edginess to function as a superior marker of distinction.
In these ways, besides undoubtedly paying homage to an old woman who is a celebrated writer and cultural icon, the Céline ad could be described as a signature of cool, fashionable yet edgy, exuding a certain intellectual detachment and also a strong sense of being in the know. One might ask what qualifies Joan Didion in particular for the ad, besides the fact that she is old and the ad thereby knowingly anticipated causing a stir by resisting the founding logic of fashion, the field’s marriage to the young body (cf. Twigg 2013). One answer relates to bodily appearance, as previously mentioned. Joan Didion’s body, though old, still fits in well with a fashion culture in which extreme thinness is one of the preconditions for the staging of an edgy look. Secondly, an aura of the fashionable and cool has been attached to Joan Didion over the years. Several writers have noted how clothes play an important part in her writing (her packing list in “The White Album” printed in the 1979 essay collection The White Album is renowned), not to mention that she started her career working and writing for Vogue in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She appeared in the above-mentioned Gap ad in 1989‚ but well before that, in 1968‚ photographer Julian Wasser’s pictures of her for Time magazine portrayed her as cool. In one of Wasser’s photos she is casually leaning on her white shining Corvette in her driveway, a cigarette in her hand and a detached look. In another she puts an arm casually out of the car’s rolled-down window, a cigarette in the other hand. As stated in an article about the Céline ad in The Atlantic: “It’s possible that no one will ever look as cool as Joan Didion does behind a dark pair of sunglasses or half-leaning out the window of a 1969 Corvette Stingray. With Didion, it’s not as much the outfit you remember as the attitude” (Lafrance 2015).
Critical work in this arena has observed in passing that the cool attitude is primarily connected to masculinity (cf. Majors and Billson 1993 ; Nancarrow et al. 2002; Brown 2015; Quartz and Asp 2015). Though Pountain and Robins note that there is a tradition in film for “cool female role models” (2000, 23), the majority of their examples are men. Wasser’s photographs of Didion are thus rather exceptional images of a cool woman, detachedly relaxed and with an air of laid-back, self-confident elitism next to her cool car.4 In the Céline ad, Joan Didion is constituted as cool by showing off some of her signature traits—one being those large black sunglasses. One could say that old age comes into fashion in the Céline ad, not as a tribute to ageing in itself, but as a tribute to the history of an iconic woman; moreover as a means of constructing an aesthetic, edgy attitude in fashion ads, and finally as a mark of distinction which confirms Céline’s reputation as fashionably cool.
“An Arty Soft-Core Ode to Pinups”: Contextualising the Pirelli Calendar
By way of another example which has similarly attached the “coolness” of the ageing/older woman model to an established high-end brand in recent times, we turn now to Pirelli. At first glance, Pirelli may seem to hold little common ground with Céline, and thus this selection warrants some brief contextualisation here. Rather than an exclusive fashion brand, the company is “Europe’s third-largest tire maker” (Sylvers 2011), founded in Milan in 1872, and today perhaps most particularly heralded as supplier to the exclusive, expensive—and dangerous—sport of Formula One (F1). As such, the Pirelli brand name connotes desirable “mileage” of a different sort, one which can be expanded and exploited in other arenas to help secure the kudos of a revered “lifestyle brand.” Hence in 2011 Pirelli opened its first clothing and accessories store in Milan, having sold the “PZero” brand in department and clothing stores around the world since 2002; as Eric Sylvers observes, in this sense Pirelli and “other such brands are not much different from fashion designers themselves, who, over the past decade, have moved into accessories, beauty products and perfume, watches and even furniture and luxury hotels” (2011).
Nowhere is the Pirelli brand’s particular cachet more evident, however, than in the history of the Pirelli trade calendar, known for its use of highly esteemed photographers and the top models of the day, and trademarked simply as “The Cal.” The calendar was introduced by the company in 1964 according to their official history (following an unsuccessful launch in 1963), when “Pirelli’s British subsidiary was looking for a marketing strategy to help Pirelli stand out from domestic competition and appointed the art director Derek Forsyth and British photographer Robert Freeman, famous for his portraits of the Beatles, to produce what was an entirely innovative project for its day” (www.pirelli.com). The “corporate freebie” went on to become a highly anticipated annual cultural artefact of sorts; as Alice White Walker observed in her Huffington Post Style blog, “This isn’t your typical oil-smeared garage calendar—there are only 20,000 copies printed each year, reserved for celebrities and the company’s key clientele” (2016). Received as a kind of aesthetic marker of its time, then, “The Cal” is an object which at one level has already long been invested with certain notions of “cool,” albeit frequently of a risqué kind. Year on year, photographers including Bert Stern, Herb Ritts. Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber and Karl Lagerfeld have captured women subjects in a series of often nude, highly sexualised, fetishised and provocative images that have prompted debate over the boundaries between art, taste and sensationalism. Unlike Céline’s Didion campaign, it might be said, these most scrutinised Pirelli pictures have featured women very much in a series of states of undress, rather than dress. However, in keeping with the modalities of designer fashion, the fact that the calendar is only available in a limited edition format lends it an air of exclusivity. Its annual release date and “the reveal” surrounding each edition’s choice of photographer and models, just like the seasonal new trends of fashion showcased on global catwalks and fashion magazine pages, is a media event which is widely discussed and anticipated. The Pirelli website declares the company “vision” to be that, “We constantly challenge the boundaries of technology, style and sustainability, setting trends across the world” (www.pirelli.com, our emphasis); and this drive to “set trends,” quite outside the technology of tyre manufacturing, has clearly been encapsulated by the ambitions it evidences in “The Cal.”
Pirelli’s New Cool—Unveiling “The Cal” in 2017
Increasingly in recent years, however, the artefact has arguably carried notions of the passé, as its once provocative styling became predictable, at the very least in terms of content if not entirely in the detail of form. Importantly, a reimagining of The Cal was evident already in 2016, when Annie Leibovitz photographed the calendar for the second time. As with the Didion Céline campaign, it largely adopted non-models, women who were instead accomplished, respected public figures of one kind or another drawn from other fields, here encompassing a variety of races and ages. These included comedian and actor Amy Schumer—who along with tennis legend Serena Williams and model Natalia Vodianova was the only of the sitters not to be photographed fully clothed—captured in sheer knickers astride a stool‚ with un-airbrushed rolls of flesh on her stomach left in full view, prompting much debate about “real” women’s bodies among commentators; as well as 77-year-old Agnes Gund, philanthropist and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art; and the “godmother of punk,” singer-songwriter Patti Smith.
The 2016 calendar thus became the subject of renewed critical and media interest for breaking with conceived notions about what The Cal stood for—namely “arty soft -core” (Friedman 2015) images of young, nude, perfectly proportioned women. As Vanessa Friedman observed in The New York Times, “Though the calendar has, on rare occasions, featured women in clothes [...] this is the first time there is no provocation in the posing, and the first time the attraction of the subjects is in their resumes, not their measurements” (2015). The Cal’s role as a kind of social barometer of some sort—that is, “to a certain extent, a historical record” (Friedman 2015)—in this new guise was thus cautiously taken to perhaps herald a cultural shift; one in which brands like Pirelli might begin to win more respect for showcasing women of substance—including, importantly, older women—rather than scantily clad young models. Alternatively, some commentators asked whether Leibovitz’s reimagining of the calendar constituted mere “lip service,” a superficial exercise in which “this ‘feminist makeover’ is more about the market than some sudden enlightenment” (Moore 2015). It seemed only time might tell in this respect as one of the 2016 models, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, presciently observed, noting that, “It would be a huge disappointment,” if in 2017 Pirelli were to “abandon the idea of women who define modern life, and go back to sexy girls who are too young to have accomplished anything” (qtd. in Friedman 2015). If the calendar’s original “swinging London” vision could be said to have boldly spoken to (perceptions of) women’s new-found freedom and empowerment in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, does this new turn to older women in the 2010s stand for another landmark, transitional moment, then; one in which finally it appears, “the disenfranchisement and invisibility endured by older women in the fashion, beauty and celebrity industries—which are central to upholding wider social hierarchies about which women matter—have been dented” (Jermyn 2016‚ 576–77)?
Thus it was in 2017 that the latest Pirelli calendar, entitled “Emotional” and devoted almost entirely to women actors, found itself once more the subject of extensive contemplation in the media as, true to Leibovitz’s vision, it again featured a number of celebrated older women subjects. Given The Cal’s historical reputation, the very act of adopting older women as models was thus configured as “risqué” and audacious, quite in keeping with its pedigree, even while it broke with that pedigree by eschewing an entirely youthful cast. The 14 actors photographed (along with Russian professor Anastasia Ignatova), ranging in age from 28 to 71, included Helen Mirren (71), Julianne Moore (55), Robin Wright (50), Charlotte Rampling (70) and Uma Thurman (46), as well as younger stars such as Lupita Nyong’o (33), Alicia Vikander (28) and Zhang Ziyi (37). Shot by Peter Lindbergh on his third commission for The Cal, the photographer commented at the Paris launch that his calendar was “‘a cry for beauty today against the terror of perfection and youth‚’ aiming to show ‘real women’ as they are naturally without heavy makeup or retouching” (Willsher 2016‚ our emphasis), again echoing a similar outlook to that adopted by Jürgen Teller’s Didion image in the Céline campaign. It was this refusal of airbrushing, most particularly by older women stars, that journalists continually returned to as central to the calendar’s perceived edginess, widely reproducing examples of these “candid” images of the older women for scrutiny rather than those of the younger subjects. At Vogue.com, for example, it was this feature of The Cal that prompted the headline of an article entitled, “The 2017 Pirelli Calendar Featuring Nicole Kidman, Ziyi Zhang, Kate Winslet, and Moore Was Not Retouched at All,” with Kidman’s portrait reproduced beneath (Yotka 2016).
Indeed, it is photos of these older stars which are also most conspicuously adopted by Pirelli on their own website to promote the 2017 calendar, where shots of Thurman, Wright, Kidman and Moore feature on the slideshow at the top of the “2017 Pirelli Calendar Unveiled” page (www.Pirelli.com) (though one might observe it is interesting they do not use the oldest stars, namely Mirren or Rampling). Moore is featured in a black body suit with spaghetti straps, sitting on a stool, one leg raised up to her chest, her loose hair moving freely as if a wind machine is wafting over her, in a pose which still might readily be considered “sexy,” though strikingly her facial expression is dour and she appears make-up free; a tight close-up on Thurman’s face reveals the “crow’s feet” one might realistically expect of a woman in her mid-40s; Wright sits atop a table in loose shorts and vest, face turned from the camera, again like Moore revealing a body that is still athletic (and thus different to, though covetable in another manner from, Didion’s much older “ hanger-body” type), but the looser flesh around the face and neck common to women of her age is palpable. Finally, Kidman’s botox usage has been the subject of endless media speculation and surveillance, earning her the grotesque and belittling moniker “Granny Freeze” from “celebrity blogger” Perez Hilton (cf. Fairclough 2012). But in her Pirelli portrait, the fine lines running atop her forehead are plain to see. If Pirelli aspires to be understood as a brand which somehow leads, rather than only reflects, on how shifts in the representation of women matter to the cultural agenda of any given moment, its attention to older women can be considered key to how it wishes to construct its “trend-setting” public image at this time. Thus if, as noted above, cool signifies a position of being “in the know” (Nancarrow et al. 2002, 313)‚ the 2017 Pirelli calendar seems to declare to the fashionable types who admire it that right now, “old” is where it’s at.
Ways of Seeing: Older Women and Visibility
However, for some commentators, Pirelli have come late to the party in adopting older women as their new model subjects in 2017. Writing at The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert observed that the brand was “jumping on a bandwagon rather than taking a brave stand” (2016). Not only was The Cal’s (seemingly) novel switch to older women a marketing-savvy shift adopted for the commercial benefits the subsequent publicity would bring, it was merely emulating a growing cultural resistance to unattainable youthful perfection that has been gaining momentum for some time. In Gilbert’s words, this was “fashion catching up,” with Pirelli “hoping a movement that’s long been felt on social media and among women themselves can turn into good branding, even for a company that’s historically benefitted from the promotion of impossible beauty ideals” (2016).
Many scholars have discussed the female body’s ageing characteristics, how the thin, toned, shapely body denotes youthfulness in contrast to the typically ageing female body, which as noted has very often gained weight around the waist and on the stomach, for example (cf. Twigg 2013; Clarke 2011, 21–23). To that extent the ordinary “elderly” body more readily witnessed and still disdained in the everyday, despite evidence of a burgeoning opposition to such discourses, is not fashionable. Moreover, Twigg has outlined in detail how contemporary culture persistently advocates certain dress norms appropriate for the ageing female and how many older women accord with this idea: the avoidance of dramatic styles or colours and the use of “quieter, more sober and self-effacing forms” (2013, 27). Nevertheless, Twigg also emphasises that the clothes made to fit the typical elderly body are as much an expression of a certain idea of what an older woman should look like as an adjustment to a certain bodily shape. A norm of appropriateness (cf. Russo 1999; Wearing 2007; Railton and Watson 2012; Twigg 2013), that is, a culturally pervasive norm of acting and looking one’s age as an older person‚ is deeply embedded in the cultural construction of the identity of the older woman: dressing appropriately as an older woman is understood as dressing to not be seen; the style of an older woman is a non-style. However, given the trend in using older women as models, the question is, as also claimed by Wearing (2007): if invisibility has given way to visibility when it comes to representations of older women, in some recent cultural sites at least, what kind of visibility is afforded?
One potentially “daring” form of visibility, as discussed above, in taking the 2017 Pirelli calendar and the 2015 Céline ad as examples, is to construct the older woman as cool—self-confidently inhabiting an edgy pose and exuding an attitude of detachment. Images of ageing celebrities and former models inevitably invoke layers of references to their younger selves. However, the fashion and celebrity context—modelling a cool attitude and displaying the older female body as hanger-body —may function to release the older woman’s ageing appearance from the sentimentality and air of time-gone-by that can be associated with staged photographs of older women (cf. Richards et al. 2012). A contemporary version of an edgy sensibility, we suggest that cool constitutes an aesthetic space for the representation of the older woman, in which ageing is neither concealed nor accentuated, in which the older female body may even be photographed in different states of undress and, even more importantly, in which questions of age appropriateness, youthfulness, agelessness and dressing one’s age do not make sense.
A fashionable, edgy attitude, cool is about appearance and appearing. Because a cool style is best described by what it is not—cool is essentially anti-mainstream—it may allow the older woman a range of expressions and styles devoid of age normativity but aspiring for her to be seen as what she is—an older woman, stylish and cool. As such the photos on Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog, which show older stylish women as more flamboyantly dressed (cf. Jermyn 2016) than the black “uniform” displayed by Didion’s essentially cool edginess, exemplify another kind of cool attitude. Cohen started the blog in 2008 with the intention to capture older women (and some men) who “live full creative lives” and “show that you can be stylish at any age.”5 The women are posing self-confidently, the majority in the manner of “street-style” fashion. The blog context provides the photographs with cool fashionability, but the women are not exuding the air of detachment most often found in fashionable cool, often‚ in fact‚ smiling warmly at the photographer. However, they do display a stylish sense of individualism and anti-mainstream (hence, “Advanced”) and radiate a vivid self-reliance of standing out to be looked at in their old age. Cohen’s women often style themselves in complete neglect of “appropriateness,” and yet they are held up as both elegant and stylish; moreover, the photographs’ cool appearance is sustained by the women seemingly displaying their bodies and outfits with pleasure and pride and thus claiming, through the photographs, their place as ageing women in the world of fashion and style.
What can be garnered finally, then, from our discussion here about the cultural shift regarding the visibility of the older woman, and the increasingly prevalent tendency to cast older women in fashion ads and photography? On the one hand, the older female model ideal in fashion is overwhelmingly white and slim, just like in fashion photography in general; accordingly, Jermyn (2016) has noted that it is hard to ignore even in Cohen’s delightful work a certain race and class bias. Moreover as with the fashion context in general, images of older women favour a certain bodily shape—the thin body. Finally it is important to note here too, as a counter-position to “celebratory” readings of this new visibility, that some feminist critics throughout the years (most famously Germaine Greer 1991) have argued that the invisibility of old age constitutes a delicious kind of freedom for women from the gendered pressure of continuously being forced to think about one’s looks. To that extent, one could posit that the cool unsentimental stylishness attached to older women fits in well with a postfeminist sensibility, focusing on the controlled body, on individualism, choice and thus, never endingly, on “surveillance, monitoring and discipline” (Gill 2007, 149; cf. also Jermyn 2016).
At the same time, we have suggested here that a cool appearance could be regarded as providing an aesthetic space for older women in which norms about appearance as an older woman are dissolved; in which the ageing body is constituted as a fact which should not be hidden from sight but can be adorned in a plurality of different styles; and in which a new kind of ageing edginess may be performed and developed. The many ambiguities connected with the new visibility of older women in the media and the concomitant upturn of images of fashionable older women underlines the neglect within media studies, including feminist media studies, of critical approaches to representations of older women; work which becomes ever more urgent as the fact of the ageing population makes the older woman subject, in this sense at least, more present than ever before.
Broadly, this refers to an older demographic than those most popularly targeted by advertisers and marketing—‘older’ remaining a subjective and contested term here, which is, however, widely taken to indicate the 60+ market.
Gitte Lee was also modelling in 2013 for & Other Stories’ launch catalogue and later the same year for an Italian Vogue editorial. Gitte Lee is on the cover of Cohen’s Advanced Style (2012).
For an analysis of the Didion ad with a focus on the face, beauty and time, see Jerslev (2017).
The cool factor attached to the Julian Wasser photos is furthermore alluded to in a 2015 Céline campaign, in which model Daria Werbowy, shot by photographer and filmmaker Tyrone Lebon, mimics the photo of the young Didion in her Corvette.
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