Is the fashion industry ageist?

— by Alyson Walsh

Mouchette Bell for Whistles

When broadcaster Libby Purves accused the BBC of ‘lookism’ towards older women (even on the radio) and claimed that while the organisation tolerated older male broadcasters, ‘ the middle-aged female must struggle to look youthful,’ my heart sank. The pressure women face to defy ageing is a subject I’ve spoken about many times in the past. While our male contemporaries are viewed as distinguished and wise, women are subject to the double whammy of ageism and sexism. With one or two exceptions, female broadcasters and more generally women on TV and in the movies, are allowed to grow old as long as they look a certain way. Tweaked to take the years off, old but not too old. And when we’re ‘grey and stout’ as Purves puts it, rather than being valued for our experience and wisdom, we’re simply replaced by a younger model.

In a recent report entitled Retiring Ageism, SunLife (a financial services company for the over-50s) claimed that ‘ageism is everywhere’ and stated that ‘78% of Brits over-50 said they haven’t seen an accurate representation of their age bracket from companies or celebrities in the past year.’ And ‘56% feel most misrepresented by the fashion industry.’ Yikes.


Georgina Grenville for Mango

It’s no secret that fashion labels tend to prioritise youthful aspiration over a realistic depiction of what their customer actually looks like. Up until quite recently, older women were pretty much absent from advertising despite the 50-plus market being responsible for 51% of the UK’s total wealth and the largest growth area for fashion expenditure. Between 2011 and 2018, there was a £2.9 bn (21%) growth in spending on clothes and shoes by the over-50s; set to increase by £11bn from 2019- 2040 according to the International Longevity Centre. Say hello to the Power of the Silver Spend, the Grey and Stout Pound, or whatever you want to call it. Brands who are honest with themselves about who their target customer actually is, that use relevant and realistic models – and provide us with good quality basics – are going to reap the rewards.


Penelope Tree on the catwalk. Photo: Vogue


And yet, there have been incremental changes. When I first started That’s Not My Age, 12 years ago, I was always banging on about the lack of older models, my Grey-dar fine-tuned to pick up a glimpse of grey hair or a rare sighting of laughter lines. But whereas a decade ago, the older model was restricted to a life insurance gig or a Dove advert, there has been a shift in attitudes and an increase in visibility. Social media has played a huge part in making the style business a more democratic place. My Instagram feed features an array of wonderful over-50 influencers, displaying experience, character and wardrobes full of amazing outfits collected over the years. The sheer volume of older women doing their own thing online has forced the fashion industry to update its narrow beauty ideals. Today, most retail websites feature at least one older model; this year I’ve noticed: Mouchette Bell (63) for Whistles (top photo) and John Lewis & Partners, Caroline Issa (43) modelling for Next LabelMix and Boden, Georgina Grenville (45) for Mango and Ba&sh, and Jocelyne Beaudoin (61) for Everlane and Anthropologie, and check out the latest TV campaign from Hotter (yes, really). Over at Milan Fashion Week, iconic 1960s model Penelope Tree (70) was the star of the Fendi catwalk show (above).

Rebi Merilion and Fleur Brady, founders of the model agency Mrs Robinson, agree that businesses seem to have finally recognised the commercial value of using older models. Pointing to a growing number of bookings as proof, ‘Since we opened in 2013, we have noticed an upward trend,’ Fleur tells me. ‘Previously, retailers tended to use a token older model but they are now using more diverse and inclusive age ranges. Clients are listening to their customers who want to see aspirational and relatable models, and they have most definitely embraced diversity in the last year on not just age but also gender and ethnicity. The fashion industry is a fantastic platform for positive change and it is great to see it moving towards a more inclusive future.’


Parisian label CristaSeya


In 2017, I interviewed Mouchette Bell on her return to modelling. Three years later and in-demand, she is delighted by the increased visibility of older women. ‘It feels great to be part of creating positive images for all to see. I have found that having an older model in the mix gives images a more interesting narrative,’ Mouchette says, ‘Also, fashion is a business and the 50+ group has real spending power. It’s a winning combination.’ Beyond the economic benefits, the 62-year-old believes the success of older models is also part of a broader social change, ‘Negativity about race, age and gender is something we have to remove so that our society can get better,’ she continues. ‘With this Pandemic we have a huge responsibility and opportunity to send out positive real imagery or our lives will get very dense. Diversity is so important and we need to go further. It took me a while to love and accept my older self, but I’ve never stopped loving style and fashion and want to encourage everyone.’

Fashion should include everyone. Women of all ages, sizes, ethnicities, women with disabilities, non-binary women. The landscape has changed but diversity isn’t a fad or a hashtag. One older woman on a website (or a catwalk) is not enough.


Information on the Retiring Ageism report came via Forbes ‘Over-50s cry foul over society’s creeping ageism’ feature. There’s a great feature by Afua Hirsch on ‘lookism’ HERE and on ageism in Hollywood by Clair Woodward HERE.


Keep Reading

Enola Holmes and other good stuff to get you through Covid Winter

When broadcaster Libby Purves accused the BBC of ‘lookism’ towards older women (even on the radio) and claimed that while the organisation tolerated older male broadcasters, ‘ the mi…