Old men and rags

Text: Patrícia Domingues

Prejudice against age is not just a number: it’s real. And it’s well preserved, in statistics, in people and also in fashion. Our fear of growing old is so great that we don’t even allow ourselves to do it in style. But why is that?

None of the people who are reading this article, not even the one who is writing it, are becoming younger. I know, it’s ground-breaking. We’re all getting older. Believe me, it happens to the best. No matter how many anti-wrinkle creams we rub in, if we refrain from saying our age, not least because that is not something you ask a lady, none of us are becoming younger — and yet it seems that the only effort we have made is to convince ourselves otherwise. From politics to the catwalks, older people are invisible to the eye, when, as we have known since we read The Little Prince, that is always the essential thing.

Prejudice about age seems like a thing of the last century, but it is very present in 2019. We use diminutives when referring to someone older. We assume they’re at retirement age. We think that we have less ability to make decisions as we get older. These ideas are so deep-rooted that it is likely that you have already spoken them more than once. “Oh, it’s just age stuff.” But no, it’s called.. ageism. Similar to concepts such as racism or sexism, ageism refers to attitudes and practices of discrimination (usually negative) based on one more characteristic that we cannot circumvent — age. We tend to look at older people as part of a homogenous and undifferentiated group, with disdain and a paternalistic attitude towards older people that ultimately results in abuse and ill-treatment. You’ve never heard of it before? Ask your grandfather. One in three Portuguese over the age of 80 say they’ve already been treated unfairly because of their age. The Portuguese Victim Support Association reports a 30% increase in complaints from this age group between 2013 and 2016. In addition to undermining people’s well-being — and being so out of fashion — this kind of prejudice can cause serious problems for older people (which is like saying, to everyone). Those who have a negative attitude towards ageing, for example, recover more slowly from health problems, live seven years shorter than those who have a positive view and have less chance of being socially integrated, says the World Health Organization. However, by 2015 there was still no official publication of the UN and WHO recognizing age discrimination in the world. We now see, for the first time, that these organisations have created a longterm campaign to combat the problem, which began this year and ends in 2030. The world seems to be finally tackling the elephant in the room — but what about the one in Fashion?

In March 2016, after a frustrating afternoon of shopping with her mother, 24-year-old Jacynth Bassett created The Bias-Cut.com.It is a website selling clothing and accessories for any age that has since been turned into a movement “where ageism is never in fashion”. As a law graduate, there was nothing that would predict Jacynth’s future lay in the fashion industry, but that particular event, and a number of similar complaints from her mother’s friends, made her see the opportunity not only to create a sustainable business but also to change mindsets. “The passion for fashion, or the simple fact that you want to look good, has nothing to do with the decade you were born in,” she said in a statement to The Guardian. Among the list of dislikes of her now satisfied customers was the in-store service, the lack of online representation and, to sum up the obvious, the fact that they felt left out. In the shops they found nothing that did not have boring written all over it, sets of sweatshirts and jackets, elasticated trousers and a whole series of pieces that suggested a dress code in which the body was conveniently covered with layers. Needless to say, her site is a success. We don’t even need to have wi-fi, just look at the statistics: a study by the London College of Fashion found that 97% of women aged between 40 and 89 want to see older models in advertising. It sounds like a basic lesson in economics: if older women are looking for clothes, where is the supply? I know what you’re thinking. In 2015, Irish Apfel, 93, led the campaign for Kate Spade. This was a great year: Joan Didion, 81, became the face of Céline and Joni Mitchell, around her 70s, the face of Saint Laurent. In 2017, Lauren Hutton was the body of Calvin Klein’s lingerie at 73, and there are plenty of examples, such as Joan Collins for beauty giant Charlotte Tilbury this year and, just a few months ago, Jane Fonda was on the cover of English Vogue. That’s great. But these aren’t exactly names unknown to the general public. And they weren’t when they were young. These are divas, banners, icons — a curious word that only seems to appear as time goes by. Besides, isn’t the fact that they’re making that list based on age, in itself, a little… dated? After the catwalks started to represent different kinds of bodies and skin tones, the older models still haven’t received an invitation to the ‘inclusivity’ party. In a November 2019 article, High Snobiety questioned whether Fashion actually had a problem with age. Aside from the sporadic returns of supermodels, agencies like Grey, or models like Maye Musk, who is 69, the exceptions are just that: “We’ve long been programmed to believe that youth and beauty are synonymous, but this fetishization has allowed us to explore younger models and has contributed to erasing older women — despite their purchasing power,” writes author Jake Hall. The question that prevents Fashion from dressing older people — in particular women — is far from being answered right now. But what about us? At a time when the age pyramid is inverted, where the world and national population is getting older and older, why do we keep taking baby steps to avoid the inevitable?

“For me the ‘problem’ with ageing is that we have the feeling that we are ‘get- ting lost’ because we have created an identity that is very much based on image and appearance (social media are increasingly promoting this social persona). It is as if our identity were a table that at the moment is mainly supported in one area: that of the image. Although we have other things that define us, the truth is that this area is one of the ones that carries the most weight and is one of the areas where we receive the most social feedback (which increases its importance). We continue to strengthen the ‘leg of the image’ on our table, and the challenge is that sooner or later this leg will lose its joviality, and then we are confronted with an unstable structure (because we have not fed the other legs of the table) that we have built,” explains Helena Morais Cardoso, therapist dedicated to personal development. But who said getting old was a bad thing? Ding, ding, ding: we did. Prejudices are socially created beliefs, a kind of “generalized truths that a certain culture creates on a certain theme and that when we grow with them we inevitably appropriate them, and then they also become ours”. If old age is represented in a negative way, or not at all, we grow to assume that it is something we do not want to be part of — the strange thing here is that we have created this stigma with a process that, if all goes well, we will all go through. Is our old fear of death speaking louder? The psychologist believes “that there is widespread resistance to dealing with it, in my opinion, because we have created a society that is too attached to its aesthetics”. Suddenly, we look in the mirror and we’re not like we used to be. Each wrinkle takes another breath of life from us, a little more of ourselves, or of the image we have stuck to who we are. The solution may be deeper and will take longer, and involves deconstructing this culture of image and fostering a more structured creation of identity (and self-esteem), supported on various areas that compose us, creating more robust self-concepts and which are not so vulnerable to external changes. Self-esteem is a word that, contrary to ageing, is very ‘fashionable’, but what good is it to spend afternoons with fabric masks glued to our faces if we continue to perpetuate dogmas about ourselves that are more resistant (and corrosive) than any face treatment? Self-esteem, as Helena explains about her area of expertise, is an inner mental concept (as its name suggests) but one that we build socially: “What is around us influences our self-esteem, because it is social information that gives us the parameters with which we compare ourselves and indicates whether or not we are adequate,” she says, “This influence of our environment on our self-esteem can happen in its formation, through such models of comparison (which are like the goals by which we guide ourselves through life) or may occur later during our entire life, as the information I receive from the outside confirms or refutes my beliefs about myself. For example, if I build self-esteem that fosters a feeling that I am not enough (because I am not as thin as I should be) then all the stimuli that I receive and that confirm that information (thin models in the media, people in bikinis on the beach, etc.) will reinforce that image that I have of myself, I will feel even more insufficient and inadequate.” Can you imagine now how older people feel?

In the book O Envelhecimento da Sociedade Portuguesa (The Ageing of Portuguese Society), Maria João Valente Rosa argues that the real problem is not in the ageing of the population, but in the ageing of society, that is, in what societies have not changed since they began to age. It is necessary to drastically change the way we think about the role of older people — and that includes how we talk about them or dress them (FYI: The following are some of the meanings available in the dictionary for the word “old”: ‘advanced in age, obsolete, ancient, very used, antiquated’.) If we are all getting older and think that old people have no value, what does that say about the future? What about us? “There’s still a long way to go,” says Helena. “Maybe more than changing the ‘anti-age terms’ [as the magazine Allure did in October 2018] it is important to normalise ageing. In my opinion, the way forward will be more through the acceptance of natural ageing, and this can be done by introducing more content/persons/models that approach their ageing naturally and that show how it feels to age naturally.” Representativeness. Campaigns like New Balance’s latest. Fashion shows such as the spring/summer 2020 ones of Balenciaga. Covers like those of September’s Vogue Brasil, with 69-year-old Sonia Braga on the cover. Models aged 40, 50, 60, 70, and so on, in lookbookswebsites, editorials, campaigns, tutorials, Instagram pages. Within distance of our eyes. Present. “It is precisely in ‘contradicting’ some beliefs that it is very important to bring representativeness (I like to call it humanization) because the more examples of diversity I receive from the outside, the less I feel inadequate because I am different (from the mental model I have created) and the more I feel I can be accepted,” argues Helena. “The more different standards I receive from the outside the more I take strength from the inner belief that ‘I should be so,’ the more I open space for a new belief that it is possible to be socially accepted even though I am ‘different from the standard’ (which I created) and I subject myself less to comparison (the great source of lack of affection for ourselves) which facilitates self-acceptance. The fact that I socially observe other forms of existence, similar to my own, fosters my self-acceptance and makes me distance myself from the inner model I have created, which generates inner space so that I can be free to live my skin.”

“I’ve never prepared myself to grow old. I only realised this relatively recently,” writes Nazaré Pinela, via Instagram, followed by many exclamation marks, as will happen in most of the conversation. As I imagine it happened in almost all her life, from the period in London (!), the return to Lisbon (!!), the dedication to the world of music (!!!) and the incredible tattoo shop that she created, Bang Bang(!!!!). As also happened when she suffered physical and psychological aggressions for the simple fact of being different from the norm, for being herself, without excuses. For deciding not to change for anything or anyone. For being free. In between, there are still many exclamation marks to be made for a life lived in its entirety. Like the name she inherited from her grandmother, but that’s all. She says she was always the opposite of her family. My great influence comes from the cinema, photos and, of course, from rock’n’roll!!” All of her is a cinematic image: the hair that was once of all colours, the body covered with tattoos, the style that is only hers in the same measure that is a piece of history. Yes, Nazaré is a woman who makes heads turn, because she’s everything the prejudices least imagine when we think of someone born in the 1960s. Why did we put style on shelves, too? Why do we have this habit of cutting off the fun when it’s only halfway through, imposing rules and hem heights that do not favour anyone but stereotypes? There are no right or wrong ways to grow old. Do you want to celebrate your grey hair? Go ahead. Do you want to use botox? Wonderful. Feeling good about yourself doesn’t have an expiry date. That’s how Nazaré answers when I ask her what her clothes say “if I convey any message, it will always be that of freedom.” Exclamation mark.

Photos: Nobrand’s campaign

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