The appearance of so-called older models on catwalks and in fashion editorials this year isn’t really a “trend”, any more than people having birthdays is a trend. Supermodels are simply getting older, just like their fans.
Still, this is one of those recurring themes that excites the mainstream media, which loves stories about familiar faces that look good past their prime, and treat the subject (“Still Hot At 45!!“) with a creepy mix of leering approval and condescension.
The real news here isn’t that some women (models or not) age well, it’s that the industry is still willing to employ them. Generally speaking, the fashion world is cruelly dismissive of female models over 30. Hard to imagine, but Miranda Kerr‘s advancing age (30) was reported to be one of the factors in her recent split with Victoria’s Secret, where the average retirement age for models is slightly above 28.
Elsewhere in the lingerie industry, however, some brands are looking at older — let’s just call them “plus-age”, as in 30+, 40+, 50+ — models to give them a strategic marketing advantage. And this is more than just a ploy to grab headlines. Using older models can have a powerful impact on consumers, suggesting that desirability doesn’t have to fade as the body ages.
Want proof? Here’s original Cover Girl and SI swimsuit model Christie Brinkley posing for Social Life magazine this summer. Christie, it should be noted, turns 60 in February.
Using older models to pitch sexy underthings is still new territory, though, and filled with potential landmines. Middle-aged women have their own body-image concerns and are highly sensitive to having their looks pegged to their age, as in the familiar double-edged comment “you look great … for your age“, which is usually meant as a compliment but sounds like a death sentence. Remember when Madonna (“Still Hot At 55!!“) was talked about for reasons unrelated to her age?
Lingerie brands that employ older models are more likely to tone down the eroticism that is common in lingerie advertising targeted at younger consumers, skip the puns and double entendres, and make liberal use of shadows, discreet poses and fabrics that conceal more than they reveal. The objective isn’t to delude consumers into thinking they can all be slinky little minxes again; it’s to illustrate that sex appeal may change as we get older, but it doesn’t disappear.
One of the landmark moments in the use of older lingerie models came last fall when 60-year-old Marie Helvin (below) walked the runway for Agent Provocateur at the glitzy Lingerie London charity fashion show presented by the Seven Bar Foundation.
It’s hard to overstate the liberating power of that moment, or the triumphal self-confidence exuded by Marie. Can anyone, in fact, remember the names of any of the dozens of other models on the catwalk that night? Marie, who was a Vogue cover girl 35 years ago, was radiant in a see-through ankle-length robe and underwear ensemble from AP’s highly erotic collection, and it was easy to conclude that the UK brand was throwing down the gauntlet on the issue of age discrimination — on the runway and in the bedroom.
In some ways, it might seem paradoxical to employ older models in lingerie marketing, which is dominated by images of skinny young bombshells. But it’s consistent with the basic aspirational paradigm of all fashion, which says to shoppers “buy my clothes and you can look this good“. Fashion marketing appeals to a basic human vanity that is as old as time itself, and that doesn’t diminish much as we get older.
And there’s another, more basic, reason why smart lingerie brands are turning to older spokesmodels: their clients are getting older, too. Shoppers who embraced the revolution in sexy underthings over the past 25 years are in their 40s and 50s today, and they aren’t motivated to buy a new teddy just because it looks good on Karlie Kloss. Put the same outfit on Penelope Cruz or Cindy Crawford, though, and suddenly your audience starts paying attention and imagining the possibilities.
Plus-age marketing, like plus-size marketing, trips all kinds of psychological triggers and it can open a Pandora’s box of biases and preconceptions about the subject, too. Like so many other demographic sub-groups, older women face a variety of demeaning and derogatory stereotypes. Using strong, confident, attractive older models in lingerie advertising is one way to turn those biases upside-down.
More can be done, though. In recent years we’ve seen numerous brands use non-professional models in “real women” lingerie ad campaigns that promote diversity and acceptance of “normal” body shapes and sizes. That’s very welcome, but wouldn’t it be revolutionary to see something similar promoting women from all age groups, too? Somebody tell Ari Seth Cohen.
Of course, wearing sexy underthings is about a lot more than just how you look. One American bra maker, Le Mystère, had that in mind when it recently underwent a corporate rebranding after it took on new owners. The company announced a new “manifesto”, saying it is now devoted to serving “women of substance“. That sounds a bit like code for “older” and “richer”, but it’s more than that.
“Le Mystère believes that a ‘Woman of Substance’ is subtly provocative and expects to feel both sexy and supported in her bra,” the company said in a press release. “She is a boss, she is your mother, she is your friend, she is confident and she knows what she wants and how she feels. She is beauty and brains all in one.”
Imagine that: a lingerie brand that doesn’t just pander to a woman’s vanity, but acknowledges the strength of character that only comes with age.
NEXT: How 10 different brands are using plus-age lingerie models today.