(A Fine Line)

Fashion Is Embracing The Beauty Of Getting Older

But is it just a fad?

Courtesy of Balmain
older model on fall 2024 balmain runway

Picture a runway model in your mind. What does she look like? Chances are she’s tall, slim, and most likely young. Graying hair, fine lines, and sagging skin are certainly not in the mix. It makes sense, though — in 2019, the median age of the standard catwalker was 23. This past fashion month, however, skewed that statistic with a slew of shows that casted noticeably older models. It began in New York, with Batsheva opting solely for ladies in their 40s and above while Helmut Lang, Collina Strada, and FFORME had a mix. But the real proof came when the European brands showcased wide age ranges. From 70-year-old Dr. Qin Huilan’s debut at Miu Miu and 62-year-old Marcia Cross at Vetements to 53-year-old Bethany Nagy at Saint Laurent and Balmain, it appeared as if finally fashion is acknowledging that getting older can be aspirational and luxurious. Or was that truly the case?

The modeling industry has always been on a hunt to find the next big “thing,” most often one in their early teen years. Kate Moss, Karlie Kloss, and Gemma Ward were discovered at the age of 14, and led successful careers. But there comes an unspoken, dark side to scouting girls underage, who are often thrust into situations beyond their years. Sara Ziff, who founded the Model Alliance as a result of her own experience in the industry, lobbied for better protection for underage models. Kering and LVMH also pledged to only use women over the age of 18 in their shows as of 2020. But despite all of these efforts, the overwhelming message has always remained the same: youth is aspirational; being old, not so much.

So if that’s been true historically, why were the fall 2024 runways so different? Why was it suddenly acceptable and even desirable to feature nontraditional models? “That's always the $64 question because it's not that this is unique. Designers have of course included older models and it’s been going on quite a bit over the past few seasons,” says Valerie Steele, Ph.D., director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Case in point: Simone Rocha’s fall 2017 show, which included Benedetta Barzini and Jan de Villeneuve, both of whom were 73 and 70, respectively, at the time, while more recently Demna casted his mother and Cathy Horyn in Balenciaga’s spring 2024 show.

Cathy Horyn / Balenciaga Spring 2024 Courtesy of Balenciaga
Dr. Qin Huilan / Miu Miu Fall 2024Photo by Victor Boyko/Getty Images
Balmain Fall 2024Courtesy of Balmain

And for some brands, it’s been a part of their ethos all along. “As a designer it’s so important to show that an idea and a concept can work for a variety of customers and that a range of people can identify with the models who walk our runways,” says Hillary Taymour, the designer behind Collina Strada. Since her first show in 2018, the label has made it a point to celebrate women of all ages, body types, and abilities. Longtime muses include disability advocate and model Aaron Rose Philip and Kathleen McCain Engman, the mother of creative director Charlie Engman, while her most recent show included visibly pregnant models, including some with their children.

In the case of Balmain, the rationale for an older cast was due to personal reasons for creative director Olivier Rousteing. “The collection had been inspired by his mother as well as the women in his life, so our directive was to find a cast that reflected that,” says Calvin Wilson, casting director at Establishment, who worked on the show. The ask wasn’t unique, but the experience felt markedly different for Wilson and his team. “We’ve always used older models for other shows but this time there was a sense of excitement, it was a different approach and the energy was quite nice.” That joy was also reflected backstage as Wilson notes that the veteran women were quick to embrace, chat, and cheer on the group, adding levity to what is traditionally a high-pressure environment.

Batsheva Fall 2024Courtesy of Batsheva
FFORME Fall 2024 Photo by Monica Feudi

That joy wasn’t limited to Balmain. Models who walked in Batsheva’s recent presentation were also quick to praise the show, with Aya Kanai reflecting on how it was “the best experience ever.” In the case of FFORME, Bonnie Morrison told Vogue, “I felt very well taken care of for the whole process — everyone was so nice, especially Paul [Helbers, Fforme’s creative director] — they were all so professional and the assistants were so fun.”

For Wilson, this joy is precisely why casting older models is an uplifting experience. “Sometimes the older people get the less regard they're given and they fall silent in a lot of ways. That's across the board, not just in fashion but in the world. To see these smiles and remind these women that they are special and important, you remind people of that as well, right?” And he has a point — the response to these shows was overwhelmingly positive as media outlets and social media lit up with mentions of the models. It was nice to finally see women who have had rich lives being celebrated and prized in the most elitist of spaces.

This all sounds great, right? Not so fast, says Lyn Slater, founder of Accidental Icon and author of How to Be Old. “It’s a very idealized version of aging that a very small percentage of people actually have the privilege to experience being old that way. These women still represent very classic standards of youth and beauty.” She would know. Like her website’s name implies, Slater accidentally became an influencer in 2017 at the age of 63. With her sharp-cut gray bob and unique style, she offered a similar aha moment for fashion brands that casting a traditionally attractive older woman might be a smart business move. Partnership offers flew in from the likes of Valentino, Mango, and more, but it was hollow and unfulfilling. In 2019, Slater realized that she needed to go back to creating content for the sake of providing a space to talk about aging.

This wave of casting age 40-plus models in runway shows rings empty to Slater. “We should be cautious in pushing this version of the ideal older woman who is holding up these values of youth and beauty because it puts a burden on younger people. I talk to a lot of young women and they're tired of having to invest so much in their appearance and being afraid of [looking] old,” she says.

Steele also agrees that this strategy can appear disingenuous, reflective of prior inclusive casting trends that have come and gone. “[Brands] realized they were getting good responses from showing older models, and so they decided they were going to make a special thing out of it. We've seen that happen in the past with Black models, plus-sized models, etc.,” she says. Plus, she notes that the majority of the women we’re seeing were models in their younger years, reinforcing the same beauty standards. “If you have someone who's a gorgeous model when she's 20, she's probably going to be a gorgeous model when she's 50 or 60. That makes it easier for a designer to say that they make the clothes look good and in turn older clients feel good because they can identify with the glamorous model.”

And that’s probably the most compelling explanation for why we’re seeing a sudden uptick in these women. Designer clothing has become exceedingly expensive and few 20-somethings can spare $10,000 for a Chanel bag, much less the coat and dress to match. “You do want casting to be authentic, but to that point, women of that age can afford the handbag and they wear the fashion,” says Wilson. It’s a smart marketing move, especially as the luxury sector is seeing a slowdown in demand. Will it translate into recession-proofing these companies? Steele says not likely, but it does make for an effective strategy to encourage people to shop more.

If this trend is merely a marketing tactic destined to fizzle out in the next few seasons, what would change look like? For Slater, this sudden attention to older adults is a chance to shift the narrative. “We should be showing real everyday women who are aging and are still doing amazing things. Right now we have these two extremes. On one hand you have people thinking, oh this is terrible. You're going to not look beautiful anymore. You're going to be disabled, have dementia, and be dependent. On the other hand, you have highly privileged women in fashion shows who are ageless. But the majority of women are actually in the middle of those two extremes.”

And despite the cynicism that customers might feel toward this type of casting, Taymour is optimistic that this is indicative that the industry is moving in the right direction, albeit in baby steps. “The revival of the ‘90s supermodels who pop up every other year is a sign that attitudes are changing. It’s cool to be a mature woman who knows what she wants and how to dress. And for brands, showing that you can dress your mom and your daughter is such a flex.” Like aging, only time will tell what the future holds.