On October 1st I attended at Oxo Bargehouse, London, the last day of 'Age Does Not Matter', a festival organized over a period of four days, from 28th September, by The Age of No Retirement, a community interest company founded in 2013 by George Lee and Jonathan Collie.
With talks, interactive installations and art photography, the festival brought together some four hundred people from all walks of life, interested in making a real change in the way we are all conditioned, by society, to think of age.
Day four, open to the general public, was dedicated to Fashion and Age and it was packed with discussions, with three 'Conversation Labs' running in quick succession, all led by Caryn Franklin MBE, Professor of Diversity at Kingston University and fashion commentator, exploring fashion and age from many angles.
The day began with the preview of a short fashion film, made by Franklin, starring two models from Grey Model Agency, Antony Fitzgerald, 52, and Anna von Ruden, 74, who used to be a famous model in the 1960s and has now returned to modelling. The film was daring, beautifully shot, showing the two models in ways that are a far cry from the blandness with which many 'classic' models are presented, wearing flamboyant clothes and bold make up.
Then the discussions began. I was invited, in view of my experience as a model, as also my involvement in writing, to be a participant in the first lab, which was concerned with the issue of 'Visibility' and attempted to find answers to the question 'What mentoring do older men and women receive from mass-media to feel good about themselves?' The other participants were David Evans, founder of Greyfox, a blog dedicated to older men and fashion, and Claudette Prosper, fashion editor and stylist.
The second lab was with Rebecca Valentine, owner of the very innovative Grey Model Agency, Ed Watson, Global Communication director of N. Brown, Marie Cesbron, Innovation director, Walgreens Boots Alliance and Melodie Holliday, editor and education developer for Shades of Noir as well as singer in the punk band Art Trip and The Static Sound. They discussed the issue of 'Viability'. The question put to the panel was 'Money talks but are retailers listening? Older customers spend more on fashion and yet brands are still under active and under researched'.
The third and final lab was concerned with 'Variety, not stereotype'. In this final conversation Dr Carolyn Mair, psychologist and course director of Fashion and Psychology at University of the Arts London, Jason Jules, brand consultant and model, and Alyson Walsh, founder of the blog That's Not My Age tackled the question 'Mass-media and the next generation of creative expression. Can psychology, innovation and disruption lead change?'
These questions are not new and this is definitely not the first time they have been raised. But they continue to be very relevant and necessary. We have seen some changes over the last decade but it is not enough, the treatment of older people in fashion is at best tokenistic, at worst discriminatory.
Speaking as a model and in relation to the question put to the panel I was part of, concerning visibility and media mentorship, I can say that it is very much a case of one step forward two steps back. The very presence of an older model, as something to be remarked upon, in a commercial that is not to do with medication for the elderly - or in a fashion feature that is not aimed at prescribing what should be worn and at what age - is indicative of the general obsession with youth and the cloak of invisibility older people are expected to wear.
I have lost count of how many times I have been invited to comment on older women wearing bikinis, the question always being at what age they should stop. As a model, I am rarely hired to shoot lingerie or swimwear, I have only done it a couple of times, which I find rather bizarre. As a woman I do wear lingerie and when I go to the beach I do like wearing a bikini, so why should I not model them, given that modeling is my job? I am not young but there is nothing wrong with my body and have nothing to hide.
There is also, within the fashion industry, but also generally, within society, the unspoken rule of not ever allowing your body to look your real age. If you can't look young, you must do your best not to look old. As if age was a disease!
We need to change our attitudes to ageing and it has to start from when we are young, trying to understand that life is a continuum and that growing older is actually a blessing. Why focus on the differences between older and younger generation? Research has shown that there are in fact many commonalities between the generations and these should be highlighted, rather than holding on to divisive preconceptions.
And even if it feels that discussing stereotypes about age is somewhat passé - not again, a friend commented, rolling her eyes, when I told her about the event, as I wanted her to come along - believe me it is not. Ageism does exist and needs to be called out,constantly. It will take a lot more effort to eradicate it and yes, we should welcome initiatives such as 'Age Does Not Matter', even if we might feel they are no longer novel. That's precisely the point. It is not to do with novelty, fighting ageism is not a bandwagon to jump on and deal with through tokenism. It is a very serious task incumbent on all of us, in every walk of life, because it is to do with us all. We all age and we all aspire to a better quality of life.