How growing old just disgracefully enough became our 2021 goal

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Lisa Armstrong
·8 min read
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catherine o'hara tilda swinton jennifer lopez kate moss - Getty Images / Rex Features
catherine o'hara tilda swinton jennifer lopez kate moss - Getty Images / Rex Features

Davina McCall has advice for any woman who’s ever wondered whether she’s too old to wear anything: No. You’re not.

McCall doesn’t generally set herself up as a fashion expert, but she’s a hugely popular, relatable figure who has stayed relevant in the Darwinian, ageist (particularly towards women) world of TV for three decades. Her latest show is ITV’s The Masked Singer, which attracts more than six million viewers weekly and millions more on social media. For almost 20 years she has also orchestrated a lucrative side hustle as the goofball star of motivational workout videos that don’t take themselves too seriously (she started out as a dancer and singer). So when she speaks out on women’s issues, women tend to listen.

Especially given how polite she is, even to the troll who popped out of her burrow to admonish her on Twitter for the strappy, ankle length slip dress by Retrofête which McCall wore at the weekend. “Old, over sun kissed woman should cover up… stunning dress but not for the wrinkly crinkly … demure for the mature,” opined Sue Bazley, who at least had the courage to give her full name.

McCall, 53 (apologies, but I’ll be disclosing a lot of ages throughout, given the topic) replied: “Really sorry. Absolutely no chance of demure over here Sue… growing old disgracefully is far more fun.”

This really is a women’s issue. While men get teased for midlife crises, the abuse meted out to women who are deemed to have stepped out of their age bracket (make that straitjacket) is far more vicious, although in McCall’s case, there were many more defending her. That’s probably an indication of her popularity rather than of a major shift in public sentiment – women who are oblivious of their place in the evolutionary pecking order (lower and lower as they get older according to the age police) are still viewed as threatening in some quarters. And just wait until a more controversial figure, such as the Duchess of Sussex is deemed to have worn something age “inappropriate”.

This is a fast-moving evolutionary story though, and one that doesn’t move forward on a linear path. Ten years ago I was asked by an editor to write a feature criticising women in their late 40s who had the temerity to wear leggings. Thank God that’s probably not going to happen again. Five years ago, Madonna was excoriated for having “old” hands. And until very recently, articles about what to wear at a certain age were a mainstay of big selling fashion bibles such as Harper’s Bazaar.

lucinda chambers farida khelfa vivienne westwood - Getty Images / Rex Features
lucinda chambers farida khelfa vivienne westwood - Getty Images / Rex Features

Then, suddenly, two years ago, it all seemed to change. In April 2019, Alexandra Shulman chastised Helena Christensen, then 50, for wearing a lace corset to a fancy dress party, on the grounds that the one-time supermodel was no longer as firm of flesh nor as fertile as she was in her 30s and, to summarise, should therefore give it a rest. The former editor of Vogue was deluged with abuse. You might think that was proof we’d moved on from the centuries-old, censorious mutton-dressed-as-lamb doctrines, but much of the ordure heaped on Shulman focused on her age (then 60) and appearance. So not much progress really.

What most professional commentators (not Sue Bazley though) learned from Helena-gate was that you wade into the age debate at your peril. When Christensen, possibly tongue in cheek, posted pictures of herself recently in peekaboo knickers and a plunge-fronted swimsuit and neon stilettos, there was nary a peep of dissent from anyone. You Go Gurrrrl, is the general gist of the average response.

That has to be a good thing – just as it’s progress to see women of all sizes modelling clothes. True, you can argue that putting a plus-sized model on the cover of British Cosmo’s February 2021 issue glosses over the health risks of obesity. But shoving women who don’t fit neatly into the fashion industry’s hopelessly outdated notions about modern female contours to the outer margins of fashion also poses a (mental) health risk, and not just to them, but to the millions of young (and older, because eating disorders really aren’t age exclusive) women who see those covers.

And yet, those whose formative years were forged in eras that had clearer rules might sometimes find bits of our carefully re-educated brains reverting to old, hard-wired ways of thinking when we see pictures of women in skimpy outfits. The further they are from the spirit of the model who wore it on the catwalk, the greater the double take.

McCall’s right though. Growing old disgracefully sounds much more fun than the graceful version. And I say that as someone whose favourite coffee table book, aged 10, was a tome entitled – I kid you not – Growing up Gracefully.

I loved that book. It was given to me in the Seventies (1970s, that is, not the 1870s) by my otherwise socially progressive stepfather and it was filled with images of women who looked like Audrey Hepburn doing exciting jobs like filing their bosses’ expenses. As a template for what my future life would be like it was almost worse than useless. It did feature some lovely, demure black dresses. But its author would have been aghast at the outfits of any of the women featured here.

michelle obama - Getty Images
michelle obama - Getty Images

By the way, some men go skimpy too, but it’s mostly women who come in for the flak, because we have so many more sartorial tripwires to navigate and so many more options for revealing skin. When Liz Hurley, 55, released her latest batch of cleavage ‘n’ fur pictures earlier this week, an otherwise impeccably woke friend of mine, a similar age to Hurley, shuddered. And no, it’s not because she enjoys finding herself on the same side of the argument as Piers Morgan, or because she’s jealous (she is gorgeous and, for the dubious record, as curvy as Hurley). She just doesn’t like what she calls “the barmaid look”. If I’m being honest, there’s a bit of me that knows what she means, and a bit that feels disappointed that I do.

Because ideally, by now, we’re all meant to be size and age-blind. Additionally there’s a growing school of thought that dressing for your shape is outmoded. To paraphrase the immortal Carol Vorderman, you should wear what you b----- well like. Being able to do just that without fear of abuse of physical attack is obviously the mark of a civilised society – and for all the outcries about laying off Helena/Davina etc, we’re a long way off that. Taboos are gradually shifting however, and if that means we’re currently in a state of general confusion, then so be it.

In the end, it should surely come down to personal taste and judgment. What I do know is that pushing the fashion boundaries whatever your age, is a good thing, because it’s fun, challenging and suggests an open mind.

I, along with 129,000 followers of her on Instagram, love that Mary Greenwell, one of the world’s most sought after make-up artists, dyed her hair pink in her 60s.

I’m inspired to see the strong, punchy colours that Farida Khelfa (60) and Tilda Swinton (60) wear and the intelligent fashion-boundary pushing of Cate Blanchett (51), and Isabelle Huppert (67) and the self-avowed Elvis inclinations of Michelle Obama (57) being fully indulged. No going gently into the boring night for them.

cate blanchett - Getty Images
cate blanchett - Getty Images

I adore the way that Schitt’s Creek’s Catherine O’Hara has, at the age of 66, established herself as Canada’s answer to Anna Dello Russo, the outré fashion influencer, who, at 58, is further proof that taking fashion risks shouldn’t be the preserve of the young.

Lucinda Chambers, 61 and the former fashion director of British Vogue is another woman who still makes inspiring, heady fashion choices (no bare flesh there). And who doesn’t rejoice in the simultaneous survival instincts and anarchic reflexes of Kate Moss who has become a style genre unto herself? As far as I’m concerned Moss can dress like a rock chick into her 90s.

You don’t have to like all these women’s tastes to applaud their spirit. Personally I’ll always aspire to the French approach to age (celebrate rather than ignore it – and find clothes that flatter your shape).

catherine Deneuve - Simone Comi/Venezia/IPA/Shutterstock
catherine Deneuve - Simone Comi/Venezia/IPA/Shutterstock

Many classic items – slim jackets, skinny trousers, an unbuttoned sexy blouse, bold gold jewellery, a trench coat, classic heeled pumps, over the knee boots, slim skirts, metallics – can be revved up and worn whatever decade you’re in.

anine bing stine goya H&M uterque
anine bing stine goya H&M uterque

Houndstooth blazer, £350, houndstooth skirt, £165, both Anine Bing; Sequin midi dress, £30, H&M; Court heels, £100, Uterque; Peplum top, £210, Stine Goya

You don’t have to be outrageous or bare flesh to be noticed. For me, there’s a world of difference between 62-year-old Madonna’s neediness and denial and 77-year-old Catherine Deneuve’s self-affirming pleasure – still – in the way she looks.

The important lesson for all of us is that while you can still have strong reactions to what another woman’s wearing, don’t make it about her age.