This time last year diversity at Fashion Week was the talk of the town. Finally designers seemed to be embracing inclusivity, with more ethnicities, sizes, ages and sexualities than ever being celebrated on the catwalk. The Fashion Industry gave itself a big pat on the back and declared diversity was sorted.
So, if that’s the case, then surely there’s nothing new to report? Diversity is the norm and we can move on, right? Wrong.
Because, as many of us predicted, diversity – at least in the case of age – is swiftly proving to be a flash in the pan trend. As I discussed during last February’s Fashion Week, sustainability has become the hot topic – which is fantastic – but it has come at the expense of caring about inclusivity. For an industry that prides itself on being visionary, creative and disruptive, it seems incapable of focusing on more than one resolve at any one point in time.
Now initially you might be doubtful of this assessment – it feels like there are articles about older models almost on a weekly basis. Plus JoAni Johnson was cast in Rihanna’s Fenty campaign and walked the most recent Tommy Hilfiger show; Lauren Hutton recently walked for Valentino; Maye Musk is the face of Covergirl cosmetics. And yes this is definitely progress compared to 5 years ago. But it has been incremental. Because for each older model cast, there have been hundreds of younger ones cast too; featuring a handful of older models in shows and campaigns is almost miniscule in relation to scale.
And there are figures to prove it. This week, the Fashion Spot released their bi-annual Diversity Report and the numbers are pretty depressing. Whilst all other ‘groups’ of diversity saw increased representation, women over 50 declined. Across the 4 weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris, there were only 15 over age 50 models cast, accounting for an abysmal 0.65% of total castings.
In their own words:
“Generally speaking, it seems designers’ efforts towards age representation have stalled. Not only did 50-and-over models walk in fewer shows, several high profile fashion brands – Marc Jacobs, Hellessy, Michael Kors Collection and Naeem Khan – that hired veteran models last season neglected to do so [this time].
This view is further supported by the fact that the number of 50+ castings also decreased during the most recent ad season. Fall 2019’s campaigns featured only 10 models age 50 and over (2.16%), down from 15 (2.84%) a season earlier.”
So why has this happened? The momentum around diversity might be slowing down, but we still saw more representation of groups, namely race, size and transgender/non-binary. So why has age representation gone in the opposite direction?
I’d argue it mostly comes down to awareness. Ageism is the last taboo, that only now we’re really starting to grapple with. Those of use tuned into the issue need to remember we’re still in a relatively small bubble, and we’ve still got a long way to go before it permeates into wider society’s consciousness.
When you think about how long it has taken the Fashion Industry to actually recognise different ethnicities, sexualities and body shapes it makes sense. Society at large has been challenging racism and Civil Rights since the 1950s, LGBTQ+ issues since the 1980s, and body ideals since 1990s. So on the scale of things, the Fashion Industry has always taken a long time to become aware and adjust to issues of diversity. And the very fact that the Fashion Spot is still having to report on these groups shows they still aren’t the norm either.
So given ageism hasn’t really been talked about until recently, it’s hardly surprising the Fashion Industry hasn’t adapted. We’ve been talking about other groups of diversity for decades, so the demand for representation has become more engrained. Conversely, age-inclusivity is a pretty new notion so, whilst this isn’t an excuse, its importance is not yet appreciated and embedded, resulting in the majority of 50+ representation being superficial and fleeting.
You can see this when you look at how the Fashion Industry generally discusses diversity. At best, age is often an afterthought, or its simply forgotten about. Last year Edward Enniful outlined his vision for diversity:
“When I say diversity, I want to be clear that it is never just about black and white for me. It’s about diversity across the board - whether that’s race, size, socio-economic background, religion, sexuality. That’s what I want to celebrate with this cover.”
There was no mention of age [or disability] anywhere. Instead, age was addressed separately this year in an Ageless Style advertorial supplement that many 50+ women perceived as tokenistic.
Similarly last weekend The Business of Fashion hosted a diversity seminar in Paris and their thorough follow up report included zero mention of age, implying its absence in the discussion. Meanwhile, whilst Rihanna’s Fenty fashion show this season was universally praised for its inclusivity, amongst the hundreds of models cast not a single one was over 50.
The lack of age representation shouldn’t undermine the fact that the Fashion Industry has moved forward with diversity as a whole. And you can’t satisfy everyone, so there will naturally be people who are left out. But this needs to be openly acknowledged. Moreover, what’s particularly dangerous is that some of the most influential individuals and publications in Fashion are now actively defining what diversity looks like, and age is getting left behind. Diversity is meant to be all inclusive, so to exclude underrepresented groups is hypocritical. A vision of diversity shouldn’t only reach so far.
So what’s the solution? Well first we need to persevere. One step forward, two steps back is still one step forward. And rather than being discouraged by the recent stats, we should use it as fuel to push further. Secondly, both the Industry and consumers need to continue critiquing. It’s vital we applaud when its due, but we shouldn’t be so quick to give praise either. Otherwise we’re allowing the Industry to be complacent. Because ultimately awareness is key. Only then will true, authentic, lasting action follow so that age inclusivity is no longer a trend, but the new norm.
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