Halloween. The favourite holiday of the year for anyone with a weakness for fancy dress and costume parties. Over the years in the celebrity world, supermodel Heidi Klum has become renowned for her legendary Halloween celebrations and extravagant costumes. In 2013, the venue was Marquee in New York, and all eyes were waiting to see what kind of elaborate affair Klum would concoct this time.
But what is this? A vintage Rolls Royce has pulled up. Out steps a frail-looking old lady. She walks with a cane, her sturdy beige handbag swung over the other arm. Her wispy white hair is pulled back, but still, with her prominent veins and age-spots she is unrecognisable. Who is the old lady?
The old lady is Klum in fancy dress.
Something to laugh at
What does Klum’s choice of “costume” tell us about the status of “elderly women” in contemporary culture, and indeed about contemporary celebrity and its attitudes to “old” age? When did looking old become not merely something that millions of people worldwide get on with every day, and instead become worthy of a circus sideshow, something to stand aghast and laugh at?
Klum, celebrated as one of the most beautiful women in the world and recognised internationally too as host of Project Runway, garnered endless column inches in Halloween by transforming herself into the inverse of all she stands for as a celebrity. There is nothing glamorous about the grey figure before us in these pictures.
She speaks of none of the desire or aspiration that celebrity prompts – this is just another anonymous old lady.
And, unlike Klum’s previous fantastical outfits, where she turned up as “Forbidden Fruit” and Cleopatra, if one wants to gawp at a “costume” like this, one surely has only to take a trip to one’s local shops. Klum’s costume therefore underlined how in a youth-obsessed culture the everyday lives and appearances of older people are still frequently positioned as distant and strange – and its appearance specifically on Halloween underlines the sense, too, that ageing is scary, the stuff of horror films and frightening folklore.
For Klum, her costume choice nevertheless entailed a breathtaking makeover, a clever trick played on the assembled onlookers and admirers. For what could be more unexpected, more freakish and astonishing, than a model being an old woman?
Age being a fashion trend
But fashion and celebrity are fickle indeed. So let us fast-forward just a few months to 2014, when at the age of 68, Charlotte Rampling is announced as the forthcoming face of NARS cosmetics. This is closely followed by news that Jessica Lange, aged 64, will front the new Marc Jacobs Beauty campaign.
Note the significance here of the fact that these are not “anti-ageing” brands or products, but regular, indeed rather exclusive, makeup lines.
As women in their 60s, Rampling and Lange demonstrate how subjective the terms “old” and “older” are. Certainly, they are not the “crones” that Klum was emulating in her costume. But their modelling contracts were greeted with curiosity and approval, and appear to have helped open eyes and doors for the use of older models elsewhere.
Earlier this year much media debate was prompted by the appointment of celebrated 80-year-old writer Joan Didion as the face of Céline – and, not only that, in a campaign where she seems to have eschewed airbrushing. Elsewhere, at 93, style arbiter Iris Apfel found herself in demand fronting two spring 2015 campaigns, for jewellery designer Alexis Bittar as well as Kate Spade.
There have inevitably been concerns that old age is being exploited here as a mere trend, and will prove just another “fashion fad” to be dropped in a season’s time. And it would be sweeping indeed to claim these campaigns as evidence of a new and greater diversity in these industries – all these women are white, hold class privilege and possess the kinds of trim bodies deemed aspirational by our culture whatever a woman’s age.
Clash of values
But so too have these campaigns been cautiously welcomed in some quarters, as perhaps indicative of a growing awareness of the need to expand representation across age ranges in the fashion and celebrity industries in an era marked by a rapidly ageing population. And this is not least to take into account the tastes of a breadth of differently aged consumers who might become valued customers for these goods and brands.
Bookended in this way, these two snapshots tell very different stories about how contemporary culture is wrestling to make sense of how to deal with its older and ageing celebrities at this time. It is seemingly optimistic and inspiring one moment (Meryl Streep’s later-life box-office revolution), and back to retrograde the next (Maggie Gyllenhaal too old at 37 to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man).
There is a pointed clash of values at stake in the stories told here – where Klum shows old age is “a joke” in the realm of female stardom, while Didion et al. show older woman celebrities can keep embodying style and desirability. All this speaks volumes about the cultural moment we are in and the “problem” ageing women still constitute for it, even while the promise of change may seem to be there.
What seems clear, though, is how high the stakes here are. Celebrity culture has become arguably the most prominent lens through which we judge our own and others’ ageing processes – who in the public eye is “ageing well?; who has had “too much work” done? – and the scrutiny exacted in the media is by far and away most cruelly and relentlessly focused on women.
As Lynne Segal provocatively reminds us in her 2013 book Out of Time:
Old age is no longer the condition that dare not speak its name, but we have a long way to go before we can joke that it is the identity that refuses to be silent.
This is the case whatever Klum might think.
This article draws on the introduction written by Deborah Jermyn and Susan Holmes to the book Women, Celebrity and Cultures of Ageing: Freeze Frame.
Deborah Jermyn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.