A new openness to older women as beauty and style icons makes a refreshing change.
Growing old with grace and beauty
If you want to be a beauty icon in 2011, you can't do without two things: life experience and the occasional wrinkle. That, at least, seems to be the message from a recent poll naming the British actress Helen Mirren as Body of the Year.
The poll, compiled by the gym chain LA Fitness, saw the 66-year-old Oscar winner comfortably beat runners-up including Elle Macpherson and Pippa Middleton to the title, despite having reached an age when women too often disappear from the public eye.
In spite of Mirren's age, the award makes perfect sense. Along with dazzling blue eyes and one of the most charming smiles on film, the actress still has the sort of lithe, curvaceous body many women half her age would kill for.
While public enthusiasm for Mirren's fine figure might seem like a one-off, the actress isn't the only beautiful older woman in the limelight this year. Seventy-year-old Grace Coddington, the creative director at US Vogue and a former model, also caused a flurry of excitement this summer when it was announced she had sold her autobiography to Random House for a massive $1.2 million.
A worldwide name since her feisty performance in 2009's Vogue documentary The September Issue, Coddington's striking mane of red hair and effortless poise have made her one of the most recognisable figures in fashion.
With a personality and intelligence that make the average model seem a little insipid, Coddington joins the striking 61-year-old Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani - a fashion editor with a surprisingly detached, almost intellectual approach to fashion - as one of the most admired style icons of the decade so far. This openness to older women is a refreshing change, but does it mean much outside the tiny bubble world of celebrity? The fashion and beauty industries love to adopt figures such as Mirren and Coddington now and again, but mainly as exceptions that distract attention from their continuing use of undernourished teenage girls as a marketing tool.
Thankfully, the current yen for stylish older women isn't restricted to the fashion industry in-crowd. The picture blog Advanced Style, which features exceptionally well-dressed senior citizens, has become an ever-growing cult hit this decade, even spawning its own exhibition in the London department store Selfridges. Consisting of simple street snaps of elegant older people, Advanced Style proves that the best-dressed people are often oblivious to trends, ignoring current fashion advice completely to create their own look.
Elsewhere, My Mom the Style Icon is another blog that has built a huge following, and is now available as a book. Featuring old photographs submitted by readers of elegant mothers in their youth, the blog doesn't celebrate senior style per se, but rather encourages readers to look at ageing family members as a source of fashion inspiration. If anything, the fashion mainstream is catching up with the grassroots enthusiasm demonstrated by blogs such as these, rather than vice versa.
So why now? The reasons for older women finally getting fuller fashion and beauty exposure are still open to question, but it could well be something of a backlash against an industry that often pretends older women don't exist, even when it is selling to them. The public seems to find Mirren and Coddington hugely refreshing in a world where surgery, Botox and Photoshop are increasingly reducing female images in the media to a flawless but suffocating uniformity. When women are bombarded daily with images of an ageless, artificial perfection few can achieve, seeing fashion icons who show their age and still look beautiful is inspiring and something of a relief.
Then there's also the healthy detachment these women have from automatically wearing the latest thing. Sozzani has admitted that she finds new fashion difficult to wear (though that doesn't stop her publicising it in her magazine) and has created a unique but not especially retro look by carefully choosing designer clothes that are at least a decade old.
Meanwhile, the 70 and 80 year olds who look so well turned out on Advanced Style have usually settled on what suits them decades before, rejecting ever-changing trend advice about hemlines and accessories to find something that suits their personality. These sorts of role models are like gold dust in a recession, when women are seeking ways to look good without buying into expensive versions of "this season's look". Individual and helpfully semi-detached from the fashion industry's promotional push, this year's icons remind us of the old maxim - that style needn't always be more than personality writ large.