Have you seen Maggie Smith’s advertising campaign for the fashion house Loewe? I can’t stop looking; I’m rapt. The styling, clothes and bags in Juergen Teller’s pictures are perfect. Whether she is snuggled in a huge brown, shaggy coat or reclining regally on a sofa in a black-and-white ruffled dress, Smith looks as if she is loving every second.
Crucially, she also looks her 88-year-old self – magnificently, imperiously, but relatably so. She is like your most glamorous aunt, the one people talk about in hushed, slightly scandalised tones. As someone online said, you can just imagine she is about to unclip the exquisite handbag she is clutching and hand you a crisp £20. I imagine she would smell of Sobranies and Rive Gauche and drink brandy and ginger. (I don’t think she actually does, but each to their own fantasy aunt.)
It has been a good year for older women in fashion. The 106-year-old tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od and 82-year-old Miriam Margolyes have featured on Vogue covers this year (Margolyes in pearls and a rakish veil on the cover, joyously naked, iced buns over bosom, inside). Harriet Walter, 73, is in the current issue photographed by Lucian Bor, who makes her lines a captivating feature rather than blurring or erasing them. Judi Dench beat them all to it with a Vogue cover in 2020. It’s a slightly softer look, but she looks wonderful. They all do.
It’s particularly pleasing given that their profession has historically been – and still is – so utterly unforgiving of women having the temerity to get older, helpfully suggesting they play their male contemporaries’ mothers. I wonder if it’s partly that fashion has cottoned on to the fact that their generation has vastly more disposable income than the younger and fresher-of-face fashionistas, but there is more to it than that.
This is the era of the coastal grandmother trend (gen-Z dressing like Diane Keaton) and Ladies of Madison Ave TikTok (cultured New York ladies of a certain age showing off their best vintage finery). There is a certain reverence now for chic born of a long, full life. Fashion is easily bored and hungry for novelty, so who knows whether it will last, but I hope so.
I was thinking that as I sat in the dental hygienist’s chair earlier being ritually humiliated for my overcrowded peasant mouth. In a new, horrifying twist to the ordeal, the hygienist now uses purple dye to highlight plaque and was pointing out my stained, wonky teeth and receding gums in a mirror, every lump and line of my face surgically lit. My clompy walking shoes (the only ones that don’t give me weird pains behind my toes) were shedding mud on her pristine floor and when I wasn’t thinking: “The reason it’s bleeding is because you poked it with your hook, woman,” and: “Should I get veneers (and what are they)?” I was thinking how thankful I am to see these women in the glossies – how joyful they make me.
Because middle age – for all the “in your prime” discourse, which in many ways I don’t dispute – can be a bit crap. Mortality comes knocking aggressively, I have found, with a delivery of dicky hips, a sagging neck, pouchy, jowly bits and a general air of lumpen fatigue. Hormones go haywire, collagen and confidence ebb; my newly longsighted self sometimes squints at itself in the mirror and wonders if it’s too late for Botox. And I’m lucky – and so grateful – to be in a body that works.
Smith, Margolyes et al have been through this – you don’t get to their age without things falling apart and aching and probably bigger health worries (Smith had breast cancer; Margolyes has discussed her spinal stenosis and Dench her macular degeneration). They have experienced life-changing loss because, again, no one gets to their age without it. But they have survived and thrived and thought – if I can presume to imagine – that a Vogue shoot or ad campaign might be fun; why the hell not?
I’m so glad they did: seeing them is a balm and an inspiration. I will never have their bone structure, style, talent or wardrobe. But images like these give me hope of emerging from the porridgey sludge of my midlife with something of their relish, gladder than ever to be alive.