I couldn’t help cheering quietly to myself when Davina McCall made headlines a few weeks back in a row over that dress. In case you missed it, Davina (53) caused a Twitter storm when she wore a split, strappy, ankle-length gown by Retrofête on her ITV show The Masked Singer – which attracts more than six million viewers a week – and was admonished on social media.
“Old, over-sun-kissed woman should cover up… Stunning dress but not for the wrinkly crinkly… Demure for the mature,” opined one (female) follower.
Davina didn’t take it lying down. “Really sorry. Absolutely no chance of demure over here. Growing old disgracefully is far more fun,” she replied. But there’s so much more to it than that.
Davina McCall isn’t someone you’d think of as overtly political. But this is undoubtedly a women’s issue – and she politely but firmly made her stance on it clear.
While midlife men get teased about the inappropriate use of Lycra cycling gear, the abuse directed at women perceived to be dressing outside their age bracket is way more vitriolic. More often than not, it comes from other women, and it’s indicative of a much bigger problem – the fact that toxic combination of sexist, ageist bulls*** is still rife.
It’s hard to evade the stereotypes and assumptions placed on women in middle age. And though we consistently prove they’re outdated and far from the reality of our everyday lives, many of us are still deeply affected by them. If we’re not drawing criticism for “doing it wrong”, then we’re simply invisible. We just can’t win. It’s been my life’s work to challenge all of this.
Glossy mags don’t help. Until recently, articles about how best to dress for your thirties, forties, fifties – they’d give up on you after that – were a mainstay of Vogue, Harper’s and The Sunday Times Style. Then came a public spat in 2019 when Alexandra Shulman (then 61) criticised the 50-year-old supermodel Helena Christensen for wearing a corset to a party.
“It’s possible that she just panicked, as you do, when faced with a themed party (this was denim) and thought that turning up as the madam in a one-horse town would fit the bill,” opined the former Vogue editor. The implication was clear: Helena was mutton dressed as lamb. She was too old to be flaunting the flesh and should cover up in a nice twinset and tweeds.
Now it was Alex Shulman’s turn to be excoriated – again, mostly by other women. And much of the criticism directed at her also focused on her age. And her looks. Plus ça change.
What have we learnt from all of this? First, that you’d better be pretty sure where you’re coming from when you call out another woman’s style choices in public. And that “growing old disgracefully” is far more fun than the frumpy alternative –sartorially and politically.
Why should we all stay in our age-appropriate little boxes? If we want to wear leather trousers at 60, or leopard print at 70, why the hell shouldn’t we? Who’s to tell us that we can’t?
We’re breaking down taboos every day, but we’re still a long way from being able to dress exactly as we want, without fear of abuse. And I don’t think that’s a great deal to ask for in a civilised society. Do you?
Gender politics is complicated. But when it comes to our personal freedoms, we need to speak up. Ageism is old news. We can all see that. And surely, in a fashion context, pushing the boundaries is fun? Look at Iris Arpfel (99), who looks wilder and more wonderful with every passing year; or Cate Blanchett (51), Vivienne Westwood (79) and Carine Roitfeld (66), all of whom make inspired, intelligent fashion choices that don’t involve a cardie and slippers.
You don’t necessarily have to like their taste – but you do have to applaud their spirit, and support their right to make those choices. Let’s make this toxic commentary on the way we dress a thing of the past.
You can still hate what I’m wearing – just don’t make it about my age.