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Ageing, fashion and health

Why doesn’t the fashion industry pay more attention to the needs and aspirations of older people? This has been a regular cry for as long as I have been studying the dynamics between ageing and design. Nobody disputes that there’s a growing and untapped consumer market out there, especially in Britain where people aged 50 and over hold more than three-quarters of the UK’s financial wealth, according to the Centre for Economics & Business Research. But the world of the catwalk and haute couture has traditionally been the preserve of glamorous youth.  

More than 30 years ago there was a glorious false dawn when the V&A Museum’s Boilerhouse gallery held its landmark exhibition, New Design For Old, and featured a womenswear collection for the mature market by Finnish designer Vuokko Nurmesniemi which was brimming with new possibilities. But the fashion industry didn’t follow her lead. Designing for age or disability was seen as a career-constricting move in fashion circles, so much so that when I was asked by a large brand in the early 2000s to find a young fashion designer at the Royal College of Art (RCA)  to take on the task of redesigning the dreadful one-piece plastic rain macs that protect wheelchair users from the weather (and stigmatise them at the same time), I was unable to persuade a single new graduate to take the commission on.

Over the past decade, however, the dial has started to move on fashion and ageing. Given the capricious nature of the industry, some of this movement is fickle, built around fashion brands seeking glamour at the other end of the age spectrum and using the much older woman to sell style. This explains why singer Joni Mitchell (in her 70s) became the face of Yves Saint Laurent, why the writer Joan Didion (in her 80s) became the face of Celine, and why fashionista Iris Apfel (in her 90s) became the subject of an engaging documentary and starred in a Citroen TV commercial.

But beneath the hype, something much deeper and more inclusive is stirring. When fashion designer Fanny Karsh set up The Old Ladies Rebellion line after graduating from Central Saint Martins design school in 2009, her work prefigured a wider shift essentially realigning fashion with diversity, identity politics and social ecology. Rethinking age, ability and notions of ‘beauty’ in fashion coincided with growing environmental concerns about ‘fast fashion’, binding together concerns about people and planetary health.

A second shift has seen high fashion move closer to the growing body of work in clothing and textiles to support ageing well. Integrating wearable technology and exploiting   technical properties in textiles has gone hand in hand with broader aesthetic considerations. It is not forgotten that looking good and feeling good are not only essential to healthy ageing but form the psychological basis for why we buy fashion in the first place.

There’s still a long way to go, but the RCA today reflects a positive change in the number of its PhD researchers and designers who are exploring the terrain of ageing, fashion and health. These researchers include Silke Hofmann, who is looking at ways to improve post-mastectomy lingerie for female breasts cancer patients, and Laura Salisbury who is working on garments which support post-stroke rehabilitation.

Such studies show how fashion design is recalibrating as a discipline in line with our changing demographics. I reckon that if I was trying to find a designer today to restyle the wheelchair rain mac cover, I wouldn’t have any trouble. 

About the Author

Jeremy Myerson is Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, Director of WORKTECH Academy and an Honorary Fellow at Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.                                                       

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