The Instagram model is posing in a powdery blue skirt set and chunky pink orthotic sneakers with a matching backpack hanging off her small shoulders. She’s demonstrating tai chi, a sport she does competitively, on a colourful street in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
The model, Mrs. Ma, isn’t your typical Instagram star but has become somewhat famous after being featured in a project-turned-book, Chinatown Pretty, by photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu.
During dim sum dates in Chinatown, the creative duo noticed that seniors in the neighbourhood had a very distinct style: “Lots of colour, pattern, Supreme hats mixed with velvet, quilted, two-piece sets that they got from Hong Kong,” Ms. Luu says. “And there were so many unexpected, colourful, beautiful, touching details – maybe they were wearing a hand-knit sweater their sister-in-law made or a shirt made from leftover scraps from a sewing factory where they worked.” (Mrs. Ma inherited her pink Dora the Explorer backpack from her grandchildren).
The scenes made Ms. Lo and Ms. Luu want to know more about the poh pohs (grandmas) and gung gungs (grandpas) that were rocking these unique looks. And when they started posting their miniprofiles on Instagram, they realized other people did, too.
Their Instagram account now boasts 64,000 followers (and counting) and their book has so far been featured on CBC, NPR and New York magazine’s fashion site The Cut – and they’re not the only ones looking to seniors for fashion inspiration.
Luggage company Rimowa just tapped 74-year-old punk icon Patti Smith for its latest ad campaign, alongside singer Rihanna and athletes LeBron James and Roger Federer. Supermodel Iman, 66, and former Vogue creative director André Leon Talley, 72, were the faces of Ugg’s spring/summer 2021 campaign. Modelling veteran Sarah Grant, 71, also graced the runway at Australia Fashion Week this June.
But nowhere are seniors gaining as much attention as they are on social media. Take Advanced Style, the seniors-focused street style blog created by photographer, filmmaker and fashion blogger Ari Seth Cohen in 2008, which now has an Instagram following of 319,000. Or Want Show as Young, the Instagram account for Chang Wan-ji and Hsu Sho-er, octogenarians who began styling and posting photos of themselves in clothes abandoned by customers of their Taiwan laundromat last summer. They’re now up to 677,000 followers.
Lyn Slater, a New York professor whose fashionable fits have earned her 757,000 followers on Instagram, dubbed herself an “accidental icon,” but by now it’s clear the popularity of these accounts is no accident; the fashion world and regular folks alike are obsessed with older folks.
“Fashion has always occurred in cycles. I refer to it as a pendulum – it swings back and forth,” says Colleen Schindler-Lynch, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s school of fashion. “The 50s and 60s were more youth-focused than the 70s and 80s, where young professionals moved to the forefront. [Now], as boomers and Gen X have grown, their collective voice has gotten louder. I’d also have to say that the push for diversity in the last five to seven years has definitely helped in that respect. Diversity isn’t just about skin colour or size differences; it’s also about gender and age.”
Lisa Tant, a fashion consultant and the former editor-in-chief of Flare magazine, agrees and believes social media has been key in helping business decision-makers take notice.
“Ten years ago, I could have a story with all young, thin models. Now, that would look weird to me. It would be offensive to me. The idea of different sizes, different ages and different cultures is so much more interesting,” she says. “And I credit Instagram for that because anybody really can create an account, post some really great photos and build a following. And then advertisers and marketers have to listen to that community.”
If there’s a downside to this trend, it’s that in the past, it has been fleeting. In 2012, the New York Times noted the rise of the “silver muses,” a group that included models Daphne Selfe and Carmen Dell’Orefice, businesswoman Iris Apfel and actress Meryl Streep – the latter of whom became Vogue’s oldest cover girl that year at 62.
Over the subsequent decade, older people periodically scored covers, walkedin fashion shows or landed brand ambassador roles, including writer Joan Didion’s iconic turn as Céline’s poster girl in 2015.
But as with other types of representation, real progress has been incremental. In fact, a 2020 report by the U.K.-based International Longevity Centre found that while seniors increased their spending by almost £3 billion between 2011 and 2018, they felt so underserved by clothing retailers that by the time they turned 75, many stopped spending on fashion entirely.
That may have to do with who’s creating fashion content around seniors, Ms. Lynch of Ryerson says.
“It’s interesting to note … the age group of the authors and photographers presenting and curating this material. These observations are not written by seniors. This is still through the lens of youth,” she says. “I find Senior Style Bible or Grey Fox Blog have a different gaze and a different way of presenting and documenting the fashion. It seems less like capturing wacky fashion style or dress up, aka costume.”
Ms. Tant is also concerned that even this bid to become more inclusive is leaving some people out.
“There’s a huge group of people in the middle,” she says. “Sometimes you’ll get a marketing survey and it’ll ask you your age and 18 to 35 seems to be the sweet spot. But there are still so many women between the ages of 40 and 60 in the work force. They are the primary decision-maker in the family. More and more, they’re the primary breadwinner. And that age group has been completely ignored.”
It’s also important to note that, until recently, only a certain type of older people – white, wealthy, privileged – have been upheld as fashion icons. But things are changing, at least in part because there’s something joyful about seeing a new type of person, like Mrs. Ma or Mr. Wan-ji and Ms. Sho-er, engage in the creativity and fun of fashion.
It’s downright inspirational, says Chinatown Pretty’s Ms. Lo, who points out that the people she profiles are engaging in some of the most compelling fashion trends, including eco-fashion, even if they don’t call it that.
“They think long term, they’re resourceful, they’re industrious – and it’s not a trend. It never was for them. It was just the way they live their lives.”