I could sit and stare for hours at Joni Mitchell's face in the new ad for Yves Saint Laurent. What an extraordinary face it is, with its lines and imperfections, which are the alphabet telling the story of her life. Likewise Joan Didion's gorgeous face, half-obscured by sunglasses but showing all of her 80 years, in a new ad for the high-end design house Céline.
Those images are so arresting because they're so rare. Normally, the only creases you find in fashion magazines are the ones down the centre of trousers. This is perhaps why the appearance of two normal-looking older women has created such a stir. I say "normal-looking," but I've lost track of what that actually means, especially during awards season, when television screens are filled with actresses who are old enough to be grandmothers but whose faces exhibit the eerie smoothness of fresh-laid eggs.
The fact that the fashion industry has chosen, out of thousands of marketing images, to feature two high-profile older artists is seen as some kind of radical shift in thinking about women's representation in culture. At the same time, a documentary about flamboyantly stylish old ladies, Advanced Style, has captivated audiences' hearts. This, we're led to believe, is a golden age for golden-agers. "Everything old is new again!" chirped the Today show. As Huffington Post UK asked, "Will 2015 be the year fashion finally embraces the older woman?"
I, for one, would welcome the arrival of our silver overlords, and I look forward to Vogue's September pictorial, "The wonder of wattles." Of course, between now and then, the fashion and cosmetics industries (often tied by the same corporate purse strings) will have to give up their lucrative, billion-dollar pursuit of convincing women that aging is only moderately preferable to death.
In my local drug store, there are no advertising campaigns featuring glamorous silver foxes, but there are hundreds of mysterious products promising to "turn back time," if I may quote the frighteningly ageless Cher. As a middle-aged person who owns more unguents and potions than Snow White's stepmother, despite my better instincts, I've become a connoisseur of the meaningless and largely unregulated claims that fuel the anti-aging cosmetics business.
How is the average consumer (let's call her "time's doomed puppet") to choose between "Age Control Supreme Crystal Day Elixir" and "Sublime Energy Skin-Smoothing Anti-Age Primer"? Which is the more quick-acting fountain of youth, "Ageless Intensives Deep Wrinkle Moisturizer With Helioplex®" or "Youth Factor GF™ Total Regenerating Cream"? What woman, kept awake by screaming children and the fear of incipient wrinkles, wouldn't welcome "Anti-Fatigue Nourishing Cream"? It's a Scrabble bag of manufactured anxieties, shaken and spilled for maximum profit.
When we consider whether fashion is really ready to embrace aging, with its wrinkles and loss of pigment, consider that the anti-aging industry (surgery and cosmetics combined) will reach $192-billion within five years in the U.S. alone, by one estimate. These are mixed messages the beauty world is sending us: empowerment on one hand, panic on the other.
Or is it really so ambiguous? "Mixed messages? I don't think so," says Canadian academic Timothy Caulfield in his new book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash. "The message is uniform, oppressively consistent and crystal clear. Don't age."
The worst part, or at least the saddest, as Prof. Caulfield says, is that there's no evidence that cosmetic interventions short of surgery make any difference in keeping time at bay. His advice? "Save your money." Yet studies show that even when women know this, we are still seduced by the lure of the miracle goo. (I plead guilty as charged.)
You could just stay out of the sun, which works. Or you could call the fashion industry on its hypocrisy, throw your potions and dyes in the river and buy a nice bottle of Chablis instead, which will at least relax your wrinkles for an hour or two.
Listening to a Joni Mitchell song or reading a Joan Didion essay will likewise have an ameliorative effect on well-being. In any case, it's worth reading Ms. Mitchell's 1979 interview with Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone magazine, in which she spoke (at the ripe old age of 35) about how she intended to spend her later years: "Aging gracefully. Which is easier in some societies than in this one."