Two examples can hardly be called a trend. Nonetheless, when two examples of something uncommon blow up in the press within days of each other, one takes notice.
The “something uncommon” I’m referring to in this case was the news that fashion houses Céline and Saint Laurent chose Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell, respectively, to star in their spring 2015 ad campaigns.
Both women are celebrities who have been famous for decades.
Didion is a writer who cut her teeth at American Vogue in the ’50s and went on to become an essayist of such acclaimed collections as 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and 1979’s The White Album.
(Confession: I had been completely ignorant as to her existence until now and have never read any of her stuff.
However, during a recent trip to my local bookstore, I discovered Slouching Towards Bethlehem merchandised in the Women and Gender category alongside the work of contemporary female essayists such as Roxane Gay, Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham.
I flipped though it. True to the hype, it seemed to have an effortlessly cool, wryly observational style and now I feel I should probably read it and officially jump onboard the Didion bandwagon.)
Mitchell, in contrast, is someone with whom I am quite familiar.
A Canadian, she’s best known as a folk singer-songwriter, having penned such classics as Both Sides Now and Big Yellow Taxi (though my personal favourites are Case of You from 1971’s Blue and Conversation from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon).
That Mitchell abandoned folk music for experimental jazz and now appears to have evolved into a pretentious asshole who wants to be known as a painter does not diminish her impressive contribution to pop culture.
A fashion house choosing a celebrity to rep its line is not unusual in the slightest. Examples off the top of my head include then-15-year-old Brooke Sheilds’ now-classic 1980 Calvin Klein jeans campaign; Brad Pitt for Chanel No. 5; David Beckham for H&M; last year’s so-called ‘break the Internet’ Kim Kardashian cover for PAPER Magazine — that shot being Jean-Paul Goude’s re-do of 1982’s ‘Champagne Incident,’ a photo he originally took for his book, Jungle Fever (INSERT COMMENTARY ON RACIAL FETISHISM HERE); and the other celebrity-as-model debut that had people talking last week: Justin Bieber for Calvin Klein, aka the new Marky Mark.
What makes the decision to use these particular two women to rep these fashion lines unusual is that, in addition to being celebrities, they are also old: Didion is 80, Mitchell, 71. And not only are they old — they are visibly old.
Unlike, say, a Cher (who’s 68 but doesn’t really look it thanks to surgery and the use of smart lighting and Photoshop to manipulate an already carefully controlled image), the pictures released last week include actual physical markers of age: Wrinkles. Sagging skin. Veiny hands.
As has been noted before on this very blog, such depictions of women are extremely rare in today’s media. Within this context, the Céline and Saint Laurent campaigns stand out.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that although the photos of Didion and Mitchell can be considered radical for what they show, both of the women featured in them have always been – and, I would argue, continue to be — conventionally attractive, according to all markers used to gauge such a thing in our current culture. They are white. They are thin. They are blonde.
That they happen to be old doesn’t change any of the other things, which makes the campaigns far less radical then perhaps they initially appear.
There’s also the intent behind the campaigns to consider.
When it comes down to it, these photos are just ads and ads are used to sell things. And, as has also been noted before on this blog, using female bodies to sell things is 1) the complete opposite of radical and 2) problematic because doing so often serves to objectify female human beings by stripping them of agency, sexualizing them and/or reducing them to their parts.
The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman — who describes Didion as photographed for Céline as “pictured in black, with a big pair of fuck-off sunglasses” which is all kinds of awesome and FYI I’m totally stealing that — explores the question of intent in this critique, arguing that it’s not Didion and Mitchell’s looks that are being offered up to consumers but rather, their accomplishments, writing:
[Céline and Saint Laurent] are selling the cultural importance of the two women. Two companies that place looks above all else are using the perceived intellectual and artistic importance of their latest models above their looks to generate profit for their clothes.
I disagree, and would challenge Teeman to consider whether either woman would have ascended to a place of cultural importance using their intellect and artistic talent were they not also conventionally attractive, white, thin and blonde.
He goes on to conclude, “What would have been really radical would have been to have Didion and Mitchell shot swaggering in their underwear…”
Again, I disagree — this time vehemently. Because PORTRAYING WOMEN, EVEN OLD ONES, IN THEIR UNDERWEAR IS SO THE OPPOSITE OF RADICAL THAT I CAN’T EVEN.
This isn’t to say that Teeman doesn’t have a point about how style can transcend looks and how Céline and Saint Laurent are attempting to capitalize on such a thing.
Molly Fischer explores this idea in this lovely piece for New York Magazine (which contains this absolute gem of a sentence: “Vulnerability, in the context of Joan Didion, means extreme thinness and a carefully described migraine.”).
Fischer considers “the landscape in which we love Joan Didion for Céline” — an increasingly digital landscape where would-be taste-makers publicly and enthusiastically curate their images through the selective revelations of favourite products and interests and Instagram selfies.
Online, it’s especially easy to believe in a transitive property of liking — that by liking something and announcing your like of it you acquire some part of its shine… Liking, listing, and sharing are how you announce a self. And Didion now has become an established talisman of taste, an ideal entry in any catalogue of preferences.
Even if there is disagreement as to what (or who) is being sold — beyond high-end women’s clothing and accessories, that is — and despite the usual misgivings I have whenever I reflect on women in advertising (is it really progress that senior citizens are being used as props?), I have to admit, I got a kick out of seeing the pictures being circulated last week.
It’s exciting to consider the possibility that old women are becoming visible in our society beyond being the butt of jokes or protagonists of cautionary tales about osteoporosis.
Hell, maybe a trend is afoot. After all, last year saw the release of Advanced Style, (GET IT?), a documentary that showcased seven fashionable senior women from New York.
The film was a spin-off of street-style photographer Ari Seth Cohen’s successful blog of the same name.
Fun fact: One of the women featured in it, Jacquie Tajah Murdock, was enlisted by fashion house Lanvin to model for its 2012 fall/winter campaign. Murdock was 82 at the time and the picture that ended up being used is fucking STUNNING.
Cohen, too, blogged about the Didion/Mitchell photographs, writing: “This shift in the portrayal of aging in popular media hopefully signifies a broader change in societal attitudes towards, and treatment of, the elderly. Bravo!”
He titled his post “The Movement.” Is he right? Could it be that we’re moving towards a new cultural understanding of image and style and age and expression and how such things overlap and interact?
If so, sign me up.