THERE is a scene in the film Fried Green Tomatoes when the plump, middle-aged and downtrodden housewife drives to her local shopping mall.
Just as she is about to pull in, a car filled with arrogant youths steals her parking space. The young people don’t even notice her existence.
She almost drives away, defeated. Then her spirit kicks in. She reverses and rams their car, shunting them out of the space. “You might be young,” she shouts over the din, “but I have insurance.”
There was a similarly seminal moment at this year’s Marks & Spencer’s AGM. A 75-year-old woman stood up and accused the chain store of abandoning its core customer base by pandering to youth fashion.
Hillary Roodyn told the board they were missing a trick by sidelining the golden oldies. The shareholders cheered their approval.
Already Marks has abandoned its glamorous advertising campaign and dispensed with three of its five models. Twiggy and Lisa Snowdon will be retained but only on in-store billboards.
If the in-store clothes could be improved as fast, over-50s across the country will join in the clapping. But the greatest benefit will be to the store itself. The core customers it has been shedding are the baby boomers – the section of the population with 85% of its spending power.
The question is, how has youth culture blinded this once savvy-fashion store to the obvious benefits of aiming its clothing at the most lucrative market?
It used to be the place to buy the basics for every season. Now it offers women who know about clothes only cashmere and tights.
In this almost non-existent summer, its flagship Edinburgh store was displaying in its window a floaty maxi dress in eye-watering lime green; the sort of outfit that might look good on a tanned 20-year old in the South of France. It wasn’t a must-buy for pasty-skinned Scots wading through a summer deluge.
Dresses that had length also had inappropriate dive necklines and shoe-string straps. Those with a bit of covering on the top, tended to stop above the knee. When the buyers included a token nod to the mature market they pitched at dowdy. There were three dresses online that would have charmed Hyacinth Bouquet.
And yet they have Twiggy on their model team. She is 61 years old. All they have to do is to look at her to judge what suits her age group. Women are shaped four ways. They’re apples, pears, hourglass or boyish. But when they reach their half-century, unless they work out like Michelle Obama, they’re going to want a sleeve to the elbow and a hemline to cover the knee.
It can be done with no loss of sex appeal. I was at a wedding last week where the most elegant woman present was 80 years old. She was whiplash slim. Her silk dress and jacket were simple, well cut and had flow.
She wore no frills or ruches. There was no appliquéd flower on her hemline or lapel (a style beloved by M&S). She could have taught Marks and Spencer a much-needed lesson in less is more.
The store has dropped its glamour girl models. It would do better to drop its glamour girl suppliers.
Marks & Spencer is symptomatic of a wider trend of ageism that must soon bend to market forces. Other clothes shops must waken up to the reality that women get a second spring in middle age and they are making the most of it. (I’m not alone in traipsing the High Street with a full wallet and empty shopping bag.)
Other institutions need to waken up too.
Hillary Clinton is the US Secretary of State. Christine Lagarde has taken over the International Monetary Fund. Catherine Deneuve and Charlotte Rampling are still making films and turning heads. Three of these women are pension age and Lagarde is fast approaching it. Women are ripening with age, not shrivelling.
Male-dominated institutions like the BBC are being dragged back from behaving like dinosaurs. They were caught shunting women off screen and on to radio when facial lines began to show. Sometimes they went by the date stamp. Many of us still miss the smooth-skinned Moira Stewart, whose news delivery was as calm and reassuring as the shipping forecast.
And it isn’t just women who suffer from ageism. I still can’t work out how the media got away with trashing the illustrious Menzies Campbell because he looked older than his years. The parliamentarian had fought against the decision to go into Iraq even when he was in the throes of chemotherapy. When he was too weak to go to the studios he broadcast from a link set up in his home. How admirable was that?
His wisdom continues to be sought on matters of defence and foreign policy. Yet, when he was leader of his party, he was vilified in the media day in and day out because the cancer treatment had aged him. It was outrageous.
Is it any wonder people are afraid of looking their age?
Women would rather look blank and uninteresting with a face full of botox, than allow the life they have led to register on their face. They spend fortunes on creams that claim to hold at bay the years. And men are joining them.
I was in Space NK recently when two middle-aged men came in and asked to be directed to moisturisers. I presumed they were buying gifts but they went to a man’s section and chose potions for themselves.
Yet one of the simplest ways to age gracefully is not to try too hard. The French have it down to a fine art. They stay slim, spend money on good haircuts and wear classic understated clothes.
We would too if we could readily find classic, understated clothes. They exist but too often they are at a price which is unthinkable in a recession.
For decades, finding them was as easy as a trip to M&S. Now, thanks to the exasperation of one septuagenarian, all women of a certain age are hopeful again.
Hilary Roodyn didn’t shout that she had insurance before she gave the board of M&S a verbal bashing. She did remind them that we baby boomers have the cash and are determined to hang on to the cachet – so they and the world had better catch on fast.
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