Although my blog is about old women and feature films, I will consider a television documentary broadcast on September 17th 2013 on Channel 4. I think it is a very important programme in the field of representation of old women. Sue Bourne, the producer and director of Fabulous Fashionistas, told me that she is surprised by the reaction to the film which has taken on a life of its own. Lots of people are asking for the DVD for study and discussion.
As I mentioned after it was shown (September – Changing Times) I was reluctant, originally, to look at the programme, being rather blasé about the token gestures against ageism. But I decided that I would and was pleasantly surprised. Superficially about ‘fashion’ the programme presented us with the anti-fashion attitude of six old women with strong personalities, active lives and varied life experiences. Their great sense of style was only one aspect of their identities.
A long time ago around 1996, in a Growing Old Disgracefully workshop about clothes I realised that although I had no interest in clothes I had nevertheless different ways of choosing what I wear and one fantasy of wearing beautiful flowing dresses in vibrant colours. Our small G.O.D. group had decided to talk about our thoughts and feelings about clothes. We were ‘young old’, not older than 70. We found out that our attitudes to clothes varied greatly – from indifference to individualistic studied style. We all agreed that we wanted quality textiles with choice of vibrant colours and imaginative designs. We decided to suggest to eight fashion colleges that they should consider clothing for old women. It was no surprise that only one responded saying that if a student was interested in this age group they would help.
I came across Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog around 2009. In September 2013 FF was broadcast. In October, Cohen and five of the women who appeared in FF took part in the Mirror Mirror conference. This was organised by the London College of Fashion. What I find interesting is that the women in Advanced Style only stimulate in me an amused reaction, whereas I find in the FF documentary some kind of recognition that permits me to enjoy the vicarious pleasures of style and fun of clothes. Both the editor of Vogue and a model agency executive explain the lack of older women in the model world as the need for women to dream. Are we supposed to dream over images of extremely young, thin and beautiful models?
Seven film group members – ages ranged from 94 to 62 – decided to view FF together a few days ago. One woman said that the FF irritated her and that we – as older women – would not have anything to add to the critics’ reviews. She did not wish to see the film again. Another three could no make the meeting or did not feel that the documentary warranted another viewing.
The discussion was very interesting. There was general agreement on the fact that it started being about style and finished as a film about six old women’s attitudes to ageing. We had stimulating exchanges about attitudes to clothes, style and fashion and the influence of the variety of factors at play. Some questions about the physical appearance of the women were raised: they all had excellent postures but were they all ‘beautiful’? Only one of them dyed her hair. The importance of exercise was talked about. The women were seen as inspiring, liberating.
There were other comments: the structure of the film as not linear, the skill of the editing, and the wonderful colours. A woman aged 64 was struck by the sentence : “Growing Old is a privilege and an adventure”. The fact that one has to adapt, joint replacements, serious illness, loss, death, surviving a partner, were not glossed over.
A few details were criticised: the reference to the usual stereotype of old women, the sentence ‘refusing the ageing process’, the lack of a more diverse ethnic presence, the lack of a carer, the romantic ending in the South of France.
This summary in no way expresses the richness of our discussion where every theme had the potential to be developed into a workshop. I noticed on second viewing how much of old women lives’ is captured in the 48 minutes. I do not think that these women are exceptional. Yes they all are white, middle class. Five of them had a very special sense of style, the characteristic they were chosen for. (The baroness did not, another subject of discussion). The film though is exceptional in that it presents these women living a full life in the present. It is not a documentary in the style of “Still Doing It” that shows the different sexual practices of a group of women. A film that will never be seen by young women. It does not preach about living ‘positively’. It just gives a glimpse in the lives of six old women. The clothes express visually the vitality and fun of a group of real old women that might dispel the fear of ageing. It does bring to mind another film about a group of old women: Strangers in Good Company (see under resources) .
I disagree with Hanson who says in the Guardian that the documentary is ageist and that it divides the aged and the young. Appearance in this documentary is the tool the director uses to uncover the strength of character of six old women whose ages range from 73 t0 91. It is self-evident that not all women would like to be as unconventionally dressed as these women. But an awful lot of old women (and men) “keep on keeping on” in Pete Seeger’s words. And this is rarely seen in films but is in my experience very common in real life.