Sarah Jane Adams dubs it her “cleaning lady moment”.
When the 62-year-old antique jewellery dealer and model arrived for her fittings before David Jones’ summer parade this month – Adams’ first catwalk appearance – someone mistook her as part of the cleaning crew.
ut rather than get upset or angry, Adams poked fun at herself on Instagram.
“Turned up for a job yesterday and someone thought I was the cleaning lady … Maybe I am?! PS I love cleaning. I would be an awesome cleaning lady. And big ups to all the cleaning ladies out there!” she posted to her account, which has 154,000 followers.
Jokes aside, in some way, Adams, and other models who represent a more diverse range of ages, ethnicities, body shapes and genders, are helping to “clean” the industry of well-established norms and ideals around beauty (generally thin, white and young).
In Australia, several modelling agencies have older women and men on their books, often in sections on their websites named “classics” or some other euphemism for over 40.
At the David Jones parade it was Adams, not the lithe 20-somethings, who received the loudest applause, just as 58-year-old Lou Kenny did at this year’s Melbourne Fashion Festival.
“58-year-old model is killing it at VAMFF” and “A 58 Y.O. Model Walked The VAMFF Runway Last Night & Totally Owned It” were among the headlines that followed.
Like it or not, the appearance of older models in runway shows generates news headlines because it’s still not the norm. And Adams doesn’t think it ever will be.
“I’m a businesswoman. Brands have to make money, we know who they design for. We know about beautiful young skin and lithe bodies, so realistically there will never be an even balance,” she said.
I cynically think this is flavour of the year, or maybe the decade but I don’t think we are reinventing the wheel here.
Sarah Jane Adams, jewellery designer and model
“I cynically think this is flavour of the year, or maybe the decade but I don’t think we are reinventing the wheel here. It’s buzzwords to me in the same way ‘heroin chic’ was the buzzword 10 years ago.”
Melbourne Fashion Festival chief executive Graeme Lewsey sees it a little more optimistically. He said the progress made in ethnic diversity over the past decade is proof of what’s achievable when it comes to age diversity.
“It’s progressing in the right way. We’re not there yet but I don’t think anyone is there yet,” he said.
The Festival, as well as next month’s City of Melbourne-run Melbourne Fashion Week both have diversity at the core of their values. But the number of older models on the runways can still mostly be counted on one hand.
Anneliese Seubert, one of Australia’s biggest exports during the 1990s’ supermodel era, said older models are valued for both their experience and their “relatability” to consumers.
Now in her mid-40s, Seubert thinks the fashion industry is succeeding in its bid for greater age diversity.
“[People] like to see a bit of themselves in it. Everyone is buying [the clothes] – it’s not just skinny 17-year-olds buying it. Everyone’s got to get dressed,” she said.
While casting at least one older model in shows is becoming more commonplace, designers still face accusations of tokenism.
New Zealand designer Karen Walker, who has used women aged 80-plus in several campaigns, said the casting of older models has to be done with integrity.
“A lot of brands have done it and it’s hard to tell if it’s the new norm or tokenism or a trend people feel they should be jumping on. That’s with age, gender, or anything that’s beyond the ‘predictable’ look,” she said.
“I always find it slightly jarring when it’s just one of the ‘other’. Go hard or don’t bother.”
In 2013 and 2015, Walker recruited Ari Seth Cohen, the US-based creator of the Advanced Style blog, to help cast two of her campaigns.
Cohen, who Vogue’s Vanessa Friedman has credited for helping drive interest in older fashion models, said the “clinical or depressing” stereotype of the “little old lady” is being challenged.
“Now you see ads for banks and you see women who are living their lives to the fullest … there’s a cooler image of ageing,” Cohen told Fairfax Media.
Yet brands still struggle with how to use older models so they don’t appear like “accessories”.
“The way brands use older women could use a shift. The way they are used is a trend – [95-year-old fashion icon] Iris Apfel did a campaign surrounded by young people. Why couldn’t it just be her?” he said.
Cohen, 35, said images of older models can be “powerful” but he can’t understand why they still generate so many headlines.
“The reason I did [Advanced Style] was to change people’s view of ageing but I asked why I even had to do that. It should just be the norm,” he said.
“There’s a lot of power in showing an older woman. It’s not only inspirational, it’s aspirational.
“When you have a wonderful older model, younger people can look at that person and think, ‘I can’t wait to get older, I can’t wait to be as free as that person.’ Now older people can look at that image and say, ‘Wow, I can continue to be that person I always was’.”
Cohen has worked with Adams and the two have formed a close relationship. He said the applause for her at the David Jones show is because she’s “badass” rather than an acknowledgment of her age.
“They’re [older women] not doing it for other people. It’s an expression of who they are. It’s not a self conscious thing. It’s not to impress someone. Or to wear the latest whatever. That knowledge of who you are comes out. And you can feel it.”
Walker thinks the extra applause given to older models is proof that the “job” of age diversity still “isn’t done”.
“Until none of it warrants comment, the conversation should keep going. Until people don’t feel the need to give that extra applause, it’s still a work in progress.”
Although Adams describes herself as “anti-fashion”, she relished her catwalk debut.
“The difference between me and a lot of people in the show is I am at the end of my career, I have nothing to prove.”
And nothing to lose.