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Runway Recap: Aging Out

So since last week’s Runway Recap was all about one of my most loaded, most complicated, most compelling fashion topics — namely, fashion and size — I suppose it’s only fair that this week’s should hit one of my other gigantic hot buttons:

Fashion and age.

For this season’s “real woman” challenge (serious air-quotes, I hate hate hate that phrase), Project Runway did something they’ve never done, and it’s about high fucking time they did: They asked the designers to design for old women. Each client had a different design request — one wanted something comfortable, one wanted something festive and celebratory, one wanted something dressy she could wear on cruises, etc. But for all of the designers, the basic challenge was the same: Make something for your client that’s beautiful and exciting and fashion-forward… and also age-appropriate.

Which is really fucking hard.

I’ve written before about how hard it is to say “sexy older woman” in the metaphorical language of fashion… not because the words and grammar aren’t there, but because our culture considers the very concept of “sexy woman over fifty” to be nonsense. I’ve written before about the whole question of what it even means to be “age appropriate” in the first place, and whether the very notion is ageist and oppressive, or whether it’s a way to express love and respect for your age, or whether it’s some of both. And as a fifty-one year old woman who cares deeply about fashion and sex and feminism and ageism… this is not an abstract point for me. This is a paradox I live every day of my life in. It sometimes drives me up a tree that I started getting seriously interested in fashion in my late forties, right when fashion was losing interest in me. (Of course, as someone who was fat for much of her adult life, fashion has never been all that interested in me… so there’s that.)

And since “age and fashion” is so loaded, not just because of how fashion is designed, but because of how fashion is criticized, I want to spend more time than usual this week talking, not just about the designs, but about the judging.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Stanley

When Stanley first said he was going to put his client in a strapless jumpsuit, I pegged him for the bottom three for sure. Strapless jumpsuits are hard to pull off even if you’re a tall, slender, athletic twenty-five-year-old with breasts that defy gravity. When Stanley said he was doing one for the old-woman challenge, I thought he was high. I was like, “Whatever ‘sexy and age-appropriate’ means for an old woman, it sure as hell doesn’t mean ‘strapless jumpsuit.’”

But he nailed it. A really good way for older women to look sexy is to go fairly form-fitting, with a structure that showcases the body… but not showing a lot of skin. The strapless jumpsuit with the snug and elegant little jacket did exactly that. The very fact that it was a strapless jumpsuit made it sexy and daring and unconventional… but the cover-up jacket meant it wasn’t trashy. And the color was perfect: understated and elegant, but rich and eye-catching, letting the design details show through. (More on that topic when I get to Daniel.) And his client clearly loved it. She rocked it. She looked like Helen Mirren, or Lena Fucking Horne. The fit was definitely weird in the crotchal area… but apart from that, this was out of the park. I have no arguments whatsoever with Stanley getting the win.

But I will also say: Tom and Lorenzo nailed the judges on this one, hard. In just about every single so-called “real woman” challenge that Project Runway has ever done, the winner has been the designer whose client looked most like a model. TLo called Bullshit, and I do, too. If you’re going to challenge designers to make clothes for women who aren’t built like fashion models, it is profoundly fucked-up to keep rewarding the ones who, through the luck of the draw, end up designing for women who look like fashion models.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Samantha

Still. No problem with Stanley getting the win. But I gotta say: If it hadn’t been for the puffy cap sleeves and the giant black bow, in my mind Samantha would have given Stanley a serious run for his money.

This design falls squarely into an entirely different category of age-appropriate wear: namely, the “I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks” category, the “I’ve been around way too long to let anyone’s damn opinion get to me, I don’t have enough time left to waste it on anything but doing what the fuck I want” category.

The thing is… as hot-cha-cha and coochie-mama as this outfit is, it’s actually pretty appropriate. The skirt is a slinky leopard-print… but it’s knee-length, body-conscious but not skin-tight. The top is shiny, in a color that could stop traffic at fifty feet… but it’s simple, and not tight, and flows gracefully into the skirt. It doesn’t say, “I’m insecure and desperate to look younger than I am.” It says, “I know exactly who I am, and I fucking love it, I’ve been around the block and I know the score and I could make your eyes roll back in your head.”

And the client loved it, and rocked it hard. Samantha heard her client say that she was proud and happy about her body and wanted to show it off… and she gave her that, in trumps, and with a trumpet fanfare. The big black bow at the waist is ridiculous — it should have just been a simple black band — and the puffy cap sleeves bring a little-girl vibe that’s wildly incongruous and just flat-out wrong. But if it hadn’t been for those elements, I might have argued hard for giving this one the win.

As for the judging… You know, I often don’t like Joan Rivers. She does “punching down” comedy way too often, and relies too hard on generic crassness and shock for her humor. But it was smart to have her judge this episode. She’s not just a self-appointed fashion expert: she is the god-queen of over-the-top, “I don’t give a fuck” old-lady fashion. And she was absolutely right to call the other judges out when they were questioning this outfit’s taste level. She was totally right: If an old woman has tattoos and a buzz-cut, then she wants to wear a dress like this — and she damn well should wear a dress like this. And a dress like this is exactly right for her.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Michelle

Michelle’s was probably my next favorite. I see Tom and Lorenzo’s point — there’s a danger in old women going retro, it can look too much like you just never got rid of your old clothes. (A guideline I once heard was, “If you wore the look when it first came out, you shouldn’t wear it when it’s being revived.”) But I think this dress is a sufficiently modernized version of retro for it to work here. It doesn’t actually look like a Fifties dress: it looks like a modern dress influenced by a Fifties aesthetic. It’s beautifully made. It fits the client like a dream. It covers enough of her body to be age-appropriate, but it isn’t in the least bit stodgy. It radiates exuberance and lightness and joy — and it made the client look radiant. I think the judges were right to love it. I’m sorry that the Spanish Prisoner team-judging rules meant it got stuck in the middle, and didn’t get critiqued. I don’t object in principle — I think the “teams” thing is actually working really well, and I think the designers need to not shrug it off when their teammates are tanking. But I wish I’d heard a more thorough analysis of this one.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Richard

The fuck?

This is not a dress. This is a beach cover-up. It even looks like it’s made of terrycloth.

So I’m mostly going to use this one to rant at the judges. They kept gassing on about how Richard’s outfit looked “youthful.” First of all, no it didn’t, I don’t see any young fashionistas wearing bat-wing beach cover-ups in hospital green. Unless they’re at the beach. But second, and way the hell more important: Will you please stop using “youthful” as a compliment? Will you please stop using “youthful” as a synonym for “colorful,” “joyful,” “playful,” “eye-catching,” “exuberant”? It’s never okay. And it is double-dog especially not okay in a FUCKING CHALLENGE ABOUT MAKING OLD WOMEN LOOK AND FEEL BEAUTIFUL. Making clothes for old women is not about making us look younger. It’s about making the age we are look good. Or it should be. You are not fucking well going to make us feel awesome in our skin and our clothes if you keep telling us that “looking good” = “looking young.” Fuck you.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Daniel

Snore.

There’s nothing really wrong with Daniel’s look, and a fair amount that’s right with it. But “black suit with trousers” is such an old-lady style cliché. You can buy a suit like this in any department store in the country. Daniel took the challenge to balance beautiful and exciting and fashion-forward with age-appropriate, and put almost all his eggs in the “age-appropriate” basket. The result: a tasteful, decently-made sleeping pill.

And the biggest problem is the color. You know how earlier, I said that the color of Stanley’s outfit let the details show through? In Daniel’s outfit, the color meant the details got swallowed whole. There are some nice details here — the asymmetric collar, the chevron sleeves, the odd little fastening at the waist — but you can barely see them. Yes, I know the client said she wanted black. That’s the point where the designer has to step in with their vision and experience. That’s the point where the designer has to say, “I hear that you want black, but I think it’s not going to work. Let’s talk about some color options that are just as tasteful as black, but that will kick things up a notch.” I’m puzzled over why the judges liked this one so much: I don’t know if they have a narrowly limited window for what works on old women, or if they’ve just made Daniel their pet. Anyway.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Layana

Not bad. It’s a cool print, and while the still photo makes it look somewhat bunchy, it moved well on the runway. But it really, really, really needed to be just a couple of inches longer in the skirt. Especially since it was a bit see-through at the hem. In the metaphorical language of fashion, a short skirt generally means either “little girl” or “young woman.” Older women can sometimes get away with it if the styling is mature or sporty (I’ve done shorter dresses with tights and boots); but it’s way too easy for a short skirt on an older woman to look like we’re uncomfortable with our age and are trying to look younger than we are. And I think that’s exactly where this one went. A swing and a miss for Layana.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Kate

I see where Kate was going with this. But I think it missed the mark. It looks like a Frankendress, like the mutant offspring of two totally different dresses. It looks like a long-sleeved sweater pulled on over a summer dress when it suddenly got too chilly, and the sweater was the only thing you had handy, so you wore it anyway even though it doesn’t go with the dress at all. And I think partly because of that, and partly because the print of the skirt is so light and airy, it looks almost little-girl-ish.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Tu

In the battle to be both age-appropriate and fashion-forward, Tu managed to be both tasteless and boring. A bunchy shirtdress in a drab green, with a ridiculous handkerchief hem. It looks like a half-assed RenFayre costume. Nobody at any age would look good in this. It’s the worst of all worlds.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Amanda

Just sad. Shapeless. The floppy sleeves and handkerchief hem and I don’t know what you call that neckline were trying to be flirty and fun, but they just fell flat, and looked even sadder for the trying. Like she was going for the “cheerfully not giving a fuck” look, but got timid and stopped short. But to her credit, Amanda knew she’d failed.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Patricia

Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me.

By all means. Take a big, beautiful, classy woman, and swath her in a ginormous capelet of ugly stiff fabric that’s somehow both gaping and binding. You know that style of pottery/sculpture where they soak fabric in clay? We did it in fifth grade art class, I think. That’s what this looks like. I’m trying to think of some commentary on this that connects it with my analysis of age and fashion, but my brain is too busy trying to crawl out of my skull and find an acid bath to wash out this memory. Patricia is so lucky that her teammates saved her bacon on this one. I liked her work on the first challenge, and really wanted to see where she was going… but I am done. I am overdone. I am burnt to a crisp.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Benjamin

But I am shedding no tears over Benjamin getting the auf. And not just because his “I will bravely step in and take a leadership role even though I am a complete horse’s ass” number was getting up my nose. If you don’t know that older women commonly have bigger upper arms, and you neglect to measure her arms when you’re making sleeves, and you consequently make your client look like she’s in a shiny turquoise straitjacket, you deserve to go home. Even if this had fit, it would have been sad: that skirt looks both little-girlish and dowdy, and that stiff shiny fabric shows every little mistake along with plenty of big ones, and he relied too much on the color to carry it. At best, this looks like the dress in your closet that’s two sizes two small, but it looked weirdly awesome on you twenty years ago and you can’t bear to get rid of it. Bye-bye.

Comments

  1. Emptyell says

    Great recap! I wish my daughter were here so I could have an excuse to watch PR again. Too bad you couldn’t have been one of the judges.

  2. ah58 says

    Why is it they can use age appropriate models in this episode and not have been able to use size appropriate ones in the last one?

  3. johnthedrunkard says

    To put myself instantly in the wrong I need to cop to my point of view:
    I am a White-Male-Heterosexual-Goddess-Addled-Lustpuppy in my late 50s.
    Who has never seen ‘Runway.’

    I think the ‘age appropriate’ concept is doomed. Working from that mindset, how can they avoid drivling on and on about ‘youthfulness?’

    Every ‘youthful’ feature and its opposite ‘flaw’ are found in women of all ages. 15 year olds have floppy arms, 60 year olds have pert little breasts. I think the only genuine plus of ‘youth’ is that young women have had less time to suffer the bad effects of social and personal actions. Subtract 20 to 40 years of soul-destroying work, enforced sedentary living, junk food and bad sex, and the ‘age appropriate’ notion fades away.

    I was running errands in Berkeley last week. Maybe it was the weather, but I was just stunned at the seemingly endless number of deeply, shockingly attractive women I was passing on the sidewalks. Not women wearing any particular style (I can’t remember any ‘special’ costume) certainly not women who were ‘done up’ for any apparent agenda. Just healthy women, who seemed to be anywhere from 40 to 60+, taking care of whatever they were doing that afternoon.

    So ‘fashion’ needs to address the needs of the floppy-armed and per-breasted and every other possibility. Fit the clothes to the actual person and the extra burden of ‘appropriateness’ is gone.

  4. stever says

    I don’t consider the idea of a sexy woman over fifty to be nonsense. But I’m a 66-year-old Sophia Loren fan.

  5. says

    So ‘fashion’ needs to address the needs of the floppy-armed and per-breasted and every other possibility. Fit the clothes to the actual person and the extra burden of ‘appropriateness’ is gone.

    Fine, but the notion of “age-appropriate” is really just code for the fact that floppy-armedness and such are far more prevalent in the old than in the young. Dispensing with the term won’t make that go away. Nor will, for that matter, the number of shockingly attractive middle-aged women in Berkeley.

  6. scramble says

    I’m not sure if Layana’s dress needed to be much longer. Her client has amazing legs. I think the problem is the sleeves-they’re a really blah cut, and a very uninteresting length. In fact, I hate them. I think a looser, kimono-cut sleeve that goes just past the elbow would have suited much better.
    And I completely disagree with you on the green shirtdress! Yes, there is too much fabric hanging out around the waist. But, clean up the excess waist fabric and make the collar a little more dramatic/bigger, and it would have been pretty solid in my opinion. The colour is GREAT with the client’s hair.

  7. says

    And I completely disagree with you on the green shirtdress! Yes, there is too much fabric hanging out around the waist. But, clean up the excess waist fabric and make the collar a little more dramatic/bigger, and it would have been pretty solid in my opinion. The colour is GREAT with the client’s hair.

    Yeah, I would totally wear that– if the bunching was fixed and without the handkerchief hem. The main problem with putting it on that model is that her body isn’t really the right shape for it. Accentuating the waist on a person who doesn’t have much of one isn’t a good idea.

    What I do like about the dress, aside from the color (also a redhead, here) is how soft and flowy it looks. Shirtdresses all too often are stiff, which means there’s gaping between the buttons if the fit is off even slightly, and they’re not that comfortable to sit in. This dress– assuming you fixed that weirdness in the front– doesn’t look like it would have either problem. But no thanks on making the collar bigger…never been much for that.

  8. intransigentia says

    I think the turquoise monstrosity could have been redeemed. Start by actually using the correct measurements. Then, bring that interesting wide collar almost to the tip of the shoulder (but leave room for bra straps. Press the pleat in the front of the skirt further down, so it’s more like a placket than a poof-maker, and maybe insert behind the placket, a strip of something even more interesting than the turquoise. Peacock?

    I don’t see any hope at all for the one you described as fabric soaked in clay. Just reprehensible.

  9. laurie says

    Benjamin is gone, which is good. He’s the perfect example of Dunning Kruger in action. No matter how badly he did, he never seemed to realize just how terrible his work was. Too bad Patricia is still there, she really doesn’t seem to be able to sew at all.

    Tu’s dress reminds me of a snuggie with a belt. Richard’s dress was awful. Didn’t anyone tell him that if you use casing for elastic the casing is supposed to match the curve of the waist?

  10. freemage says

    Non-watcher of the show, but dammit, Greta, your analysis is always fascinating. I’ll admit I was a bit more forgiving when I first looked at the green shirt-dress than you, but that’s from a still–it might’ve worked less or more depending on when it moved.

    As I scrolled down, I started to see Layana’s dress, and was confused as to why it was so far down the list–it seemed pretty strong to me. Then the dress stopped while the image kept going, and I was pretty much of a mind with you–a few more inches, at least, please, and it probably would move up the ranks quickly.

    That first pantsuit, though? Va-voom! I really like the look there. It’s an absolute head-turner.

  11. Greta Christina says

    Why is it they can use age appropriate models in this episode and not have been able to use size appropriate ones in the last one?

    ah58 @ #2: Because in this week’s challenge, the “models” weren’t models — they were clients. The dresses were made specifically for these individual women, based on their specs and preferences, and (in theory at least) made to their measurements. Last week, the designers were all making outfits for this one singer, Miranda Lambert, who obviously couldn’t model all the dresses on the runway — so they had models model them. Why they didn’t get models with bodies vaguely like Lambert’s, I have no idea.

    Every ‘youthful’ feature and its opposite ‘flaw’ are found in women of all ages.

    johnthedrunkard @ #3: The thing is, the concept of “age appropriate” clothing isn’t just about what clothing looks good on what body type, or what clothing conceals which body part and displays which other body part. The two pieces I linked to above, where I say “I’ve written before…” talk about this in more detail. In short: Fashion is like a language — and part of what that language expresses is age. A pinafore may cover/ reveal exactly the same body parts as a standard mini-dress… but it’s still going to read as little-girlish.

  12. otrame says

    The single most beautiful woman I ever saw was about 65-70.

    It strikes me that the biggest problem the “average woman” has with fashion is getting stuff that actually fits. This is as much a problem for slender “perfect body” types as it is for those of us who were last slender at the age of 18 (which for me is roughly 45 years ago). My advice to my granddaughter is “Get something that FITS you. Concentrate on that. Almost anything will look good if it fits.”

    Of course that is only true for young and slender. Those of us who are not slender, those of us who are fat, have to work with the fact that even if it fits (not easy) you will still look fat. Still, a major reason that the first one wins is it fits.

    The bottom three were HIDEOUS. And on top of that, they didn’t frigging fit.

    The green one I kind of liked, though that kind of skirt has no business with that top. That top, with a full skirt and a wider belt would look good, again assuming it fits, for big women.

    I am totally not into fashion, like whoa, but I enjoy your recaps a very great deal, and I don’t have to watch what would be for me (YMMV, of course–just assume I have no taste, you would have a good chance of being right) a painful television show. Thank you so much. These posts are fun.

  13. says

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to fix that turquoise dress. Supposing it had been made large enough to fit the client properly. Well it would still be unflatteringly short. OK, make it the right length. Now it’s still got an unflattering pleat on the front that makes her look like she has a large stomach. Fix that. Now it’s still a boring dress with a stiff skirt. Benjamin deserved his “auf”. I did like the fabric though.

    And, thinking of fabric, we had two dresses in large distracting prints. One was a real success and one not. I think the key was that in the successful dress, the shape was kept simple and elegant. Details would be overwhelmed by the print, so there weren’t any. Good move.

    Amanda would have been helped (as would several designers over the course of this show) if she had thought to give herself some coordinating backup fabric. She could have made a stunning dress if that print had been one element of the outfit instead of the whole thing. Anytime a designer is going with a strong print, or really unusual fabric, I’d advise them to get a little less of it, and get a couple of yards of something inexpensive in a coordinating solid color. Then if the print really isn’t working as the only fabric, you aren’t stuck trying to “make it work”.

    My only big objection to the beach cover-up dress was a small detail. The elastic casing on the front stopped short of the seam between the turquoise and the black. It looked like a sewing mistake, instead of a deliberate design element. Even though I liked a lot of the rest of the dress, my eye kept coming back to that. It bothered me. The fact that it looked like a beach cover-up dress didn’t bother me so much. If she swims a lot, or spends a lot of time at the beach, why not have a dress that looks like a swim cover-up, as long as it’s a good-looking cover-up? (I also think that one was too short. But that’s a gripe i have about a lot of the designs on PR.)

  14. says

    @13 I think you nailed it. When I was watching the episode I kept repeating “why didn’t you get a solid too?”. Also the fact that she got so caught up in finding the right print that she bought the wrong type of fabric for her original design. I get frustrated that I see that happen over and over on Project Runway, they see a color or print they love and don’t pay attention to whether the fabric is actually the right weight/stretch/stiffness/etc for the outfit.

  15. says

    Most of the women I find ‘sexy’ are over forty. Many over fifty, and several into their sixties. There’s an inherent perception of wisdom and life experience that also figures into this. I find it disturbing how older women are routinely discarded. Good article, Greta.

  16. jesse says

    I’ll say this about “age-appropriate” — at least from the perspective of a guy. There is something to it, though I think Greta is right about the deeply messed up way the fashion industry sees it.

    I mean, to give an example: when I was a teenager I could get away with a funky haircut and the ripped jeans punk rocker look. I am over 40 now and doing it just seems, well, kind’a dumb. I’ll rock a little of it once in a while (my wife says I have jeans I should throw out, and there’s an old denim jacket that brings back memories) But not like I did in 1985. And I no longer try to dress like I am 22.

    When I see other old dudes my age dressed in clubwear for 20somethings, I am like “Man, stop trying, this totally makes it look like you are the creepy guy hitting on 18-year-olds.” FFS, trying to relive your freaking youth? Puh-leeze.

    Does this mean I don’t still break out my Sex Pistols album once in a while? ‘Course not. But in terms of fashion I feel like there *is* a concept of age-appropriateness that is well, appropriate. Greta outlines it well when she talks about dressing like you are comfortable with who you are (cf Joan Rivers). The fashion industry, unfortunately, always seems to have a serious case of arrested adolescence.

  17. Matrim says

    I’ve always had a problem with the term “age appropriate.” I honestly don’t think I understand what it’s supposed to convey outside of the concept Greta bring up about how we don’t see how older women can be sexy. I don’t believe there is such a thing as being age inappropriate; all I see is people who are on message or off message. If someone is trying to convey something with their look (professionalism, sexual availability, quirkiness, fun, etc.) and they succeed, they are on message. If they fail, they are off message. It doesn’t matter who is the target of the message (self, a specific person, all people, etc.), and it doesn’t matter what the age of the person is. I’ve seen 20 somethings that can’t pull off a low cut micro mini dress, and I’ve seen 50+ folks who can. I’ve seen men in their 60′s pull off looks that guys in their 30′s could only dream about. I’ve always seen fashion as being a set of loose guidelines that work best when tailored to individuals. I HATE the sweeping generalization when it comes to how people should dress, or what they should do with their bodies in general. Each person is different, and each has thinks that do and do not suit them. Irrespective of age.

  18. nonnie says

    Just wanted to say again I enjoy these recaps so much! (I have never watched the show.) At first I thought that leopard print skirt was an eyesore, but you’re right. If she rocks it, likes it, and looks good in it, then it’s awesome! I should accept that not everyone has my taste (and thank goodness because there are quite enough of us in jeans and t-shirts).

    Also thank you for introducing me to the term “handkerchief hem”. I have been searching for that since I spent half of middle school asking in a vague yet passionate way for “you know, a flowy skirt”.

  19. says

    Nonnie,

    The thing about a handkerchief hem is that it’s not just flowy, but uneven in length. You see that bit between her legs where it goes up? Handkerchief hems are kind of risky that way because in a strong breeze or while sitting down you could accidentally reveal to much. They also tend to resemble a little girl’s fairy costume or the skirt to Cinderella’s dress when she was still in rags and hadn’t gone to the ball yet. That’s why, while I actually like that dress, I’d want it with a normal flowy hem (the same length all around) and not handkerchief style.

  20. says

    @#14
    Thanks. I was just thinking, so often we see a designer’s entire look be sabotaged by a bad decision they made on fabric during their frantic 30 minutes at Mood. I’ve visited Mood, and it’s huge and confusing, and I can see why they might get flustered.

    Perhaps PR might do well to have some backup fabric available to everyone, so this problem does not derail what might have been a great outfit. Something like basic jersey fabric in black, white, and navy, that anybody could use. Perhaps with a limitation that it may not be more than a third of the finished look.

    I’d rather see the real creativity of these designers, than just see how good they are at shopping quickly and sewing fast. I also prefer the 2-day challenges, I think we see better results.

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