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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.