“Do you not remember we are both born of Decay?”
Giacomo Leopardi’s 1824 Dialogue between Fashion and Death is a curious text. By turns bleak and amusing, it imagines an unraveling conversation between these two entities as they discuss power, the body, and the sway of mortality. Early on in their verbal sparring, Fashion poses this question of decay to Death: deeming them kindred forces birthed from the ashes of decline.
While there’s much to be pulled apart in this dialogue (not least Leopardi’s obvious distaste for the whims found in the world of clothes and taste-making), a prickly question lingers for the modern reader. How do we reconcile decline with our shifting appearance? Fashion remains embattled over time, age, desirability, status, and change, especially within female culture.
Fashion’s affinity with passing time is readily apparent. Our literal movement through days and months fuels a constant merry-go-round of trends, new faces and new looks – not to mention that ever-shifting hall of mirrors where what’s novel and what’s (apparently) démodé is regularly switched. But, when it comes to thinking about time’s relationship with mortality and beauty, things become murkier. Consider decay’s subtle sway over fashion…
There’s the fickleness of fabric itself; clothes are ephemeral objects that eventually disintegrate. In fact, decay is found in its most acceptable form when fashion confronts our relationship with time. For Hussein Chalayan’s 1993 graduate collection, he buried material and iron filings in his friend’s garden for several months, letting everything oxidize before being dug up again to create mottled, wearable garb. Moschino’s more recent spectacle, in 2016, showed garments singed and blackened, as though the models had just stumbled free from a fire in a ballroom. Here, decay is playful:
Elsewhere, one finds fashion shoots that readily reckon with mortality. Richard Avedon’s ‘In Memory of the late Mr and Mrs Comfort’ sees model Nadja Auerman undergoing a variety of activities: sweeping the floors, staring in a mirror, clinging to the embrace of her husband. The catch? Her husband is a skeleton: clad in a variety of natty suits. It is a powerful shoot, juxtaposing vitality and decay, life and death, cloth and bone. It’s also satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek: as though Leopardi’s dialogue has been brought alive, embodied to unsettling ends.
In other arenas though, we’re less comfortable with contemplating decay – especially when it comes to aging, and the female body. ‘Decay’ connotes something negative: a form of demise, deterioration, disintegration (and other less alliterative words too). The transformation of skin as time rolls forward is must be halted and hidden, attacked with anti-aging creams and dressed around. It is not a quality to be emphasized – let alone foregrounded – but accommodated.
Perhaps this is slowly shifting. After all, it is something of a silver age for the representation of older women in visual culture. Models from Daphne Selfe to Jan De Villeneuve are regularly name-checked. Figures including Joan Didion (for Celine), Joni Mitchell (for YSL), and Catherine Deneuve (for Louis Vuitton) have graced glossy ads in recent years. Perhaps we are growing more comfortable with seeing older, powerful women in our imagery: ones who’ve accumulated plenty of successful decades behind them.
Then again, these figures remain notable anomalies, cast in relief against a continuingly youthful status quo – almost oppressively so. Adolescence reigns, our general conception of beauty entangled in the young, smooth and lithe (it’s also worth noting that many of these older individuals fit within other value systems the fashion industry likes to perpetuate too – especially when it comes to both skin colour and dress size.)
There are other expectations to unravel. As the model Alex Bruni, herself nearing sixty, acknowledges in an astute article for Vestoj, “the classic model is a known prototype in the modelling industry… a woman whose image embodies an ageless beauty, rather than an ageing reality.” Elsewhere, she suggests that the world of fashion ““fails to represent the physiological realities of ageing… if one cannot be young, at least one should avoid showing marked signs of ageing.”
This is echoed in Julia Twigg’s introduction to her book Fashion and Age: Dress, The Body, and Later Life. Twigg writes of fashion that “its discourses are frenetic and frothy; its images glamorous and – above all – youthful. Age by contrast is perceived as a time of greyness, marked by retirement from display or engagement with the erotic and style-conscious. It is associated with a toned-down, self-effacing presentation.”
This is perhaps the crux. Whose bodies are we permitted to see? How should they look? In what contexts are they ‘allowed’ to appear? There are steps in more interesting directions, especially towards non-grey, dynamic ends (this shoot by for Hunger magazine by Scarlett Carlos Clarke for example). But there remain taboos.
The notion of ageing as decay, something in which the markers of time are visible and celebrated, is hard to find in the mainstream. And the potential of older bodies to appear in Twigg’s erotic contexts – alluring, desirable, and perhaps dangerous – is largely untapped (Alex Bruni, mentioned above, does bridge the commercial and subversive in her work: ranging from catwalk shows to life modeling). The time is ripe for age to be depicted, fearlessly, as it is: something powerful, interesting, mutable and complex. Something that can be challenging and gorgeous too. Our visual landscape has so many unexplored avenues. But first we need to fragment the looking glass, and release a new understanding of beauty that accommodates a plurality of stories, with fresh approaches that hallow both appearance and experience.
by Rosalind Jana