80 is the new 18

As fun as four 20-year olds – age is all about perspective

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Illustrations: Maxine Aufrichtig

I started thinking about old age and ageing having recently visited home for the holidays. For two weeks my mom would wake up every day at 5am to cycle 40km and I’d usually catch her between dropping off her bicycle and slipping on her running shoes so that she could follow up with a 10km run. My mom’s 50-something years old, a grandmother of three and besides her pottery, macrame and gardening commitments, this year she’ll compete in an Iron Man competition.

My ouma was also at our house, chain smoking cigarettes on the balcony and complaining about things. She’s in her 70s but you’d be forgiven for thinking that she’s a nonagenarian. For as long as I remember my ouma’s hands have been crippled by arthritis and because of this she has done little more than wait for the reaper.

Stuck to the fridge at our house is a printout of a 90-year-old woman doing the splits. At first I thought it was one of those whimsical wallpapers that are so frequently shared via Facebook. However, after googling ‘Phyliss Sue’ I discovered that this woman does in fact exist and at 90 years old and with arthritis in her spine is able to, along with the splits, do a full back bend and headstand.

Phyliss Sue’s secret? At 50 she started her own fashion label, she learned Italian and French in her 70s, took to tango and trapeze at 80 and walked into her first yoga class at 85. She’s never stopped learning and believes that 20 is not better than being 90, just different, because at 90 she’s more aware of being alive, more appreciative of her life, more compassionate and much more patient.

Given the world’s obsession with youth it’s interesting to note how some fashion houses are using people in their autumn years to market their brands, and not in a shock-value United Colours of Benetton way either. Lanvin worked with 82-year-old Jacqueline Tajah Murdock, a former dancer at the Apollo Theater; Louis Vuitton employed 86-year-old artist Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots and Daphne Selfe, 87, regarded as the world’s oldest supermodel, most recently landed a campaign for Vans. Then there’s the stylist, sometimes model and beauty entrepreneur, 66-year-old Linda Rodin, who the Olsen twins used as the face of their fashion line; L’Oréal Paris got 69-year-olds Helen Mirren and Diane Keaton on board; Saint Laurent x 71-year-old Joni Mitchell collaborated and tipping the scale at 93 is Iris Apfel for MAC.

What else? Angela Lansbury has been on the cover of The GentlewomanAdvanced Style, the street style blog focusing on older men and women inspired a documentary, and Céline put out one of their most memorable campaigns for a while now when Juergen Teller photographed 80-year-old literary star Joan Didion.

Those Céline ads show Joan Didion as the epitome of graceful old age in understated clothes, muted tones and chic style, and the French fashion house must be commended for featuring a woman of such substance. But that’s not to say that age should dictate how one behaves, and there’s no reason why OAPs can’t be famous for the sake of being famous and behave just as badly as the teenyboppers we usually associate with reality TV.

86-year-old Instagram star Baddie Winkle is testament to how one gives less f**ks the older you get. With a bio that reads “Stealing your man since 1928” and 1.7 million followers and counting, the gangster granny counts Miley Cyrus as a fan and has admitted to sliding into Drake’s DMs. What’s most evident, in all her statement Tee and tie-dye glory, is just how much fun she’s having turning perception on its head while throwing a somewhat gnarled middle finger at societal norms.

Baddie becoming the poster girl for Dimepiece swimsuits, a streetwear brand targeting Coachella festival-goers, may or may not have been inspired by American Apparel, who used 62-year-old Jacky O’Shaughnessy to pose in various yoga moves in order to sell their skimpy basic to twenty-somethings. However, the fact that we can even have a who wore it better debate over two grans in one-pieces aimed at millenials, well, knock me over with a feather. 

Messr Tom Ford, who seems immune to ageing, has a line of jewellery that was inspired by “a couple who had been together for a long time,” saying: “I am tired of the cult of youth. The cultural rejection of old age, the stigmatisation of wrinkles, grey hair, of bodies furrowed by the years. I am fascinated by Diana Vreeland, Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois, women who have let time embrace them without ever cheating. Society today condemns this, me, I celebrate it.”

Someone else celebrating old age is fresh-faced blonde twenty-something, Christina Belchere, the blogger behind Fashion Grandpas. Photographing what she describes as her “fashion icons, spirit guides and life goals” Christina captures older dudes looking dapper and sometimes even photographs herself in outfits inspired by them. This is more than simply stalking, and Christina often interacts with her subjects, saying: “the older ones have so much more to say… they’ve experienced more of life and maybe even a war or three. It’s never a dull conversation I promise you that. You should try it sometime. It will be the best conversation you will have all day or all year.”

What this proves is that while some people are already old at 18, it’s possible to still be young at 90. Time is just a concept and the only way someone should be able to tell your exact age is by peeking at the first two digits of your ID number.

And it’s refreshing to see that while the fashion world continues to do a Benjamin Button, where everyone is getting younger and younger, there’s something of a diversification in fashion, too, where we’re celebrating silver foxes and their enviable salt and pepper sides along with their accomplishments, wisdom and grace.

My ouma married, had children, never worked, never drove, never even handled money and because she was born in a time where women didn’t really have the opportunity to live she decided that the only logical next step was to grow old. For as long as I’ve known her she’s been somewhere between 50 and death, compounding all of her years in her body and mind. My mom on the other hand made a decision to spend her early retirement setting new personal bests, eating healthy and learning how to use the various functions on her cellphone (I’d share her Insta handle but I don’t want to incriminate myself with those dodgy #TBTs of me).

Old age is not a disease, and if the alternative is death then it’s something that we should all hope to catch. The secret, I think, is how we deal with it, and if the current batch of influential old-timers is anything to go by then we should not go gentle into that good night. See all you Bad Grampas and Rad Grandmas at the Bingo hall.