Did you watch the documentary Fabulous Fashionistas on Channel 4 on Tuesday night? Oh my God it was incredible. The fashion industry is all too often accused of being elitist – unaffordable, obsessed with youth and thinness – but film maker Sue Bourne’s documentary for Channel 4’s Cutting Edge series proves that this needn't be the case.
She profiled six women who refuse to fade into the background, disappear, go quietly into the night – they are the British equivalents of the ladies who feature on Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog, but some of them do it on a shoestring – charity shops and catalogues all the way.
My personal favourite of the six was Baroness Trumpington - at 91 the oldest woman in the House of Lords. She's a catalogue addict – “for everything from your pants to your overcoat” and was particularly proud of a £20 suit which she thinks came from a catalogue bearing the brilliant name of ‘Chums’. Watching Baroness T greedily opening another delivery (“it’s frightfully exciting”) and barking, “Horses! It’s a bag... I hope” reminded me of exactly how I act when one of my ASOS orders arrive! I want to be like her when I grow up.
They are the living embodiment of Jenny Joseph’s poem, Warning, and the line “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, With a red hat which doesn’t go...” Whether shopping on a pension like Bridget, who has a knack for finding stellar pieces in Oxfam, or going the designer route like Jilly “I saw these in a magazine and they’re Prada and you know what that means – I nearly fainted – then I thought ‘well sod it’”, these women understand the power of clothes in helping them retain their sense of identity as they enter their 80s and 90s.
When Jean lost her husband, who she met at 15 and was married to for 56 years, she felt lost, until she decided to find herself a job. At 70 she became GAP’s oldest employee, then switched that for a job in the trendy boutique over the road. She jogs three times a week and has an amazingly edgy look which can only be described as ‘street style’ and a fierce micro-fringe.
Bridget explained, “How I look is to do with my identity and the fun of it, it’s nothing to do with looking younger” while Sue is having none of that ‘little old lady’ nonsense: “Growing old is a privilege and an adventure...Beige is the colour of death.”
87 year old dancer and choreographer Jilly had a jaw-dropping physique and attitude to life: “The minute you give an inch, life or illness will take a mile.” She married her husband Peter when she was 52 and he was 25, and admitted cheerfully “I’ve been quite a naughty girl, I’ve led quite a racy life” And what’s her response to those who called her marriage to a man 27 years her junior ‘disgusting’? “34 years later all those people have either died, or they look silly.”
It's all too easy to become lulled into thinking that fashion, style, 'dressing up' are silly, frivolous things that shouldn't 'matter' - and in some ways they are. But what these women show is that when you put yourself in charge, when you call the shots and dress in a way that reflects how you feel inside and who you believe yourself to be, without giving a damn about what anyone else thinks, it can be an amazingly liberating, empowering feeling.
Maybe it comes with age, or maybe it's an attitude they possessed all their lives, but it's something we could all do with a bit more of - that reminder that, no matter what magazines and websites tell you, you are not at the mercy of 'trends' and 'must-haves' - fashion is simply a tool that you can use to express yourself and definitely not something to be intimidated by or afraid of.
If you didn't catch Fabulous Fashionistas you can watch it on Channel 4's catch-up service, 4oD, here. ‘Inspirational’ is an overused word, but in this context I can think of no better to describe the spirit of these incredible women.