The bustier bust-up and over 50s style

Now that the hype is over, Rachel Marie Walsh looks at the impact Helena and her bustier had on ageism in fashion.

Helena Christensen, the Danish supermodel and photographer, went to Gigi Hadid’s denim-themed birthday party in jeans and a bustier and The Mail on Sunday called her mutton. Not really news, you might think, but the columnist was Alexandra Shulman CBE, a lady who knows clothes.

She also knows Ms Christensen, 50, having put her on the cover of British Vogue five times during her quarter-century as editor.

Helena Christensen’s personal brand is provocative. She is perhaps best known for writhing on the beach in Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Love’ video and a much-reproduced Herb Ritts cover she did for LA Style in 1991, on which she wears a metal Thierry Mugler bodysuit. More recently she has modelled for Victoria’s Secret and Ultimo. She also designs and models her own lingerie for Triumph.

I note that this party outfit wasn’t even the model’s most revealing look of the month, she wore a strapless minidress with a plunging bustline too.

Like many of her contemporaries, Christensen seeks to make money from aspects of her appearance that helped others sell magazines and luxury goods for decades.

The original supermodels’ images were defined by what photographers, editors and inevitably the public projected onto them, they hadn’t the social media platforms that Hadid et al. use to connect.

They cannot be blamed for wanting to build on their own early successes. They did the work and clearly strive to maintain themselves physically. Christensen modelled that same Mugler bodysuit in the July 2018 InStyle, she was shot in a city street and during the day.

Observing that she still looks great is not generous, it’s just true.

There is nothing Helena needs to hide in the party photo. Her choice of jeans could be more flattering but there’s no bad skin, cellulite or other ‘unsightlies’. She followed the party’s dress code with her jeans and jacket and chose a top that both dovetails with her profile and hints at her and Gigi’s shared experience with Victoria’s Secret.

I suspect Ms Shulman knows all of this, her response to social media backlash from Ms Christensen’s friends and followers was that her MoS column is “meant to be controversial”. And you don’t have to be an editor to understand why deeming a woman’s clothes age-inappropriate is controversial.

Back in 1995, for one of the Christensen cover-issues, Ms Shulman commissioned a piece from Lisa Armstrong, now The Daily Telegraph’s Head of Fashion, titled Should A Woman Dress Her Age? The piece does not answer that question, of course, because it rests on an indefinable premise.

No clothes shop has an ‘Age 50+’ aisle and who’d be stupid enough to introduce one?

What Ms Armstrong does cover is the sensitivity of the subject and the strong reaction to the accusatory ‘Mutton Dressed as Lamb’ campaign The Mail ran the previous year (Goldie Hawn was a target).

Now, as then, things like this happen all the time. Something mean is published, everyone gasps and agrees how mean it is. We feel good about how much nicer we are than that mean, mean journalist.

The whole routine would be impossible if women weren’t so easily triggered, right?

There are opinion pieces that deserve outrage but this is just fashion. Not meant to be taken as seriously, surely.

Helena Christensen’s beauty still exists, she got lots of social media love and support after the column came out and much of the response was critical of the writer’s age and appearance, so that’s shown her. The only change is the little voice in women’s heads, louder now, that says their lingerie-wearing days are numbered.

And asks “what on earth is ‘dressing like 50’?”

And “what was that about infertile women looking tragic in strapless tops?”

The cumulative weight of these pages is not harmless. I won’t trot out Philip Larkin’s line about coastal shelves because this isn’t about men handing misery to men (Ms Shulman makes the highly questionable claim a man can stay a sex symbol “until he is in his box”).

The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman writes what motivated her to become a journalist was “the sense that writing can change things, even if your piece is only one grain of sand among the many that make that difference”.

What if some of that sand winds up the gearbox? Specifically, what if undermining women who respect Vogue and don’t see why— beyond what’s in the column — its ex-editor-in-chief might turn on a beauty she once celebrated, just ossifies an equality movement that already stalls like a Toyota?

Here’s the thing: Ms Shulman has tried to help with the lack of guidance for mid-life fashionistas.

She published 11 ‘Ageless Style’ issues during her Vogue career, telling several outlets they were among her bestsellers.

Hilariously in this article’s context, the first line of her first ever ‘Ageless’ editor’s letter (July 2007) says she was obsessed with what she didn’t want it to be: something that told you what to wear at what age. “The whole point about fashion is that it should be ageless,” she continues, “in the same way it should be democratic — within the grasp of whoever want to reach for it.”

More recently, she told The Telegraph these issues were her fashion team’s least favourite to work on because negotiating ‘ageless’ garments from a business focused on the young was so difficult.

Perhaps women should just take whatever they like from the trends while they’re still standing. I understand a magazine editor is only one player in a game that treats ageing like misfortune but fashion is also highly reactionary. Look at the relatively recent acceptance of larger backsides as attractive.

If we celebrate something, fashion will come around. It just wants us to keep spending.

Simone Rocha already uses older women on her catwalk and Dolce and Gabbana has featured model ‘families’ in clothing campaigns, demonstrating how the same collection can be styled for different generations.

Ms Shulman is a consumer of news, as well as a writer and editor.

I would expect any one of her generation to write with a degree of internalised misogyny. I don’t think this can be helped.

Keira Knightley told The Guardian in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations “we all respond to and try to survive within the culture any way we can”.

I doubt Ms Shulman, who began her career in 1982, has been sexism-exempt.

A column on a model’s bustier isn’t about to kill feminism, it just makes older women wistful. Alerting women with 50 years still ahead of them to a new limit really is dispiriting. And hope, along with a healthy degree of ignorance, is an important thing to allow young people.

Hope makes everything work.

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