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Indian fashion has all but forgotten women over 50

Older women have the means and the maturity to truly appreciate luxury fashion yet brands still chase young creators, indicating their deep and entrenched bias

Madonna at the 65th Grammy Awards on 5 February in Los Angeles
Madonna at the 65th Grammy Awards on 5 February in Los Angeles (Getty Images via AFP)

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"We live in a world that refuses to celebrate women past the age of 45,” Madonna said on her Instagram recently after getting trolled for her appearance at the 2023 Grammy awards. She was at the annual event to present an award and spoke about the importance of being fearless. Instead of focusing on her powerful speech, publications and social media decided to talk about her decision to have plastic surgery.

There is so much truth in her words, and it is something I have experienced first-hand. I turn 50 this year and am loud and proud of this fact. However, when I am told things like, “You look so good for your age” (happened at a recent event) or “you really are in touch with the current trends of today for someone who is 50” (by content creators), I just want to scream. What is 50 meant to look and behave like? And who made these rules? (I am happy to admit that I have done a course of Profhilo recently. This is an injectable hyaluronic acid treatment that boosts skin hydration.)

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I hold immense respect for those who’ve paved the way for us. I recently had the opportunity to moderate a session at an event that included Alexander Schulman, the former editor-in-chief of British Vogue, and it was a fan-girl moment for me. Few years ago, while sitting next to author-model Maye Musk at a dinner party, I got the opportunity to learn more about the fashion industry. While my generation respects and acknowledges all the barriers the “baby boomers” broke for us, I am not sure millennials feel the same about us.

“I do feel left out. I want to hear more about older women who are entrepreneurs,” says Kalyani Saha Chawla, who’s in her mid-50s. She founded a silverware brand, Rezon, when she was 50. “We keep hearing about the struggles of 30-year-olds. We have our own set of hurdles to overcome, be it hormone-related issues brought on by menopause, or just the many roles we have to balance within our own families,” says Chawla, who’s worked with French luxury brand Dior.

I must add that every time I have pitched a story about menopause to an India-based women’s magazine, it has been rejected. Perhaps 30-something commissioning editors do not realise that menopause is inevitable.

While Indian media applauds next-gen founders and entrepreneurs, it often overlooks people who start something new at the age of 50 and over. There are international magazines that regularly put together lists of achievers under the “50 over 50” title, but in India that remains a fairly unknown concept. This year’s January cover of British Vogue featured 67-year-old supermodel and entrepreneur Iman. Celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston and Naomi Campbell are still seen as cover girls.

In India, the only woman over 50 I can recall seeing solo on the cover of a magazine is Madhuri Dixit Nene (for the online issue of Harper’s Bazaar March 2022).

Linda Evangelista and (right) Kate Moss
Linda Evangelista and (right) Kate Moss (Instagram)

“If you look at (fashion or beauty) campaigns, it is either a young girl, or if they do want to talk about age, then it’s an octogenarian, with grey hair,” says Chawla. “We are lost in between. How is this inclusive?”

Last year at the Milan Fashion Week, Kate Moss walked the ramp for the Bottega Veneta show. Linda Evangelista, meanwhile, closed the Fendi show during New York Fashion Week in September.

Madhuri Dixit Nene
Madhuri Dixit Nene

When international luxury brands are creating landmark moments, they make it a point to work with the OG supermodels like Campbell. In India, on the other hand, we seem to have forgotten about the country’s first supermodels like Mehr Jesia and Madhu Sapre. Even when it comes to the beauty industry, we have people in their 30s as the face of anti-ageing creams. Are we really promoting a realistic view of beauty? This, at a time, when every Indian fashion and beauty content creator is talking about the importance of inclusivity and diversity.

The Indian fashion industry really has discounted anyone over 50, and is more invested in chasing the young shoppers—something that makes little sense to me, as my generation has the money and confidence to spend. Plus, we perhaps understand the value of good craftsmanship a little more. Why are we not the target market for luxury brands and artisanal Indian labels? Two of my recent purchases include a Chanel jacket and a hand-embroidered chikan sari, with intricate pearlwork, both items I would not have been able to afford nor appreciate two decades ago. I do buy less, but I buy better.

Says Meghna Shah, 47, the co-founder of Tandem, a public relations agency that specialises in fashion, luxury and beauty, “I do strongly feel that it is about time brands have more direct conversations and tell stories that resonate with the 40-plus Indian woman. They are now much more financially aware and independent. They are confident of their aesthetics, they dress for themselves and express their individuality through their life choices. While many brands are waking up to this reality, there’s still so much more to be done.”

Talking about her own shopping patterns, she says, “Age is just a number after all. I feel stronger, smarter and more confident now than I did in my 20s and 30s. And I splurge on myself more now.”

With many millennials entering or in their 40s, it’s high-time the industry became pro-age. Like Shah says, there’s been a change in the way women of a “certain age” are perceived. Some of that credit goes to OTT television shows like The Fame Game, which had Dixit Nene in the lead role, Fabulous Lives Of Bollywood Wives or Moving In With Malaika. Arora, who turns 50 this year, has proved time and again that age is just a number.

Neelam Kothari, who is part of the Fabulous Lives Of Bollywood Wives cast, says, “Things have changed so much since I came to the industry. Then your career was over once you hit 40. Today look at the careers of women like Neena Gupta and Dimple Kapadia. They have proved that age is just a mind block. It is their experience which helps them play such strong and beautiful women.” And there lies the truth that age only makes you wiser, stronger and, in many ways, a more beautiful woman.

All I can say to Madonna is be glad you live in that part of the world because if you think it’s hard to be over 45 there, it is even harder in south Asia.

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Dress Sense is a monthly fashion column that takes a look at the clothes that we wear every day and what it means to us.

Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate.

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