As is her habit, Carolyn Dry, who lives in Winona, a modestly sized Minnesota city along the Mississippi River, sat down Thursday evening to watch the newest iteration of “Project Runway.” She is a longtime fan of the fashion reality series and, as a retired architectural design professor, has a keen understanding of aesthetics. But the only thing “Project Runway” managed to do last week was infuriate her because several stars of the reality show repeatedly used the phrase “old lady” as a synonym for dowdy, out-of-date or irrelevant.
“It took me three references, and then I thought, ‘What the heck is this?’ And then I got angrier and angrier,” Dry, 77, tells me in a telephone conversation, her quiet and understated tone belying the fury within. “I found it hard to watch to the end, actually.”
Dry stuck with the episode because she could not resist seeing how the designers handled their assigned challenge, which was to create a head-to-toe look using a single print and which most of them accomplished quite nicely. But it was hard for her to muster much enthusiasm for the ultimate winner. “By then, I was really angry and calling friends.”
In fact, Dry was not going to let this drop — which is how our telephone conversation came to be. Dry is dogged. She also happens to be an inventor — she came up with a self-repairing form of concrete, what’s called a smart building material. She’s working on a way to recycle the millions of plastic water bottles used by the U.S. military. In other words, Dry is not sitting around with nothing to do other than complain about a TV show.
She called AARP, where, she says, a representative explained that advocacy wasn’t part of the organization’s mission but her complaint was duly noted. She wrote to Bravo, which airs “Project Runway.” And she wrote to designer Christian Siriano, who serves as on-air mentor to the contestants and who had warned them to avoid looks that were “old lady” or “Golden Girls” — even though he admitted to an unbridled affection for the Girls.
His point was to succinctly encourage the contestants to make sure their designs looked modern and that the models looked vivacious. In response, the contestants promised not to go full “old lady” — although one designer gamely defended the fashion sense of his grandmother. The phrase was repeated and repeated like an incantation.
To be clear, Dry knew precisely what Siriano and the contestants meant. They weren’t aiming to be offensive or to publicly shun or shame an entire demographic. But she was irritated by the language, which is not exclusive to “Project Runway” but is part of our broader vocabulary and used by plenty of women.
“I dress women of all ages and have for years. I have female customers that I see on a daily basis that speak in these terms to describe how they want to look in clothes to me,” Siriano wrote in an email. “I would never equate the term ‘old lady’ with something negative, but rather as a way to describe something that simply looks dated.”
“On a personal note,” Siriano added, “both my mom and sister have great style but would never want to wear what the other does! Many women describe the way they want to look based on age and that goes both ways, young and old.”
Dry would like an apology. (Wouldn’t we all like a public apology for something?) She would like it to come from Siriano, but in truth, the designer is really just a stand-in for a culture that persists in devaluing older women in ways large and small.
“This is obviously a much larger conversation about society and the language we use toward one another, in general, that should be addressed,” Siriano wrote.
Indeed, for each silver-haired model with sharp cheekbones and a long, lean body that designers put on the runway or venerate in an advertising campaign or on the red carpet, they articulate countless cautions against “old lady” style, or ensembles looking too “mother-of-the-bride” or “mumsy” — all of which land like a thousand paper cuts.
Fashion is dreams, insecurities and emotions writ large. And how we talk about fashion is an extension of how we talk about ourselves and each other. “Old lady” is not just an adjective married to a noun. It’s not a nonjudgmental fact. To tell someone not to be such an old lady is to say: Don’t be fearful. Or don’t be a whiner. It’s a description of invisibility. Of unsightliness.
A woman may be 65, active and fashion-obsessed. But she’s likely to see herself — and perhaps her friends — as outliers for her age, rather than part of what is considered the norm.
“Why is this still in our language? It’s so accepted. Why is it accepted?” Dry demands. “I consume fashion, and I love thinking about it and watching it.”
The language comes out of stubborn stereotypes that to be an old lady is to be dumpy and frumpy, which is actually a choice rather than an inevitability. There are plenty of 20-somethings, after all, who can hold their own in the frowzy sweepstakes.
“Project Runway” has changed considerably since it debuted in 2004. It continues its original format of winnowing a cast of aspiring design stars through a series of challenges until one wins a $250,000 grand prize. But the cast has been almost completely overhauled. Original host Heidi Klum and mentor Tim Gunn left to develop a new show. Judge Zac Posen, who replaced Michael Kors, has also moved on. The only original cast member remaining is Nina Garcia, who’s now the editor in chief of Elle magazine.
The new crew includes Siriano, along with former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth, designer Brandon Maxwell and model Karlie Kloss.
The shift has meant that the average age of the judges dropped from about 45 to 31. Siriano is about half Gunn’s age. That is not to accuse this cast of being either ageist or insensitive, only that sometimes the messenger matters almost as much as the message. It can mean the difference between a remark sounding judgmental or self-deprecating.
The fashion industry has long had a fraught relationship with older women, which in its estimation is women over the age of 50. While older women typically have greater purchasing power, fashion always has its eyes turned toward youth. Fashion loves a gamine, a sprite, an ingénue. It abhors a matron.
This is changing, to some degree. Models age 50 and older have become more visible on the runways, most often with former top models such as Patti Hansen or Beverly Johnson making return appearances. But the language remains stubbornly biased. Grandpa sweaters — those roomy cardigans — are cozy. There is nothing from grandma’s closet that has the same unironic connotations — although both dad jeans and mom jeans have been reborn as fashionable by the coolest of the cool.
Hipsters have embraced dad sneakers as a mark of style. And even the “dad bod” is considered a pleasant middle ground between six-pack abs and beer belly. The “dad bod” is regular, and regular is a laudable goal. Moms always seem to be in the process of working toward an exceptional body, even when regular is both healthy and lovely.
We are all guilty of using linguistic shorthand. It’s easier, more vivid and even clearer to say a dress is matronly rather than go into detail about its boxy silhouette, drab color and outdated embellishments.
But the language of fashion is not simply about clothes. It’s also about the people we envision wearing them — as well as the people we don’t.