Chapter 54: Fashion Comes of Age (At Least it Should)

I first started thinking about clothes about the same time I started getting interested in girls, the mid ’50s. My immigrant family didn’t have the money to indulge me in a range of duds, so I decided on a few items, mostly black, not a colour easily found in kids’ stuff. I chose black because it was functional and also because, without being fully colour-blind, I see a more limited palette than most (and what are purple or chartreuse, anyway?). As a result, I’ve always preferred bold chunks of strong contrasting colours. So I started to wear black and because it was at the time associated with the post-war Parisian Left Bank and American beatniks, people started commenting on it which, of course, reinforced my choice. I became the guy who dressed – I heard – like a poet or a revolutionary.

I kind of liked the idea, identifying as an engaged artist and, as I matured, it foreshadowed some of the occupations in which I’ve ended up. Television technology also reinforced my fashion preferences. One of the great tropes of the era in mainstream TV was that on-screen personalities and backgrounds should dress in a bland range complementary with facial tones and compatible with Chroma Key, the process of superimposing a figure in the foreground against a graphic background. The result was a general “beige-ness” or light “blue-ness” in network television. On the other hand, I was still enamoured of saturated colours with punch; besides, Citytv needed to stand out.1 Similarly, in print, I liked clear strong lettering, not the industry ideal of blocks of teensy type with a lot of white space around. If you have a message, I thought, get it out there!

While all this was going on, I also managed to dispense with certain male fashion standards that had always annoyed me. The first two were shirts and ties. I was now on the performing side of the camera, doing series that could take months of shooting, which meant being ruled by “continuity,” the need to remember the last thing you were wearing the day before, in particular that final shirt and tie. It was far too much remembering, so one day I decided to give up ties altogether and to reduce my shooting shirts to white in only one style. The next thing to go were shoelaces. I tried on various boots, found an excellent brand made in Texas that suited me just fine, and boots were it. Finally came the shaving. At the time, I was getting away a couple of times a year to take week-long fasting hikes in the bush and, in the bush, you don’t shave. One year I came back with a fair growth and quickly learned that all the men I asked didn’t like it, and all the women did. So, it was no contest. Henceforth, I would keep a light beard and stop scraping and re-scraping the scrapes on my face.

Thus was my style created.

I mention this now because I think it’s time to re-address a charge that’s been levelled at Zoomer since the magazine’s inception; that we cover fashion to an unseemly degree, unseemly because fashion is a “frivolous” subject, inappropriate for people “our” age. I reject this idea, but recently it occurred to me that part of the misconception people may have about our intention in this area is a confusion between fashion and style. For me, fashion is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s often about people following the mob, rushing to obey a diktat about what’s “in” that comes from some outside authority. This can result in the height of ridiculousness, when people willingly and en masse adopt clothing that makes them look bad. A prime example are those low-rise hip-hugging jeans that first came on the scene in the ’90s, which looked silly, if not downright awful, on about 90 per cent of the people who wore them, young or old. It was enough to make you simultaneously wonder what had happened to the collective mind and to admire the power of an industry that could hypnotize people into wearing a version of the emperor’s new clothes.

But fashion in the service of personal style is something different. Your style is a projection of your personality; it can represent your attitudes and approaches to life and, if done consistently, can become a kind of signature. More important: it signals to the world that we’re still engaged, that we still matter, that we’re still “in business,” physically, esthetically, sexually. The opposite of style for our demographic has been what I’ve described before in this space as either denial (trying to shoehorn ourselves into the same clothes we wore 30 to 40 years ago) or the shlumpadink syndrome (i.e., surrendering to a uniform of baggy sweats and leisurewear). Which means to disappear in plain sight. At Zoomer, we’re pro fashion because we’re pro visibility. We’re pro engagement.

It’s not just high time that fashion came of age; it’s the perfect time. If you Google “top fashion designers in the world today,” that list will invariably include a large contingent of names 60 and up: among them, Karl Lagerfeld, 81 (this month’s cover subject); Giorgio Armani, 81; Ralph Lauren, 75; Miuccia Prada, 66, Donatella Versace, 60. There isn’t an industry anywhere with a higher turnover cycle of fad than fashion, and yet all these people are still going strong. Lagerfeld is an extreme example, a guy who has not only kept working but whose personal style happens to solve some age-related “problems.” He wears high white collars, which hide the aging neck (a classic give-away) and gloves, which hide the equally unforgiving backs of hands. But he’s so out front with it and so talented, he carries it off.

When it comes to designing clothes for all our aging selves, though, the design world has so far largely fallen down. Aside from the odd niche company, almost no one has come up with a fashion line dedicated to us. What kind of criteria would Zoomer-designed clothing have to meet? First, they’d accommodate more of us – between the ages of 40 and 60, the weight of the average North American increases by about a pound a year. They’d adjust the amount of bare skin we’d be comfortable revealing, whether that be a woman’s neck and arms or a man’s knees. Slacks would be high-waisted enough for a normal person of age, preferably with some give; and “skinny suits” would be reserved for skinny hipsters barely out of their teens. As Zoomer reader Kathryn Brown pointed out in an open letter to fashion designers and manufacturers titled “Please Make Us Clothes That Fit,” Zoomer-appropriate clothing for women would acknowledge that while bust lines grow fuller with age, shoulders do not; dress darts should be lower, pants zippers longer and waistlines should be at the waistline (imagine that!).2 “We deserve,” writes Ms. Brown, “to have clothes that fit available in stores.”

If you’re baffled, given the sheer size of our cohort, that no canny clothing entrepreneur has stepped up, you’re not alone. I’ve approached a few local design houses with this idea of launching a Zoomer-focused clothing line under the Zoomer name – but so far they’re protective of their youth-oriented brands and concerned about diluting their focus. That’s fine, I tell them, but meanwhile there are 15 million people in this country alone that you’re not making clothes for. What I haven’t said is that they’re also implicitly confirming their fear that younger people will not easily entertain the notion that older people can be cool – this despite the fact that even the cool kids themselves seem to be coming around, such as Céline, the hautest of haute fashion brands, who recently chose 80-year-old writer Joan Didion to be their new “face.”

Don’t take it from me; take it from “the most interesting man in the world.” In 2006, the Mexican beer company, Dos Equis, decided to go completely against the stereotype of youth-drenched beach-based bacchanalian beer advertising and launched a campaign featuring an urbane, leonine, 70-ish Hispanic gentleman who was suaver than suave. The Dos Equis man, whose signature line is “Stay thirsty, my friends,” was said to have “cured narcolepsy, just by walking into a room.” In fact, the actor cast to portray this paragon of male virility is a 76-year-old American actor named Jonathan Goldsmith, whose previous claim to fame was being killed five times by Marshall Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke.

Goldsmith and his Dos Equis persona have one critical thing in common: they both have histories. Their panache comes largely from the stories we sense they can tell, which is inseparable from their age. We see this phenomenon in real-life older icons of style, such as the Leonard Cohens and Helen Mirrens of the world. Any workable Zoomer style has to be the same, revelling in the active living and loving this age of miracles has brought us, the wisdom hard fought and won, while still acknowledging our age and our past, whether that past includes arm-wrestling with Fidel Castro or dressing up like a beat poet in 1950s Montreal. Will the world notice? In the eight years since Goldsmith’s Dos Equis man hit the airwaves, the company’s profits have risen more quickly than those of any other imported beer.

Which is why I’m re-issuing my challenge to launch Zoomer, the clothing line. It isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also, I think, the smart thing. And it doesn’t even have to be all in black.

1. Later, I also developed two bold specialty channels, both trendsetters: MuchMusic, a key driver of fashion trends, and Fashion Television itself.

2. Which we published in our July/August 2012 issue.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.