In Praise of Old Age

Old people have been the principal victims of coronavirus. Time to celebrate and appreciate what they bring to all our lives – and to fashion.

“I love your coat. Is it MaxMara?” asked the shop assistant in a boutique in London’s King’s Road. “No,” I answered, flattered. “It belonged to my great-uncle”. Giuseppe would wear the lovingly tailored camel coat 40 years ago for his solo journeys across the Balkan states. To me, it’s not just a great vintage piece – it’s a cultural legacy.

The oldies have been having a tough time of late. “Coronavirus only kills old people anyway,” is the heart-breaking kind of comment I’ve been reading on Facebook.

But in my native Italy, those old people include actors like the star name of Italian Neorealist cinema Lucia Bosè, designers like Sergio Rossi and curators like Germano Celant, theorist of the Arte Povera. Each loss is a loss to humanity, to us all.

There is no trace of the other old guard in newspapers – our grandparents. Their departure is typically reported through the numbers of the daily bulletins. Grief is experienced in the hidden intimacy of individuals kept apart by lockdown. Grandparents are the victims of this pandemic, and so are their grandchildren, who have lost their favourite playmates, with their hugs and kisses and unconditional love.

The ancient Romans had a word for the devotion the older generation inspire – pietas. They thought that respect and care towards parents and grandparents, as the ultimate keepers of knowledge and traditions, were essential to guarantee the success of the Republic. Pietas today could be defined as a deep admiration for a proud and enduring culture and for ancient values we might wish to inherit.

Now more than ever, while time slips away through our fingers, we look at the objects that belonged, or still belong, to our grandparents as crystallised forms of eternity. The clothes of our grandparents have a special quality. In the fast stream of newness and nowness that carries us, these pieces are the rocks in a fast-flowing river onto which we can clasp to stop and breathe. Let us celebrate the quality of the materials, the beautiful tailoring, the recycling and revival of trends. The garments that come from our grandparents’ closets seem to have beaten time.

The celebration of old age takes us beyond the revival of elderly people’s wardrobes. Recall the Vogue Italia issue featuring beautiful 73-year-old Lauren Hutton, published in October 2017. Or the image of 79-year-old novelist Margaret Atwood on the cover of The Gentlewoman Issue 20 for Autumn/Winter 2019. Or the radiant 85-year-old Judi Dench dazzling for the camera of Nick Knight for the June issue of British Vogue. Post-COVID, we can still look to the old for role models and for values that enable us to interpret our present.

Since 2016, Instagram account Sciuraglam has collected shots of elegant Milanese ladies, the sciure, captured during their strolls and rendezvous in the city centre. They have developed a bourgeois uniform for the foggy Milanese winter. White hair up in an impeccable bun, or a curly perm in a yellowish blonde. The face is lived-in but still clear, often framed by a pair of thick black sunglasses and who knows what kind of precious stone embedded in heavy pendants. A string of pearls, or maybe two, slips down the décolleté. As one might guess the years of a tree by counting the concentric circles on its trunk, so the age of a woman is directly proportionate to the number of jewels that ornate her neck.

The aged elegance portrayed in the posts of Sciuraglam has become the subject of the Versace Virtus series, which features two impeccably dressed sciure spotted on the streets of the fashionable Porta Venezia. The focus is on the bag, adorned with the iconic V, capturing all the light of a Milanese afternoon – the accessory par excellence of a grandma.

I remember, back in primary school, I wrote an essay about the bag of my grandmother Anna, such was my fascination for it. A shiny black leather bag with a golden lock, large enough to keep all the necessities of a woman, but small enough to rest on my grandma’s knees during her bus trips to the university of the third age. At the bottom of the bag lay a whole catalogue of the tiniest trinkets and deposits accumulated over a season of museum visits, grocery shopping at the market and afternoon coffees with her friends – old, stiffened chewing gums slipped out of their carton, the tobacco of her Merit 100s that gives the bag such a familiar scent, unidentified breadcrumbs, an engraved silver pillbox and enough coins to buy a daily newspaper for a month.

The precious Sylvie 1969 bag appearing in the Gucci Resort 2020 campaign encapsulates the same essence of family values, olden times and a certain transgenerational adaptability. In the campaign’s picture, 76-year-old model and journalist Benedetta Barzini, habitué of the Gucci front row, represents the glamorous grandma who nonchalantly leaves a croc leather bag on the bathroom sink while making a phone call.

Old age should be praised for the values it represents. Let’s celebrate the proud, tired and tender gaze in our grandparents’ eyes, and all the stories of a past that seems so far away now, and all their strength and authentic, lived-in beauty. Let’s look at senility through the objects that are permeated with it. Let’s admire and interrogate them. And let them speak to us about a culture that might otherwise be lost in the folds of time.

From grandparents to grandchildren – perhaps we should simply skip the generation of our parents, too busy living the wild youth of the 1980s. And let’s cherish our grandparents’ closet. In this wardrobe mannerism, what starts as a funny dress-up game for a boring afternoon ends up being a celebration of objects bestowed with intense sentimental and cultural values. The clothes bring us closer to our grandparents – and, perhaps, closer to our true selves.

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