The Rise of the Over-50 Fashion Mentors

They’ve already seen the trends, chased the goods and graduated into freedom.

Carla Rockmore, a Dallas-based fashion designer, started making videos from her closet in the spring of 2020, just weeks into the pandemic. She had been poised to introduce a jewelry collection — an ornate, Art Deco-ish line produced in India — when everything shut down. People had always told her she should try her hand as a stylist, and she considered herself a natural entertainer, so she decided to try something new. In her first video, the camera is low to the ground, offering a wide view of her spectacular closet, which features two stories, a spiral staircase and a fireplace. Rockmore steps into the frame wearing a sky blue coat and red lipstick, bending down from the waist to address the camera. “So, coronavirus,” she says. “What the [expletive] do we do?”

Now, after more than 250 posts and what feels like 10,000 years, Rockmore, who is 54, has acquired roughly 75,000 followers on Instagram and a million on TikTok, where she is known as “the real Carrie Bradshaw.” She has been interviewed by Vogue; her closet has been featured by Architectural Digest. She is admired for her style (playful, bold) and her personality (jubilant), but what may be most striking is the way she highlights her age. On YouTube, her tagline is “Over Fifty Fashion”; on Instagram, “Celebrating the self-expression of 50+ through fashion, fun, & fierceness.” Nowhere is she sheepish in the way typically required of women “over 40” — a phrase often accompanied, in media, by some sort of Dorothea Lange-style photo of what appears to be a 90-year-old Dust Bowl migrant.

In her videos, Rockmore builds outfits around themes, ideas or decades, experimenting with color, volume and texture. She’ll start with a cowboy boot, or a nostalgic thought about Diana Ross in the 1970s, or a vintage bag. Then begin rapid cuts, adding pieces and accessories. The wardrobe she pulls from is fantastical, stocked with fur hats, patent leggings and voluminous skirts, and her speaking style is over-the-top bubbly, at times oddly similar to Julia Child’s. The chief quality she exudes is joy; you’re struck by how happy she seems, how confident in who she is. Our media don’t show us so many examples of women this age who know who they are and clearly like it.

The modern closet was initially a private space, where items could be hidden from public view. But it has been steadily reconceived as a repository of potential and dreams, a place from which a “true” self can emerge. Add enough wealth, and it can also be a museum of treasures; those of us unable to “shop” our closets as though they were luxury stores can do so vicariously in Rockmore’s. Her wardrobe also has the other appeal of a museum: It feels archival, historical, not amassed but curated. Combining its contents in new ways involves sharing her expertise with the youthful cohort on social media — the kind of fashion mentorship that used to be mediated through things like magazines, for which unseen adult editors might dictate the styling of teenage models.

Now, social media allows anyone to dig into her wardrobe and explain an intimate self to a public. There is, accordingly, no dearth of women and girls making jump-cut videos of their outfits. If Rockmore’s years set her apart, it’s not because she looks good “for her age,” whatever that means; it is because, at 54, she is very much dressing for fun and self-expression. This puts her in a category traditionally left out of narratives about what makes a woman fashionable — a category that has produced some of the most remarked-upon fashion influencers of recent years.

As Rockmore has said in interviews, 50-year-old women tend to know who they are and what they want. They are not alien to their own lives, roaming around confused about how everything got to be the way it is now, as if freshly emerged from cryogenic chambers. This is a vision of middle age that the inexplicable new “Sex and the City” reboot, “And Just Like That...,” leans into with surprising malice: Its characters spend the first few episodes being baffled by how the world has changed. In the original series, the fictional Carrie Bradshaw’s closet and wardrobe were major motifs — symbolizing her innermost self and her gutsy public persona. In the new series, a 55-year-old Carrie sorts through those same garments with the aid of her friend Charlotte’s teenage daughter, for whom they represent possible future identities. When Carrie meets a neighbor much like her younger self, she is initially intimidated, desperate not to seem old and square. But after the neighbor opens up to her, Carrie has an awkward revelation, putting on an Atelier Versace gown valued at $80,000, eating popcorn by her window and realizing “there are some things that should never be put into storage.” You get the feeling she is referring to herself.

Rockmore does not struggle toward this epiphany. Rather than mocking her for sticking around past her supposed sell-by date, online audiences — even on teenager-heavy TikTok — love her for it. She is, in fact, one of a handful of over-50 fashion mentors on social media to attract an all-ages crowd. There’s Trinny Woodall,formerly of the TV show “What Not to Wear,” who pioneered this type of madcap styling advice, livestreaming from her closet, or her bathroom, or Zara. There are also Grece Ghanem, Lyn Slaterand Nina Garcia, among others — all over 50, all with social media followings well past the half-million mark, all rejecting the culture’s insistence that women become invisible 50 years before death.

Wealth plays a part in their charm. There has always been a tendency, as both men and women age, to replace the appeals of youth with the appeal of money; when you may no longer impress the world by looking fresh and dewy, you can impress by looking formidably wealthy. Rockmore’s closet is a monument to consumption. Woodall earned some 27 million pounds in 2021, a few years after introducing her makeup line. And yet what they offer is not simply a fantasy of wealth itself. It is the fantasy of a well-lived life — the sense of having reached a place of power and inhabiting it comfortably. In a landscape where women their age are portrayed as either powerless and pitiful or powerful and despised, this feels revelatory.

This is a different kind of aspiration than the one found in closet tours of young influencers and celebrities — say, the clip of Kylie Jenner’s mirrored handbag depository that has been viewed over 17 million times on YouTube. Many of those figures seem focused on stockpiling luxury brands and reacting to trends. Part of why Rockmore and Woodall feel so reassuring is that, like all cool older people, they seem comfortably past all that, as though they’ve already seen the trends, chased the goods and graduated into freedom. You find yourself envious not of their stuff but of the carefree, unburdened quality they exude: the feeling of having moved past inhibition and fear of judgment into sovereign selfhood, a place many younger women are elated to learn exists.

Source photographs: Screen grabs from Instagram

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