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I Became a Fashion Model at 73

The DJ spun Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove,” playing the lyric “Feet don’t fail me now” just as I entered the walkway.

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McMullen Spring Fashion Show 2020
Nina Riggio/Drew Altizer Photography
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After retiring from a job in philanthropy, I sensed that others had low expectations for me because of my age. I heard presumptuous comments like “Sweetie, you probably shouldn’t take the kickboxing class” or “Wow, you dress young. Is that age-appropriate?” These comments infuriated me, especially the ones about what I should wear. Why assume you know my capabilities or my potential? What does dressing age-appropriately mean? Apparently, ageism is prevalent in a society obsessed with youth. These attitudes are perpetuated by the media and advertising, which rarely depict older women as the standard of health, beauty or fashion.

As a rebellious boomer, in 2020 I set out to debunk the prevailing attitudes of what it means to be a 73-year-old, retired, Black woman, to encourage broader representation in the fashion industry and to motivate women my age to flaunt their style and beauty. When a local fashion shop owner told me she was planning an upcoming fashion show, I quickly blurted out, “I am a senior model.” She offered me a slot. I watched YouTube videos on how to walk a runway and practiced down my hallway every night. Chin up, shoulders back, chest forward, one foot placed in front of the other.

The day of the show, I shared a small dressing space with eight other models ranging in age from 17 to 40. With only 15 seconds to change into our next look, we flung clothes in all directions, ignoring age differences and the lack of privacy. Hilariously, the DJ selected Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” for my walk-out song, playing the line “Feet don’t fail me now” just as I entered the walkway.

The audience loved seeing me model! I’d first thought whimsically about becoming a fashion model after kudos and encouragement for this article on how I love wearing attention-getting colors. It ran with a photo folks told me was fierce. Someone even passed along a list of agencies that book models of varying ages. Here at the show, the reactions of those seated by the runway sealed it — fashion modeling would be my mouthpiece against ageism.

My interest in clothes and fashion dates back to my childhood in the South. Style and dress mattered a lot. The colors you choose to wear even more. I have always utilized clothing as a way to manage perceptions of who I am.

When I shared my mission as a senior model with a former colleague, he retorted, “Why a senior model? Why not just a model?” I explained that according to Vogue Business, only one in every 200 models in 2020 were over the age of 50 and the median age of a runway model is 23. So youth reigns in the fashion world.

But he was right. I was using “senior model” to justify why I could be considered a model at my age and to soften the blow of the “you-don’t-look-like-a-model” looks. I was sabotaging my own mission. So now I’m a model, period.

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Nicole Barton

Several high-end fashion boutiques support my cause, so I have opportunities to wear fabulous clothing by Nina Ricci, Tibi, Rachel Comey, Arias New York, Kamperett and Christopher John Rogers. The difference in the quality of these clothes from what I am accustomed to wearing is amazing. The fabrics exude elegance. The creative design, the stitching — all exceptional. When I looked in the mirror at my first photo shoot, I pinched myself in disbelief. After hair and makeup, I had been transformed into the absolute heights of beauty and confidence. I slipped into a couture dress that felt like a velvet glove over my entire body.

While the journey has been magical, it is not always rosy. Getting gigs requires persistence with a capital “P,” and it involves being very active on social media and reaching out to boutiques and designers. I’ve travelled to do shows or shoots in San Francisco; Oakland and Berkeley, California; Durham, North Carolina; New York and London. Photo shoots can be long, hard work. Lofty expectations sometimes stoke my insecurity. While I established myself, my gigs were pro bono except for an occasional product offering. I eventually signed with an agency.

At a show early in my journey, I felt panicky, jittery nerves before it was my turn to walk out. The audience was filled with high- powered fashion influencers. I wore one of Vogue’s top 10 new designers, Christopher John Rogers, who is African American, so I wanted to represent our culture well. The reggae music and the swish of the taffeta dress quelled my nerves down the runway. I floated on air once I saw the smiles, the looks of approval. I overheard, “I hope I’m that fly when I am her age.”

What began as a mission to combat ageism now has the potential for a longer-term career. I continue to work out regularly. I wear colorful clothes and strut the sidewalk for exercise. On my occasional trips to shop for food, I walk with swagger, now using the grocery store aisles as my runway.