Duckface to Swans: The women who are growing up gracefully
Lisa Armstrong: 'Forget looking good for your age, here are the women who look better as they get older.'
It has been a mixed few days for the public face of older women. Mary Beard, the Cambridge classicist, got monstered by critic AA Gill for lax grooming and being insufficiently pretty for TV - a rebuke that would have been dispiriting if it hadn't been so widely ridiculed. On the other hand, Anna Chancellor opened to rave reviews in the South Downs/The Browning Version double bill from David Hare and Terence Rattigan. In both plays she assumes the role of a woman old enough to have a grown son, and in both she's a man-magnet.
If Chancellor's acting gigs were confined to the theatre, in which the audience's distance from the stage makes this a kinder medium for older thesps, this wouldn't be particularly uplifting. But, as Chancellor notes, screen-wise she's in her prime. From Harry Potter to BBC Two's late-Fifties series, The Hour , St Trinian's to BBC Three comedy Pramface and the BBC One drama Hidden , she's in more demand now than she was when she first came to the public's attention in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Chancellor happens to be a very charismatic actress. But it would be disingenuous to pretend, given her profession, that her looks hadn't played a part in her career spurt. It's not that she wasn't always striking but, early on, wincingly, she was often cast as a jolie laide (Duckface in Four Weddings ), or occasionally a grotesque. "In some form or other," she told an interviewer in 2002, "I'm usually the ugly sister."
Not any more. Confidence, character, "growing into" her features and a palpable combination of intelligence and humour make her one of the most watchable actors of her generation. So much so that the Telegraph 's own Charles Spencer wrote last week that he wished he could award South Downs/The Browning Version six stars instead of the maximum five.
Chancellor's personal experiences are by no means unique. Recent figures suggested that the so-called Madonna Generation of women is defying the recession's dismal job figures, with 200,000 more over-fifties in work now than in 2008.
Even if some of those jobs are part-time, this enhanced sense of success is having a discernible impact on women's attitudes to their appearance. It goes beyond the clichés of 40 being the new 30 and the Faustian pact with the surgeon which that tends to imply. It's about women investing in their looks for far longer than their mothers and grandmothers generally thought necessary - and taking control of them. Ageless Barbies are one extreme outcome, but there are many women enjoying a more moderate approach. Whether it's the recent batch of high-profile fiftysomethings such as Nigella Lawson and Dawn French shedding weight, or the number of women whose interest in wearing fashionable, stylish clothes is not diminishing as they progress through the decades, many women aren't simply looking good for their age - in some instances, they look better now than they did five, or even 20 years ago.
For Anne Robinson, acquiring some fashion savvy (and fashion getting its act together since the garish Eighties) has worked wonders - that, and opting for some well-publicised human intervention. Anne Robinson is an unrepentant believer - in Botox as well as in face-lifts. Forget the jibes, I've seen her close up - she was on the panel discussing age and fashion at the Vogue Festival recently - and she looks great. The truth is, many more women have something tweaked, especially those in the public eye, than we will ever know. It's just that some work is so good it looks natural. Surely it's time to move the debate on from the moral opprobrium that still surrounds "artifice" - to finding out who did it for them. The less censorious we are, the more sisterly sharing of tips and spilling of secrets there's likely to be.
Not every woman elects for the drastic option, however. Some look better simply because they've learnt what suits them. A good haircut and colour that complements your face shape and personality is an advantage when you're 20. Past 40 (see French, Nicola Horlick, Gillian Anderson, inter alia), it's mandatory. Top of any shopping list for all older women should come a talented hairdresser and fish oils - followed by well-cut, youthful clothes.
This isn't a rallying cry for mothers to dress like their daughters, although increasingly there are items that work across the age spectrum - fitted jackets, slim trousers, tailored (not flouncy - there's nothing more ageing than a woman past 40 in milkmaid frills and delicate sprig prints, although she can certainly work dramatic ruffles and bold florals) sleeveless dresses that can be worn with fitted cardigans.
Anne Robinson's take on ageism is that it's there, deal with it - and part of the artillery is looking as good as you possibly can. "I came from a house where my mother's main hobby was emptying Bond Street, so when I grew up it was terribly important how we looked. It's quite shallow, but I am quite shallow. I've always wanted to look good and always spent whatever I could possibly afford on clothes. But there are a lot of women who seem to think, regardless of their budgets, they shouldn't spend on themselves."
How you wear clothes is ultimately more important than what you wear - and developing the self-assurance and expertise to explore what flatters your body. "So much comes down to context and sexual currency," says Mary Portas, who was also on that Vogue panel. "I was at an event in Glasgow recently and there was a sixtysomething woman wearing short and - thank God - dark tights. She had amazing legs, but it still looked wrong. I think that as you get older, it's more seductive to wear a lower top than very short skirts - leave that to the youngsters. I think you have to know where the boundaries are - and that's not just about confidence, because this woman had that in abundance, but about self-awareness."
The model Laura Bailey may only be 38, but modelling years are a bit like dog years. "As I get older I've got a terrible desire to wear inappropriate things," she says, "not miniskirts - I think they're still appropriate - but mad, wacky vintage, which I'm increasingly realising I have to go easy on. Other than that, I think rules keep changing. Look at Stella Tennant and Kristen McMenamy; two of the best and busiest models out there, both in their mid-forties, both with four kids. Older women who have a sense of an evolving uniform, who are very much at home in their own skin, but who are not afraid to explore new ground - that's the kind of style I find inspirational."