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When I was growing up, I remember hearing a phrase quite often and not entirely understanding what it meant. “Mutton dressed as lamb” was the refrain, sometimes conveniently shortened to “mutton” – as in: “Do you think this is a bit mutton?”
Of course, now I realise that this is the fear of adult women – and it was always women that I heard worrying aloud – that they are dressing or behaving in a way that is “too young” and out of step with their actual age. As far as I know, there isn’t an equivalent phrase for men.
Someone who has been coming under fire for being “a bit mutton” for at least the past 10 years is Madonna. You know, Like A Virgin. Vogue. Best-selling female recording artist Guinness World Record holder since the 20th century. Most successful female solo artist of all time, according to the Guinness. Highest grossing female and solo touring artist. Creator of the best-selling and fastest-selling coffee table book ever (because why not?). Queen of Pop. That Madonna.
From her 2015 Grammys and 2016 Met Gala looks where Madonna bared her bum cheeks in thong underwear; to the many photoshoots posted on Instagram featuring fishnets, corsets, latex, and of course, her fabulous bottom, she has confounded expectations of what a woman in her 50s and 60s should be wearing and presenting to the world.
In her most recent snaps, Madonna is on a night out with her mates, dressed in a plunging black bustier, lime green shorts and fishnets. You can imagine the comments, but here’s an example: “Someone close to her must tell her what a fool she’s making of herself. She’s 63 and trying to act like a teenager, a very vulgar one. It’s so embarrassing.”
Embarrassing for who? Not Madonna, who is quite clearly living her best life. She looks great, she’s expressing herself and she feels no need to don a twinset and pearls just because she’s not a 20-something anymore. If there’s something you love doing – be it skateboarding, mountain climbing, getting tattoos or performing in a corset and fishnets – you should be able to enjoy doing it for as long as you are able.
Lest we forget, Madonna has always delighted in pushing boundaries with fashion – think her 1980s cross jewellery (worn in front of burning crosses in the Like A Prayer music video, no less) and the 1990 Blonde Ambition tour where she debuted the now-iconic cone bra, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. She was a sex symbol right from the start. So why should she stop now?
For some reason it’s seen as perfectly OK for young (thin, able-bodied, usually white) women to display and capitalise on their bodies – the Love Island cast, the hordes of ubiquitous Instagram influencers, pop stars and actors in their 20s – but those who fall outside of this ideal are often seen as doing something unacceptable. Madonna’s outfits in themselves aren’t even particularly risque, if they were presented on the body of someone younger. The sole reason for the backlash she receives is her age.
In 2005, Madonna released her tenth studio album, Confessions on a Dance Floor. The single “Hung Up” shows her in a dance studio, wearing a pink leotard and ballet cardigan. Even among my acne-dimpled school peers at the time, there was a general sense that she was “old” and therefore shouldn’t be showing quite so much toned leg. How young we are when we absorb these ageist messages about what women should and shouldn’t be allowed to do.
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Remember, in 1985, Penthouse and Playboy mags published nude photos of Madonna – taken when she posed as an art model in 1978. The publication of the pics prompted a scandalised response, but she remained unapologetic. The cover of the New York Post read: “I’m not ashamed”. Some 37 years later, Madonna still refuses to be shamed.
I have to admit that personally, getting older terrifies me – partly because of things like no longer being able to take care of myself, my bones becoming brittle, the risk of Alzheimer’s, and the shoddy state of social care in this country – but also because once women are past a certain age, I can see that they are too often forgotten, ignored and expected to stand demurely on the sidelines, occasionally offering expertly-baked cakes and trips out for the grandkids.
These behaviours are expected (and put upon) women. It’s dressed up as “growing old gracefully”. But what it actually means is knowing your place – and being quiet.
Madonna is sticking two fingers up at these stifling social expectations. At 63 – with her stellar career and her Instagram account, followed by 18 million people – she’s refusing to fade into the background. Good for her.