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Project Runway Season 17 is back on Bravo with a new host in Karlie Kloss, a new mentor in Christian Siriano, new judges in everyone except Nina Garcia, and of course new designers. However, some things never change -- even if they should. Many fans are ready to say auf wiedersehen to using ageist terms like "old lady," "matronly," "mother of the bride," "grandma," etc. to describe designs considered unflattering and unattractive.
One viewer even got so angry after a third reference in the current season that she called the AARP and wrote to Bravo and Christian Siriano. She also apparently contacted The Washington Post, since the paper did a story on the fan's frustration, and got comment from Siriano.
Christian Siriano, who won Project Runway back in Season 4, made a comment in Season 17, Episode 3 that a designer should avoid a look that was too "old lady" or "Golden Girls," even though he loves The Golden Girls.
The fan in question, Carolyn Dry, told The Washington Post she knew what Christian Siriano and the other designers meant. She knew they didn't intend to insult an entire group of women. But she spoke up to challenge the broader societal use of such terms as shorthand for unattractive. After all, 73 might be considered an "old lady" age to some, but have you taken a look at Helen Mirren? Age is just a number. "Old lady," however, is a dismissive insult.
Carolyn Dry was reportedly aiming for an apology from Christian Siriano. He did write to the Post that he dresses women of all ages, and his clients often use the same terms. He said he'd never equate the term "old lady" with anything negative, it's just a way to describe something that looks dated. Here's one key thing he added:
This is obviously a much larger conversation about society and the language we use toward one another, in general, that should be addressed.
Yes. He's not the only one to use these terms, as he noted, even if he's the one in the hot seat in this instance. Just last night, for instance, judge Elaine Welteroth made a comment in the "Survive in Style" episode about winning designer Renee Hill's survival chic garment. Welteroth said she really needed to see that high-scoring design from Renee because "she sometimes can go a little bit matronly."
So this isn't really about Christian Siriano as much it's hoping for a cultural shift away from age-shaming behavior -- the way Project Runway has kinda sorta gotten better at embracing women over size 2. Then again, even with "curvy" models in the mix, we've seen how quickly and easily they can be diminished too.
In Season 17, Episode 3, Nadine Ralliford was shown getting frustrated that she got a curvier model for the head-to-toe print challenge. She was called out for that by the judges, but the judges do seem to gravitate toward looks that are worn by thinner models. A few years ago, Tim Gunn called out his own show for the "tokenism" of giving Ashley Nell Tipton a win with the first plus-size collection, when he personally found her collection "hideous."
There's a delicate balance of wanting to recognize and support something different without being patronizing about it. That's something Project Runway has struggled with during the "real women" challenges that always seem to frustrate designers. "Real women" usually means shorter, heavier, and often older than traditional models. Over the years, designers have found it difficult to design for such women -- you'd think we came from another planet -- and the judges also often struggle to avoid sounding condescending.
As Project Runway reinvents itself again in the absence of Tim Gunn (age 65) and Heidi Klum (45) (who are launching their own Amazon fashion show), it might be worth considering adding older models to the mix, in addition to the occasional young curvy model. After all, that's a major market to serve -- Christian Siriano designs for them too -- and after Project Runway is over, these designers are going to want to find clients. Wouldn't it help to show they can design beautiful, flattering garments for women over 40, 50, 60, 70, etc. while they have the ideal marketing opportunity of weekly TV time?
In the meantime, Project Runway Season 17 is continuing Thursday nights at 8 p.m. ET on Bravo. Fans were upset with Nadine last week, and this week many are so upset that Afa Ah Loo was eliminated they're hoping for a revival of The Tim Gunn Save ... even without Tim Gunn.