Beijing’s ‘Glammas’ offer a new image for what one’s twilight years might yield.
Immaculately dressed in paparazzi-baiting trench coats, chiffon scarves and sunglasses big enough to make Anna Wintour proud, four elderly women emerge from a discreet café in Sanlitun, a fashionable district of central Beijing. I witness some 50 chittering passers-by recognise the grandes dames before encircling them, taking pictures and firing off questions.
They are the Glammas (known in Chinese as shishang nainai or “fashionable grannies”), a quartet of late-aged urbanite women who took up modelling post-retirement. And they have, it’s safe to say, made a success of it. In the most in-vogue enclaves of the capital, they host impromptu catwalks that attract adoring crowds, while their online following soars north of a million.
But the Glammas are not out today to talk to their fans: they strut with purpose towards a photoshoot location nearby. Lin Wei, a former basketball player who towers at 1.8 metres tall, sets each outing’s theme and is the kind-hearted doyenne of the group. (“Honey, you’re gorgeous,” she tells fellow Glamma Wang Xinghuo, slapping her rump as they walk.) Today’s “1950s Hollywood glam” look is down to her fashion direction.
As they take their places in an attractive Sanlitun alcove and the camera begins to flicker, it strikes me that this is a far cry from how these women spent their youth. Chinese fashion was largely limited to standard-issue blue or grey “Mao suits” for decades from the 1960s, when individual expression was seen as a threat to proletarian unity. But that’s certainly not how the Glammas see it today. “We’re providing value to society,” says Wang.
Though many of the country’s over-sixties continue to sport purely utilitarian garments, there are also a significant number who went the other way
Nor are they the only Chinese pensioners who have changed their attitude towards dress: the number of fashion brands in China that are marketed to the elderly doubled between 2017 and 2019, according to a recent report in the South China Morning Post. Though many of the country’s 250 million or so over-sixties continue to sport purely utilitarian garments, there are also a significant number who went the other way, opting for clothing that is so kaleidoscopically colourful it grazes garish. And there is, of course, an ever-expanding market for the tasteful sorts of get-ups that the Glammas wear.
As for the Glammas’ favourite labels, there isn’t much to report. “It’s not about the brand name,” Lin says, stressing that their items are judiciously chosen from their closets, which are filled with specially tailored pieces. They are also working on their own limited line of clothing for China’s retirees. No doubt they’ll find buyers in droves.
As the four women gleefully swipe through the day’s photographs and ready themselves to return home, they pause to reflect on their role as models in the broadest sense. “We’re showing people that they don’t need to be afraid of ageing,” says Wang. These are, after all, their golden years.