Friday 26 February - Sunday 6 March

Priding herself on being quicker than many of younger models on the fashion shoots that take her from South Africa to Sydney

March 8, 2016

Daphne Selfe: The Way we Wore

The world’s oldest working super-model, 87-year old Daphne Selfe is an eminently practical woman. Dressed elegantly in charity shop finds, she comes from an age where discipline was key and tenacity essential.  She is not one to cry over spilt milk or succumb to the inertia that can often accompany old age.

She came to modelling by chance as a young woman, despite the fact that her heart was really in working with horses. When that didn’t bear much fruit she was employed as a shop girl in Heelas in Reading (now John Lewis) and before long she began to model, continuing to do so until she married.

While bringing up her three children, Selfe worked as an extra. But at the grand old age of 70, she made her comeback on the catwalk for the fashion label Red or Dead. Her children thought it was “cool, very cool”. A shoot at Vogue followed, and representation by Models 1.  “It’s always fun to dress up and prance about wearing clothes you can’t afford” she says, before telling Viv Groskop, the festival’s director, that the most she has spent recently on an item of clothing was £50 on a dress in Oxfam.

Priding herself on being quicker than many of younger models on the fashion shoots that take her from South Africa to Sydney, Scotland to Beijing, she is a consummate professional, and hopes that other older models will follow in her trailblazing wake, especially as the population of the UK continues to age while the mainstream media is increasingly filled with fashion for teenagers.

Botox is an absolute no-no. Then again, she is blessed with the most wonderful bone structure.  Pressed to name the one thing she would change about herself she suggests her hands.  They’re not pretty, she says, but she does value their capability.

She struggled to find a publisher for her book, partly for its lack of sensationalism. A keen diary-keeper from the age of 17, she had a lot of material to drawn upon, not least the fall into poverty by her middle class family that saw them move from a house staffed with six servants to a small flat in Muswell Hill. That, as with most else it would seem, Selfe takes in her stride.

She swears by a lifestyle that celebrates good health above all else, born of a childhood where rationining was the norm for many years. “I exercise every day.  I do yoga, keep-fit, Pilates and ballet.  Discipline is what you need.  You have to eat the right things.  I eat a little of everything and I make all my own food.  And drink a lot of water.” Her distinctive long grey hair, which “makes me look like a hag” she admits, when not styled for a shoot, is seldom cut by the hairdresser.

Yet, she does admit to owning a pair of trousers with an elasticated waist. That is, as one might expect of Selfe, a matter-of-fact decision: “When you shrink during the day, as you do with age, your waist has to go somewhere. So elasticated waists are marvellous. In the morning, you’re tall; in the evening, you’re fat.”  Hard to believe this of Selfe, but if you like her straight-talking approach there’s plenty more good advice on her website for all of us who’d like to walk a little taller.

Claudia Pugh-Thomas

The Independent Bath Literature Festival Friday 26 Feb – Sunday 6 March 2016

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