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Mannequins' touch of gray hints at shifting view of aging

At first glance, the mannequins in Burberry's window look perfectly ordinary - tall, elegant figures dressed in the British clothier's richly tailored skirts and blazers. But look again: Isn't that a touch of gray in their dark brown hair, a sprinkling of salt amid the pepper?

It is indeed. And it suggests a maturity not usually allowed on mannequins, which have always perpetuated a look of eternal youth.

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Never mind that there's more pepper than salt in the mannequins' wigs. And never mind that these locks are prematurely gray, perched as they are atop faces that can't be a day over 25 and lean, leggy bodies. What matters is that the salt is definitely there - good news for women of a certain age who often feel invisible, even ignored, in a youth-oriented culture.

``I believe one shouldn't always appeal to a young audience,'' says Michael Steward, a Burberry's designer in New York, who chose the wigs for the retailer's East Coast stores. ``Not everybody is a blonde or a brunette or a redhead.''

In addition to wigs with silvery highlights, he notes, display manufacturers now also ``carry a line here and there of slightly older mannequins - fuller busted, broader shouldered, obviously trim and in shape, with an hourglass figure, but certainly older than the teen-age-market mannequins.''

This kind of diversity is, of course, just good business. Now that the baby-boom generation is beginning to turn 40, savvy retailers and advertisers realize the importance of wooing slightly older customers, some of whom have impressive amounts of discretionary income to spend.

But beyond hard-nosed economics, there may be another, more heartening trend here - a slowly growing recognition that ``being older does not mean you are less,'' as actress Linda Evans has put it.

``Older women have certainly made a comeback,'' Mr. Steward says. ``It's wonderful how older women can be respected as beautiful women and not just mothers and elderly aunts and grandmothers. When you look back to the '40s, women who were popular were in their 30s. In the '60s, youth and the young were the way to go. Now we're swinging away from that. One only has to look at Elizabeth Taylor, Tina Turner, Joan Collins, and Diana Ross.''

They are, of course, particularly glamorous examples. So is Gloria Steinem, the 53-year-old editor of Ms. magazine. She appears in Vanity Fair this month fighting the years, not in a salt-and-pepper wig, but in a miniskirt.

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Another well-publicized exception, Kaylen Pickford, has parlayed her short gray hair and youthful appearance into a late-blooming modeling career. And with mixed effects, ``Golden Girls'' constitutes the first TV sitcom devoted to older women.

Yet older actresses still have a harder time finding parts than older actors. Age has traditionally carried stiffer penalties for women than for men.

A new report on older women and employment, issued by the National Commission on Working Women, notes that three-quarters of the 14 million working women over 45 are in non-professional occupations - clerical, sales, service, and factory jobs. Many struggle with low wages, inadequate benefits, and a lack of pension coverage.

These challenges are compounded by what the report calls ``a cultural bias'' that views older women differently from men in the work force. ``Negative stereotypes - about older women's health, productivity, trainability, or simply their desirability and attractiveness on the job - are extremely difficult to overcome,'' the report states.

``Despite recent positive media attention on the health and fitness of women (and men) in their fifties and sixties ... and despite research studies that tend to refute the negative stereotypes, such popular biases remain powerful influences on the attitudes and behavior of employers, supervisors, and older women themselves.''

It will take more than a few salt-and-pepper wigs on mannequins, more than a few glamorous exceptions, to change those attitudes and biases. Yet these positive images are encouraging signals, and subliminally at least these signals are getting through.

A Burberry's employee, asked if the touch-of-gray wigs had elicited much comment, replies, ``No, not really. But we've sure had a lot of surprised looks.''

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