As recent as last year, Carla Rockmore had fewer than 100 followers on Instagram. At the time, she didn’t even know what TikTok was. But in the midst of a pandemic, Rockmore, who had a decades-long career as a fashion designer, needed a creative outlet. And so she turned on her phone’s camera and hit record. “If I don’t do something creative, I might as well be on pharmaceuticals,” she says.
Today, after joining the app in January 2021, Rockmore boasts over 540,000 TikTok followers, mostly younger people who rely on the 54-year-old to guide them through the complicated world of clothes, from how to figure out proportions to how to watch out for designer sales. All the videos are sprinkled with her one-of-a-kind humor that aligns with her philosophy of using fashion as a tool for joy. She’s unafraid to discuss the state of her “derrière,” or make fun of her bunion surgery: “Who buys platforms this high when they’ve had bunion surgery? Moi!” she said in a recent video.
Rockmore is one of a cohort of older women who are taking to the Gen Z platform to share their insights and tips on navigating fashion in everyday life. Their videos are not the usual hauls and #OOTDs found on the app. Instead, they offer deep dives into color theory, fashion history, and styling tips honed over decades.
“We’re a safe space because we are helping younger people navigate fashion, but we’re not throwing bodycon dresses on them and saying, ‘This is how you should look,’” says Rockmore.
While this phenomenon is manifesting on TikTok, the fashion and lifestyle industries at large are undergoing a sea change brought about by women who are refusing to adhere to ageist standards. “We are starting to see for the first time a perspective from past youth, millennial, and Gen X users sharing their own narratives around fashion, aging, and self-care, a segment that has been looked down upon in the past by brands and companies,” says Serena Saitas, CEO and Head of Strategy at Real Brand Strategy. According to Saitas, this new playbook is “game-changing” because it’s teaching other women to explore fashion on their own terms. Saitas’ agency recently conducted a study, titled Shift2Self, on the changing perspectives of Gen X and Boomer women, revealing that 85% feel positive about aging.
On TikTok, Rockmore is one of many high-profile influencers over 40, like image consultant Carol Brailey, beauty expert Elisa Berrini Gomez, style fanatic Lori Susan, model Liv Judd, and etiquette specialist Sofia Marbella. Filled with humorous and highly educational videos, their channels are quite different from the Instagram-based influencers the industry has grown to embrace — they put their personality, rather than their curated image, first. Berrini Gomez helps women embrace their gray hair, while Lori Susan shows that there is a way to wear color and bodycon clothes past 40. Judd helps women translate runway trends into everyday wear, while Marbella teaches her audience the do’s and don’ts of social etiquette like how to properly walk in heels or eat your favorite pasta dish (hint: a combination of a fork and spoon is necessary to shape fettuccini to a chewable size).
For Brailey, a 47-year-old color-theory specialist and image consultant based in Toronto, the platform was a godsend. A former IT and healthcare project manager, Brailey has had multiple careers throughout her life. In 2011, she took an image-consulting course that first introduced her to color theory, which studies the science and visual effects of color mixing. She fell in love with this aspect of the industry, which is largely overlooked and many consider, according to Brailey, to be “so '80s.” But her mission was always clear from day one: to help women express themselves through fashion. For 10 years, she’s grown her image-consulting business, which was mainly based in Toronto, from the ground up. Now, with the help of the platform, her business has expanded beyond her dreams: “I’d say now about 80% to 90% of my business comes from TikTok.”
Boasting over 27,000 followers, Brailey is still focused on reaching everyday women, demystifying the idea that image consulting and color theory are “fancy, expensive things.” But she’s also hoping to help young people on the app approach more theory-based perspectives in fashion that get down to the roots of why they wear certain trends and what type of styles suit them the best. “I get a lot of comments that say, ‘Oh, that’s what my grandmother did in the '80s,’” she says. “But now, because of my videos, they see the impact [of image consulting].”
Fashion communities on TikTok have rapidly grown over the past year, as more people join the app in search of a like-minded community. But the app has garnered a reputation for fostering younger creators and youth-driven trends, as opposed to other platforms like Facebook and YouTube that have expanded their target audiences. Brailey says that this misconception is due to the fact that TikTok prioritizes personality over aesthetic or production quality, something that today’s Gen Z and millennial creators are more likely to embrace than older generations. Yet, women like Brailey and Rockmore have found a way to crack the ageist gaze by just being themselves. “That provides us with the opportunity to hit a market that traditionally we wouldn’t be able to hit,” says Brailey.
For years, friends and family had told Rockmore that she’d be a great television personality because of her funny takes on fashion, aging, and life experiences. Before joining TikTok, she actually created a YouTube channel but found that the high-production value of the platform made it hard for her to relax and enjoy the process. Now, whenever she feels like ranting about trends or sharing gems from her enviable closet (which is the size of a New York studio apartment!), she just turns to her phone camera and presses record.
Even when youth seems to be the most valuable currency on TikTok, Rockmore says that she often gets comments, saying: “Oh, I want to be you!” But Rockmore is not interested in being a role model. “I want them to feel like they can be themselves,” she says.