Silver-haired mannequins are more than just billboards; they're role models
By Elsbeth van Paridon  ·  2022-01-10  ·   Source: NO.2 JANUARY 13, 2022
Elsbeth van Paridon interviews the shishang nainai in Beijing on November 22, 2021 (ZHANG WEI)

It's big and it's bland, full of tension and fear. They do it over there but we don't do it here. Fashion! Turn to the left. Fashion! Turn to the right. We are the silver squad and we're coming to town. The first part comes courtesy of David Bowie, the last sentence of China's shishang nainai.

Literally translating as "fashion(able) grannies," but occasionally referred to as glammas—the new generation of grandmas who are stylish in the way they live and dress and do not fit the typical cardigan-bearing, permed-hair granny stereotype, this quartet of late-aged urbanite women entered the stream of their golden years with gusto, strutting their stuff on catwalk and cover alike.

The fab foursome consists of former librarian Wang Nianwen, 75; retired basketball player Lin Wei, 66; once-upon-a-time English teacher Sun Yang, 65; and accounting pensioner Wang Xinghuo, 71. First joining the realm of modeling in the early 1990s, the ladies today have indulged in the industry to their full-time post-retirement delight. Arguably soaring to supermodel status, they put on impromptu catwalks that attract adoring crowds across China's trendiest territories, while their online following soars north of a million. Squad goals.

A new face 

It is estimated that by 2050, one in three people in China, or 487 million people, will be over the age of 60—that's more than the total population of the U.S. No other country in the world is facing this level of great demographic challenge… Seems like quite the gloomy scenario, but, the upside is: A whole new world of supply and demand is opening up.

A combination of continuous innovation, be it on the nation's social or digital levels, thrusting China's wind of change has affected all layers of society and the older generation has certainly not been an exception. This sprouting population of silver foxes and vixens, combined with rising incomes and living standards, means an explosion in consumption by China's elderly people is forecast in the next decades ahead. The 2021 China Report on the Development of the silver industry reads that the spending potential of China's 60-plus populace will soar to 106 trillion yuan ($25.1 trillion) by 2050, making up a third of the nation's GDP. This means that China will become the country with the world's largest silver market.

And with that calculation, once expected to selflessly stay at home and look after the grandkids, seniors—particularly women—have become a coveted market for products such as clothing, accessories, cosmetics and travel. And as is the case with any hot-off-the-press product, or market, there's always the need for a new face.

Role models 

In the past five years, international catwalks have taken on board age diversity and models like 62-year-old American Jacky O'Shaughnessy, 76-year-old modeling veteran Jan de Villeneuve, and of course, this name might ring a bell with most, Elon Musk's mother: Maye Musk. These silver ladies have been making waves as fashion's most-coveted runway assets over the past five years.

Once confined largely to life insurance and healthcare advertisements, today's glamorous Chinese seniors, too, cater to the high fashion appetite. 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. But the silver lining here is not just confined to the acknowledgement of their physical "worth;" it marks a new window of opportunity. These catwalk veterans are becoming far more than mere brand billboards; they embody new lifestyles.

Fifty-nine-year-old Ma Yinhong, who was the oldest model to hold court at Shanghai Fashion Week last year, has become one of a growing number of older models greatly desired by Chinese and international labels wooing China's growing faction of "silver spenders." This echoes a trend now well established in Western markets, where brands have been keen to tap into the pockets of the affluent baby-boomer generation. Ma seems to embody this target market of older Chinese who are spending more on themselves. And are using their newfound name and fame, perhaps unintentionally so, to establish their own brands of role models.

The digital stomp 

Portraying older models in active, youthful lifestyles sells well in a culture with a strong tradition of respect and deference toward elders. And what other platform would better suit their further promotion… than social media.

With her expanding presence on popular Chinese consumer platforms like Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book) and exponentially rising follower numbers on short-video apps like Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, Ma's influence stretches well beyond the kaleidoscopically colorful outfits she shows off.

"Many people told me that they are no longer afraid of getting old and having wrinkles, and some even dyed their hair white—like mine," Ma said in an interview with "If you follow others, then you will lose yourself. I dress only for myself. Even if you say I don't look good in the clothes, I will still wear them. I can dress in anything depending on my mood and the occasion," she added. Now that's what you call branding.

Like Ma, the shishang nainai's passion for fashion has stood the test of time, yet their online influencing stint came about rather unexpectedly. "We dabbled in it by accident; it was never really part of the plan," the group told Beijing Review. "We were working with a designer in Sanlitun [Beijing's commercial district/fashion zone] and then got 'discovered'." And so the fabric unfolded…

With their official accounts on various platforms, including their immensely popular Douyin which boasts almost 2 million followers, the role model memo is glowing up by the viewer. No longer satisfied with striking a pose or gracing a cover, the shishang nainai have shifted their focus to areas other than modeling, bringing them a deeper sense of fulfillment and joy. Through regular live-streaming and other public activities as online celebs, whether it's sharing their experiences in love or presenting China's minority accessory styles, the quartet wants to convey their lust for life, the benefits one can reap from reaching their golden years and an insatiable taste for the unknown.

"Our content is not only watched by our own age group, but also our grandchildren's generation, which we honestly weren't expecting," the squad said. "As part of the silver generation, we believe we must take to the benefits of the digital era with full zest. Many of our peers may assume that they, as seniors, are incapable of making change; which is a completely outdated presumption." Who knows, perhaps younger viewers, too, can take a leaf out of their playbook. You're never too old to learn.

Presenting the changes in their own blueprint for life, with a sartorial lining, the shishang nainai want to prove to their fellow silver vixens that with a passion for beauty and good health, old-age can still become one's prime time.

Turns out all that glitters… is silver.

(Print Edition Title: The Sartorial Lining) 

The author is an editorial consultant with Beijing Review 

Comments to 

China Focus
Special Reports
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
Partners:   |   China Today   |   China Pictorial   |   People's Daily Online   |   Women of China   |   Xinhua News Agency   |   China Daily
CGTN   |   China Tibet Online   |   China Radio International   |   Global Times   |   Qiushi Journal
Copyright Beijing Review All rights reserved 京ICP备08005356号 京公网安备110102005860