Women entitled to draw their pensions - yes, ones with real wrinkles - are modelling for fashion magazines. Values might be changing at last, says James Sherwood
Our older readers might not realise but it's been a great month for senior citizens. Daphne Selfe, 70, appeared in her first beauty portfolio in the November edition of the cult fashion magazine Scene, in a Lucien Freud-inspired shoot. Two weeks later, November Vogue hit the newsstands featuring Selfe and Shirley Grubman, 66, photographed by Nick Knight. Both models have now signed contracts with Models 1.

Daphne Selfe was formerly with the character agency Ugly Models and Shirley Grubman hadn't modelled for 40 years. Neither woman's allure is thanks to taxidermy - the stretch and snip school of surgically enhanced beauty. Both Grubman and Selfe have wrinkles as deeply etched on their faces as WH Auden.

There is a crucial difference between these new old faces and fashion's previous gallery of "older women", and it is reality. The magazines are not peddling middle youthers like Lauren Hutton and Isabella Rossellini - women blessed with exquisite bones and flawless skin - as unrealistic and often cruel comparisons with real women over 50. This is not about fighting the ageing process capped tooth and nail extensions.

"It's time to get away from the concept of beauty as unrealistic and aspirational," says Linda Burns, beauty editor of Scene. "When you look at Liz Hurley's Estee Lauder ads, the overwhelming impression is how old fashioned that level of perfection looks now. I chose Daphne because I don't think health and beauty are the sole prerogative of youth."

Shirley Grubman thinks that it's about time too. "It is a myth that women over 50 lose interest in their appearance," she says. "They have, however, been abandoned by the fashion magazines. At last magazines are addressing my generation."

She professes herself "bemused but delighted" after her encounters with Nineties fashion photographers Nick Knight and Juergen Teller. "I find it amusing to be photographed next to girls of 15 when I have two grandchildren. But I don't feel insecure. Models like myself were trained to hold the pose, exercise self-control and present clothes elegantly."

It would be untrue to say that fashion has never acknowledged the allure of the "older girls" in the past. (Even if they're over 70, the agencies still call their models girls.) "Immortal" Carmen Dell'Orefice, now 67 and signed with Models 1 in London, shot her first fashion pictures with Clifford Coffin in 1945. Carmen still walks the runway for Thierry Mugler couture, this year accompanied by Hollywood legend Cyd Charisse. She will admit her face is "full of silicone" but declares, "I want to die with my high heels on." But Models 1 admits that Carmen was always the exception to the rule. Until now.

Of course there is room to be sceptical. It is in the nature of the beast that fashion will address an "issue" like large sizes (read over size 10) or older women, pat itself on the back and return to teenage coathanger models. But Jane Wood, head booker of Models 1 management division, says: "The stigma about presenting older women honestly is going. I honestly believe that. This division has been operating for eight and a half years but I think we've turned a corner in signing Shirley and Daphne. I don't think the work they have done is a flash in the pan. These are women who are comfortable with their bodies, in great shape and beautiful. Women need to see themselves reflected in fashion and I think the magazines understand that now."

Reader response will be the true litmus test. "We have had no negative reader response from the Daphne Selfe images and Scene readers are generally quite vocal when they don't approve," says Deborah Bee, editor of Scene. "I think it's a much more modern attitude to accept imperfection and the letters I have received support this. I personally think this portfolio is one of the best we have ever featured and we do have plans to follow it up."

London fashion is known for its idiosyncrasies and eccentricity but the new old models are not purely a London trend. Internationally, we are seeing older women featured in major ad campaigns like Levi's and Donna Karan, and on the catwalk at Helmut Lang and Thierry Mugler. Donna Karan photographed the patrician, middle-aged Bendetta Barzini as the face of Donna Karan mainline. Levi Strauss discovered a teacher from Colorado with weather-beaten skin and a mane of white hair and made her the face of its print and television campaign.

While such ad campaigns are promoting an "age is irrelevant" message, their motives are not that innocent. The shock value in presenting an old face in a youth-culture context is no less a tactic than Alexander McQueen presenting disabled models in the pages of Dazed & Confused. But the dubious motives could be said to be irrelevant should the public perceptions of what is beauty be challenged.

Both Scene and Vogue are educating the fashion literate eye, sated with "Youth Is Beauty", to see the aesthetics of age. The images are honest and dignified. But the minute a fashion image presents an older woman in a sexual context the issue becomes more controversial. Take the Italian jeans company Energie's current ad campaign. A raddled, over-made-up harridan with an orange tan and too much jewellery places a proprietorial hand on the naked chest of a denim-clad young stud. It is not a pretty picture. It is not a positive image of female sexuality. It makes both men and women uncomfortable - with the exception of gay men who see the screaming diva reference and consider it camp.

"A lot of straight men are incredibly turned on by an older sexy woman," says Neil Cunningham, a designer who chose to photograph his collection on Jibby Beane, 57, a Models 1 girl, contemporary art gallerist and London vamp about town. "I knew Jibby would bring a sense of sexuality and danger to the clothes and I was adamant that people could see she is not 16."

Cunningham framed his collection with a menage a trois photo shoot with Jibby, a fresh faced 18-year-old boy and the younger woman. "Darling Neil asked me to play the mother/lover/auntie in the shoot and he wanted something subversive," says Jibby. "My God, I didn't have to act. My boyfriend's 31. If I'm encouraging other women to live a wicked, subversive life then cheers, darlings. Sex and fashion are fun. It's about time the women who can actually afford these clothes see a role model enjoying them."

Ultimately, hot young models Maggie Rizer and Trish Goff aren't going to lose any sleep or any editorial pages with the current popularity of new old faces in fashion. But as Shirley Grubman says:"Women are more afraid of losing their jobs after 50 than losing their looks. By presenting images of confident and intelligent older women, the magazines are challenging the idea that age and experience are expendable."