Vogue’s fashionable older woman, Mrs. Exeter, was a fictional character. Yet even by the standards of fiction, she was quite fuzzy around the edges. We do not learn where she lives, although one assumes in New York City. Only once is her first name (Nellie) mentioned. She makes an offhand comment about being a widow, but no details about Mr. Exeter emerge. She briefly refers to her sister, daughter, and grandchildren, but reveals little else about her private life.
Moreover, her actual appearance is not fixed either. She was drawn by different artists and portrayed by many models in her decade and a half career. If we judge by her multiple images, Mrs. Exeter is simultaneously tall and short, slender and plump. She is a very young looking fifty and a well preserved seventy. Her hair is gray, salt-and-pepper, dark, light. Her only constant feature is her whiteness, hardly surprising on the pages of Vogue in the 1940s and 1950s.
Perhaps Mrs. Exeter’s lack of definition helps to explain her appeal to Vogue editors and readers. She was an older, white, prosperous everywoman whose mission was to convince other women like herself that they could–and should–make an effort to stay in style. This 1951 statement might serve as her manifesto: “Only those of us who are older women today can fully realize that our good-looks-expectancy has increased right along with our life-expectancy.”