WHENEVER Kate Schumann strolls down the runway at Woodie's or Nordstrom's, the audience pays as much attention to the model as to her fashion.
"I'm one of the token gray-haired ladies," she says. "Many of the women come up after the show and say, 'It's so nice to see someone my age up there!' or 'I never would have bought that suit if it hadn't been on you.'
"I get a lot more in the way of warm fuzzies than the younger models do. . . Older women are more apt to talk to each other. They're not adverse to stating how they feel."
Ms. Schumann is 5 foot 9, a size 6. . .and 53. A part-time model when she was in college, she began working in the Baltimore-Washington market about eight years ago. In addition to her runway work -- she is represented locally by Three West Casting -- she has appeared as the "Fit and 50" model for Spa Lady as well as in many local print advertisements.
Her work signals the growth of the market for realism in fashion models, a trend that has caused such giant agencies as Ford Models Inc. to create divisions for models in their 40s and 50s.
"The way we look at aging is changing. We don't see a woman of 50 as a grandmother, we see her out jogging, working at a career, wearing lingerie," says T. Zazzera, director of Ford's special modeling markets.
Older models are no longer posing in the background as the mothers of the brides, they are wearing Perry Ellis career clothes and Lycra fitness gear -- fashions which have come to spell economic and social achievement for many American women. And these models are also helping women's magazines claim more attention from the over 35 market.
Take, for instance, the sales appeal of Cissy Spacek, an actress happily ensconced in her 40s and January cover girl for Lear's Magazine.
"Rather than having a 12-year-old girl who's wearing makeup on our magazine cover, we want people to say 'That woman looks real. She looks like someone I know,'" says Jessica Weinstein, fashion editor and special projects editor at Lear's.
"As far as models, we try to get women who are interested and sophisticated and intelligent looking. We hate that kind of vacant look where the women look like they have nothing inside."
Harold Koda, director of the National Museum of Fashion at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, says the appearance of older models marks a return to the way life used to be before the 1960s. He says the Harpers and Vogues of the '20s, '30s and '40s presented an assortment of beauties, some with white hair.
"The ideal beauty wasn't a young girl, it was a woman of means, with an established sense of style. There was a great deal of variation with body type.
"Then the 1960s brought a huge population in their teens and early 20s, and fashion followed that market."
What is new to the fashion business, however, is the way women are aging. Mr. Koda says today's 35-year-old women look a lot different than their counterparts some 30 years ago.
"Women are no longer the sendentary creatures they were. Even though the waistline might thicken, it doesn't in the same way it did before all these aerobics and fitness programs. Even though some people choose elastic waistlines and wraps rather than tailored clothing, it's not because their bodies are like their mothers' or grandmothers'. It has to do with seeking comfort."
Today's fashion priorities also come from seeking jobs.
Baltimore model Nancy Sergi points out that many middle-aged women are single and are returning to the work force. Or they're staying in their careers longer than they used to.
"Business places want you to look on the ball," she says. A receptionist for Eastern Savings Bank in Hunt Valley, Ms. Sergi appears in local fashion shows for Odyssey Modeling Studio.
Although she will appear in about 20 spring jobs next month, Ms. Schumann considers her modeling as part-time work. She says the "mature women" market lags far behind the mature men's market. Although models at such agencies as Ford earn $150 an hour -- the same as younger women -- they have only a fifth of the work.
On the national fashion level, however, clients want models to trigger greater recognition. Most of the roughly 30 models in Ford's Classic Women division have worked as fashion models all of their careers.
"The faces we handle are tried and true representatives of the aging population," says Ms. Zazzera. "Although they are nameless to the population, they are familiar old faces."
"One of the advantages of age is that it does create distinctive characteristics in the face," Mr. Koda says. "Personality begins to read through. In youth, it just doesn't."
It's perhaps not as necessary, either.
"Do you realize how intimidating it is to audition in a bathing suit when you're 50 years old?" says model Karen Kirschenbauer. "No one has ever used me strictly for glamour."
Ms. Kirschenbauer began accepting modeling jobs in the Baltimore/Washington area in her late 40s. (She is represented locally by Three West Casting.) Interested primarily in acting -- she will not accept runway jobs -- she appeared as an extra in "He Said, She Said" and has done national television ads for Kodak, MCI and Jamaica.
She stopped working as a substitute teacher only when her modeling income finally surpassed her part-time teaching pay. But she calls it an iffy business, one as reluctant to shed old images as to create new ones.
Some cultural myths die slowly.
"I'll do what I know is a good reading for a grandmother role, but I won't get it," Ms. Kirschenbauer says. "They'll have in mind a plump grandma, usually the Mrs. Santa Claus type."