The New Rebel Yell is Coming From the Senior’s Corner
Film: Advanced Style
Director: Lina Plioplyte
You make me feel so young.
You make me feel as though spring has sprung.
And every time I see you grin,
I’m such a happy individual.
– from “You Make Me Feel So Young,” by Joseph Myrow and Mack Gordon
Why do gorgeously dressed older women make such a profound impression? In part, it’s because they defy our social expectations, but also because they defy our aesthetic expectations; dressing well shouldn’t matter to older women, is the unconscious assumption, because beauty is a means to an end, and they’ve already done all they’re going to do. Well, bollocks to all that, say a growing demographic of spunky dames who refuse to sink into the background just because of a few wrinkles and grey hairs.
It all started with street photographer Ari Seth Cohen’s famed blog of the same name. Cohen loved taking pictures of sensationally dressed older women on the streets of New York, and he eventually put together a blog as a means of reversing the invisibility of the elderly in a culture that worships and celebrates youth. His initiative challenged the marketing focus of a country in which less than 5% of advertising directed at Baby Boomers even though it’s the Baby Boomers who are doing 49% of the buying.
When Lithuanian born filmmaker, Lina Plioplyte, quite the style maven herself, met Ari Seth Cohen and learned about his blog, she had to put her oar in, and her involvement spun into this, her first feature film.
They’re a bit of a historical abnormality, these over-60 birds; they grew up steeped in a youth culture that immunised them against abandoning a youthful outlook, and yet they consider the pursuit of youth a waste of time and energy. As Joyce Carpati puts it, “I never wanted to look young; I just wanted to look great.”
With nary a hint of nagging militance, they’ve created a social movement that refuses to cave to the prevailing social expectations of what elderly women should be: demure, modest, conservative, conventional, quiet, and undemanding—having surrendered their hopes and dreams in a resigned anticipation of the grim reaper.
It’s not that these style icons are trying to distract themselves from the inevitability of their imminent demises. They actually joke about how little time they have left and are ever ready to talk about their ailments and how hard it is to lose family and friends. But they’re darned if they’re going to huddle in a corner and give over the business of living and making a spectacular appearance. Their way of dressing isn’t meant as an “in your face” to social conventions, but let’s face it—the social conventions don’t have a chance.
Take a look at artist and art teacher, Ilona Royce Smithkin, 94, who created the now iconic drawing of Ayn Rand which graces the backs of most of the author’s books. Ilona makes her long feathery false eyelashes from her own flaming orange hair, and lives life to the fullest in spite of now having to care for a partner with Alzheimer’s disease.
When Lynn Dell Cohen, now 81, was young, she begged her husband to buy her a boutique. He agreed, she says, to keep her from flirting and getting into trouble. She still runs that boutique, called “Off Broadway,” where she appears dressed to the nines and dishes out style advice to her devoted customers. “I am dressed up for the theatre of my life every day,” she proclaims proudly.
“I think good style improves the environment for everybody,” says Zelda Kaplan, 95, who, sadly, died during the film’s production. Zelda would travel to Africa to buy hand-loomed cloths from Africa, returning to New York to deliver them—along with her own design sketches—to her tailor to create one-of-a-kind fashions.
These women are not only full of enthusiasm for life, they have the nerve to act as if they’re just starting out, like starry-eyed debutantes in search of that next great thing.
There’s the 62-year-old who talks about her desire to meet and marry a man with children so she can experience the joy of being a mother. (But, for now, her clothes are her chidren, and she cares for them lovingly.)
Debra Rapoport, 68, talks giddily about how much in love she is with her younger boyfriend, a man who, at first, was turned off by what he considered her clownish style of dressing. She went through a brief period of self-doubt, asking herself, against her bent, “What would a man think of this outfit?” It didn’t last long; she went back to expressing herself any which way, and the boyfriend came around.
Then there’s Jacquie Murdock, 83, the former dancer still looking for a sugar daddy.
Your first impulse might be to regard these dreams as pathetically deluded, but soon you’ll come around to seeing the chutzpah as powerfully adaptive. It’s kept them strong, happy, busy, and successful. These are not spoiled, hothouse flowers, or wilting violets, after all, and it was often the school of hard knocks that gave them their inspiration.
For example: “My childhood wasn’t a very happy one,” says Ilona, who was born in Poland in 1920.
And right after the Second World War Joyce Carpati was 16 and studying opera in Milan. “You still saw bullet holes in the buildings,” she says, “and people really did not have an easy time. And yet, in the afternoon, they would come out dressed magnificently. Magnificently. I was there in the autumn and I saw a woman in a tweed suit and laced suede Oxfords … I thought: I love that!”
There’s no doubt that the elegant personal style Carpati developed, and still sports, had something to do with her career in the magazine industry: she became the first female ad sales manager at Hearst publications, where she worked for both Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan.
When Joyce’s husband died she realised she could either give up or carry on. “You be creative and go on doing what you’re doing,” she insists. “And if you don’t, you’re out of luck.”
What does all this mean for our culture and society today? Posing a great big “why” to the commercial world’s obsession with youth has been described as “punk and subversive” by Barneys’ Simon Doonan, and he’d be right.
The ultimate subversive statement comes from Ilona: “At this stage of my life I’m more concerned with the air, the sea, the feeling of freedom within myself. I don’t have to prove anything anybody else. I don’t have to impress anybody. I wouldn’t want to. Because I’m really enjoying this stage of my life, and I really feel good about me.”
Advanced Style manifests five of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.
• It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
• It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
• It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
• It’s about attainment of the true self.
• It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.