I was delighted to be invited by HelloCare to review the documentary of Advanced Style. I was already a big fan of Ari Seth Cohen’s wonderful achievement of putting stylish older New Yorkers – mainly women but also some very elegant men – in the public eye through his photographic blog of the same name; so much so that I had included the impact of his work in my book chapter on how to accept, and even embrace, our changing appearance as we grow older, rather than working on camouflaging or surgically removing the signs of ageing.
But I hadn’t caught up with just how successful Cohen’s initiative has become. What started in 2008 as a personal homage to his beloved and stylish grandmothers after their deaths changed, in his words, “from just being a blog to being a movement.” And up until now, as well as the continuingly updated blog, it has resulted in two books of the same name (one on stylish New Yorkers, published in 2012, and one – sub-titled Older and wiser – on stylish people from various parts of the world, in 2016), and a documentary completed in 2014. And, at the same time, we are seeing some of his amazing women fronting high fashion advertisements, on television shows, and being lauded for their influence on young and old.
According to Vogue Italia, Advanced Style is “less a street-style blog than a sociological treatise on ageing and identity.” It is, however, done with a much lighter and enjoyable touch than such a description might suggest. And this is very much the case in Advanced Style, the documentary that was produced jointly by film maker Lina Plioplyte and Cohen. The focus in it is a group of seven stylish older women who have been frequent subjects of Cohen’s blog, and whose ages range from the 60s to the 90s. They are featured in a loosely structured narrative that starts with Cohen’s rationale for his blog, and shows how he selects and approaches the older women who catch his eye, with a request to take their photo. Each of the stars of the documentary is then introduced and shown in some of their very varied and fabulous outfits, and each talks about their lives and approach to ageing and fashion in ways that are diversely personal, practical and realistic, and always inspirational. For one of them, “ageing can be a wonderful thing – you can dress up and feel wonderful no matter what age you are.” For another, “I never wanted to look young – I wanted to look great.” As summed up by yet another, the value of Advanced Style is that “magazines don’t show older women, which is why Ari’s blog is so great, because he does.”
The documentary then switches between each of them to pick up on some of their activities and relationships, including singing, cycling, yoga, shop owner, teaching art, and home life, and including a happy account of Debra Rapoport – in her 70s – and her seven years younger partner. He also gets to talk, describing how it took him a while to realise that the age difference didn’t matter, and that her outrageous styles were actually fun; and he has composed and sings a great song summing up her attitude to ageing: “I’m better with age. I like the lines on my face.
In terms of the styles of the women, however, it’s important to note that outrageousness is not a necessary criterion. Each of them has their own individual approach to fashion, and what is key is their pleasure in assembling what they’re going to wear each day in a way that suits their individuality, whether sleekly elegant or flamboyantly put together, and all stops in between.
In the next phase of the documentary what is shown is the impact on each of their lives, of being highlighted in Cohen’s blog. They have become known all over the world. They are auditioning and being selected for advertising campaigns, including Lanvin, and being featured in glamorous ads that the passing public fall in love with. They are thanked personally and by letter by other old people telling them how seeing them has changed their lives (one saying that “it completely turned my idea of ageing around), and helped them to be bolder and more creative. The stars are invited to take part in television talk shows, and to be seen at fashion parades. And in one case, the latter is shown as being the location for what could be called a good death, that of 95-year-old “style icon” Zelda Kaplan. In the eyes of one of the survivors, at her funeral, this was “a fabulous way to die! Better than dying all hooked up to machines in a hospital.”
A friend of mine who has seen some of the photos on the blog said that yes, but they’re all pretty well off. Certainly, some of them are, but not all, and what makes them so marvelous to look at isn’t the price of what they’re wearing. As summed up by Rapoport – whose financial situation is very modest and who makes glamorous bracelets out of toilet rolls – “money can’t buy style.
Here are women who know that life in general and theirs in particular is short and who are therefore, all about making the most of their lives right now. And for whom creating the image that brings out their personality is something that they love doing, and in so doing were discovered by a photographer who has shown how delightful it can be to be your own, creatively striking person in old age. There is also the highlighting of ageing as being a personal perspective, with ideas about it ranging from a powerful need to fulfill bucket lists to being happy with having lived a fulfilling life and now being at peace with the world. And they don’t downplay the presence of physical limitations and challenges that they variously have to deal with, from glaucoma to chronic pain to assorted operations. And for some of those who don’t have a partner, this is something that they acknowledge missing. There is no shirking from the fact that life isn’t always a bowl of cherries, whatever age we are.
I watched this documentary twice, to make sure that I covered it adequately in this review, and it was just as enjoyable and powerful to watch the second as the first time. A visual delight providing plenty of food for thought, and definitely deserving of a four star rating.
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