Joyce Carpati, Lynn Dell Cohen, Zelda Kaplan, Jacquie Tajah Murdock, Debra Rapoport, Ilona Royce Smithkin, Tziporah Salamon: memorize their names, because these women are your new idols. In Advanced Style, the documentary based on photographer Ari Seth Cohen's blog of the same name, a clutch of New York women ranging in age from 62 to 95 are celebrated for their unique style: furs, rhinestones, paisleys, florals, feathers, caftans, and hats, always hats.
If you're of the mind that clothing is just an outward expression of the creative inner self, there's so much to admire in these women. They are all exceptional dressers, with unique signature flair, but more than their style, they are examples of living with the utmost aplomb long past the age that American culture dictates a woman's irrelevance—at 40, some of them surmise—and role models for anyone, of any age, who refuses to stop being fabulous just because of a few wrinkles here and there.
For the past five years, director Lina Plioplyte has been following the lives of these women alongside Ari Seth Cohen, chronicling them as they've become ever more prominent style stars with the rise of the eponymous blog, but also documenting their lives beyond their way of presenting themselves. They are artists, dancers, musicians, muses; they have performed at the Apollo, illustrated Ayn Rand, open vintage shops, traveled to Paris. Advanced Style, the movie, made me cry with happiness: for one, older women aren't often shown in such a celebratory (but not otherizing) fashion, and for two, they prove as women our paths don't have to become less fascinating just because we're getting up there. (You can become a Lanvin model at 82!) And, hell, if you gotta die, may as well do it in the front row at fashion week.
I spoke with Plioplyte about making Advanced Style, out now on DVD and iTunes.
Obviously the women in Advanced Style are used to being around Ari Seth Cohen and being photographed, but I imagine bringing in a film element changed the dynamic. Was it hard to capture naturally?
The women in the film are from a different generation, so they're not used to YouTubing or taking cellphone pictures or anything like that. At first they weren't really accustomed to any type of camera. Yes, Ari took a lot of pictures of them, but for them, taking pictures was such a theatrical thing. Our generation is like, oh yeah, whatever. So as a filmmaker it was rather hard for me to get in there, because most of them are natural performers, so every time I would come in with a camera they'd be like "Helloooo!" So as we built with them, there was a really special intimacy I had to build to make them to make them relax and to make them trust me, to show them I wasn't exposing anything. It really helped that we became friends. And I had no crew at all, and I think that's what allowed it to be this intimate portrait of them, because it was just me. They would tell me what was going on with them, I would tell them what was going on with me, it was a really natural one-on-one conversation.
How did you become involved in the project?
I love self-expression through style. Ari and I met in 2008, when I was an aspiring filmmaker. I was working in a coffee shop in Williamsburg. Ari walked in and he was just this bright-eyed kid who'd just moved to New York from Seattle, and he was wearing like, a Hawaiian print, full-on short suit or something, and I was wearing some kind of sparkly leopard. We were those people. So we became quick friends, and he said he wanted to start this blog about older women in the street. I was blown away from his very first pictures, and I was subconsciously looking for subjects to film, so basically I just started going to their homes, talking about style at first, and then lifestyle, for YouTube videos, which got a lot of attention. People were like, "oh my god I want to get old like them."
The particular women in the movie kind of tied in together, so it was also a very natural selection also. These were the ones that were like, "Come over, I don't wear any makeup on Sundays, I'll make you bagels!"
I went into the film thinking that you would rely more on women who are already established as style icons, like Iris Apfel and Zelda Kaplan, but I really liked that you went into these women's lives who aren't as recognizable offhand by most people.
Ilona Royce Smithkin [pictured above] has a documentary about her by her neighbor because she is just so amazing, who wouldn't want to. The way the women in the film made me feel was that everything is gonna be okay, and it can be better if you act a certain way. it's not like some people are innately living marvelous lives or that they're always perfect no matter what age or stage. These gals are just having fun with it. They still have a bad hair or bad outfit day sometimes.
It was important for me to show that they're real, they do get bitchy sometimes, they do compete sometimes. It's only human. Otherwise, I think they would be less relatable. I don't wanna see somebody who's living in a mansion or who has all this money and lives a fabulous life. It's more interesting to see women wearing clothes that are thrifted and gifted, that they're doing things that we are doing in New York City in 2014, not reminiscing about some wild past that they've got. They all have amazing lives, but we're all living today. They're such good examples of that. They're my inspirations for living today and getting the most out of today as possible. Because of their age bracket, they're like well, future? Hell no. But they don't worry about it, it's not like this is it. They're more like, hmmm, should I pick up another language?
Ilona has that amazing line in the film where she says something like, "Above the waist, I'm perfect, but below the waist, it's 'don't ask, don't tell.'" It's so funny and knowing.
And that's the attitude! We're all falling apart, a little bit. But we can't overthink it, or make that the main priority.
Especially in the US, there's such a cultural dismissal of older people, particularly women. How did that come into play when you were filming these women in their 80s and 90s who are constantly living these extraordinary lives and not playing into any stereotype or cultural mandate about what older women "should" be?
A lot of the women mention becoming invisible over 40. That whole thing where you stop kind of being a young girl—even a sex object—in this society. We've seen so many women in the theaters who will say, after seeing the movie, "Oh my god, I was so worried about aging, but seeing these women opened my eyes." Or like, Wow, I have all these cool clothes but I haven't worn them in 30 years. It's magic to me that these women never stopped. They all say, you have to be ready for people on the street elbowing each other, like "Oh my god, look at this, is it Halloween." They all get that, but they could not care less. And that attitude comes with age: there's no fashion police that's gonna come getcha. They really just trust themselves, and say welp, I am what I am. This is me. And it's fabulous: they have so much freedom.
It's rare to see a film, documentary or otherwise, where the whole point is basically encouraging women to be who they are no matter how wild it may seem.
I learned so much. We've been filming for five years, and they really became part of my family. I was afraid of getting older. I'm Lithuanian, but I've been in America for ten years now, and being here, being 25—I'm 31 now—I would be like, oh man, you're not in your early 20s anymore. Seeing the anti-aging everything, everywhere you go, everything is to hide hide hide your age. It's such a scary thing. So they not only showed me how it's done, they also showed me that you don't have to give up. If you like kooky stuff, which I tend to like, there's no age cutoff. I was like, a lot of my friends were getting jobs and settling down and becoming more "adult," and these women were full-on adult, with great artist careers, successful boutiques, or jobs in sales for Cosmpolitan. And they were just like, dahling, I really love to dress. It's really reaffirming that playfulness and creativity doesn't go away once you turn 40 or once you have a child or once you turn 80. More importantly, I am less worried to get older than I was five years ago, and they're totally responsible for that.
Watching the film made me want to dress even wackier, actually. I was like "Oh, I'm so boring, I'm only wearing three patterns right now, I need to be wearing five." You have great subjects, but you also obviously have an eye for framing scenes, patterns, colors. One of my favorite scenes is when you're in Lynn's kitchen and she's making potstickers, and the way that her wild paisley wallpaper frames her in her bathrobe.
It matched her robe! I was marveling just as much as you were. I think it really makes the notion that dressing is only one way of self-expression, and people will say, oh, it's all fashion, but this is not even really a fashion film. It is, but it's not, because they just love colors, they absorb themselves in color with everything they do. They all have lives that show their experiences and what they like and what kind of people they are. They're passionate.
Also, fashion is often seen as a great extravagance, monetarily. Like you said before, though, these women are thrifting. They're wearing clothing that looks super luxurious, but they're living in modest apartments. No one is outlandishly rich, and they're not spending a lot of money on their clothing. They challenge this conception that to be stylish, you have to be wealthy.
Especially for our generation, there's so much incredible style, but often it's on style blogs, and the bloggers are dressed by the designers. I love all kinds of fantastic McQueen and whatnot, but it's not attainable for everyone, and these women show us that you don't need money to look stylish. You just have a blank canvas, and you just accessorize, accessorize, accessorize. Basically all of them have been on this planet for a long time enough to figure out exactly how this works and how to make themselves look great and be happy every day without needing to spend millions of dollars or buying something every season.
Image via Advanced Style