Dramatically garbed with 20 pieces of jewelry, a boa and long, orange eyelashes, Ilona Royce Smithkin turns heads on the street, the stage and fashion blogs – at age 90.
Several of the most photographed glamour “girls” in the nation are in at least their seventh decade and some over 100. Famed for their elegance, vigor and joy of life, their various styles might be tagged “extreme fashion” as they stand out against a dull sea of woman in boring black business suits.
Young New York blogger Ari Seth Cohen is chronicling and promoting an unusual trend, women who increase in confidence, elegance and sometimes even in beauty as they age. His popular Advanced Style website features a group of stunningly or at least extraordinarily dressed woman, all past 60 and most well beyond.
Inspired by his beloved grandmother and stars from old movies, Cohen began his blog in her memory by approaching elegant New York matrons and requesting permission to photograph them. Cohen is respectful in his tone and appears to truly admire many of his subjects. His photos seemed to strike a nerve, setting off a kaleidoscope of repercussions in the fashion industry.
Cohen’s interviews and photographs attracted attention from the New York Times, Huffington Post and other international press. Riding a recent wave of fame, Cohen and his ladies now pore over film, advertising and publishing offers, although some were established in those areas earlier. Cohen’s family project blossomed into gallery shows for him in New York, London, Rome, Geneva and other cities. He also wrote a book on “Advanced Style” expected to be available by May 22, 2012.
In an era where older women are expected to shuffle offstage somewhere in the shadows bemoaning their wrinkles and lost beauty, these women are true cultural revolutionaries. At least part of the reason the world so warmly embraces extravagantly dressed, older ladies is that there seems to be no younger ones up to it.
A mass blandness that sweeps our current PC world is also expressed in fashion or its lack. Armies of blue jeans with the required T-shirts are as ubiquitous as Mao suits in China a few years back. Mea culpa, as I live on the West Coast, a wasteland of style for years.
One of New York’s most famed senior designers, Iris Apfel, thinks women should be imprisoned for wearing “bad clothes.” I think she’s serious. The 90-year-old fashion icon with trademark owl glasses and monster jewelry recently ranted about Americans and style in an interview with The Telegraph.
“It was fabulous [in the '50s]; everyone looked beautiful,” Apfel said. “Now I just want to throw up. … Ten years ago people were starting to look like slobs in New York, now it’s an epidemic.”
Far from alienating people with her opinions, Apfel is mega-popular with galleries hosting her textile shows and producers begging day and night for interviews.
Tziporah Salmon is an exception to the rule. At 62 she’s one of the youngest women featured in “Advanced Style,” but she didn’t need Cohen’s help to get noticed.
Feeling that fashion was superficial and wanting to make a difference, Salamon asked God “What am I meant to do?”
She felt she received an answer via a dream where Glenn Close called to tell her, “You’re the best (fashion consultant) in the business.”
Since then Salamon has made personal fashion and exotic, antique-based design her life’s work – and she’s done well at it.
She describes her style as “creating a portrait” with different looks and has collected a vast wardrobe with over 200 hats.
“It’s painting with cloth and hats and capes and shawls,” she explains.
One day New Yorkers are treated to a Chinese Empress (on a bicycle yet) and on another, a 1920s flapper or Victorian lady. Tourists snap her ensembles, and being photogenic doesn’t hurt either.
People of all ages stop Salamon to comment appreciatively, thanking her for “making their day” and sending love. With so much attention to her sometimes jaw-dropping costumes, she’s been asked about the difference between herself and Lady Gaga. Her response shows the clear cultural difference in generations.
“I don’t do it to shock,” she says. “I’m always a very refined lady so that people would never turn me away.”
Enthusiasm over womanliness and femininity is a common theme in interviews of these American grande dames and something conservatives may find encouraging.
Lynn Dell, New York’s “Countess of Glamour” and ex-Rockette, has been dressing up for decades and teaching other women how to do it well. She revels in femininity at any age and believes in playing it up at her “Off Broadway Boutique.”
Like many of the woman featured in Advanced Style, Dell’s look at 79 is even more pronounced and confident with age. The jewelry’s bigger, the clothing more dramatic with sequins, gold and tassels. She doesn’t indulge in the laid back casual look at all.
“We dress for the theater of our lives! Who wants to wear jeans?” she asks.
Dell offers tips from past charm school slogans that still work: “You need poise and good posture” to look good at any age.
Her advice to also accept yourself sounds healthy and something anorexic models could use. Dell hosts a successful television show, “Positively Lynn,” and produces fashion shows for “grown-ups.”
Lovely older ladies are being courted on different fronts, as twins Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen “discovered” Beatrix Ost, a beautiful 72-year-old with bluish hair and remarkable clothes. Ost, a German artist and stylist, has written several books and been dubbed the official “muse” for the Olsen’s band.
To derail for a moment; why should Christians even care about fashion? After all, the world seems scheduled to end any moment and a multitude of serious matters vie for our attention and energy. Perhaps we shouldn’t care, as Tertullian and other Church father’s seemed to think.
Expressing a slight thread of misogyny (in my humble opinion), Tertullian raged against women who torment their “skin with potions, stain their cheeks with rouge and extend the line of their eyes with black coloring.” The writer and some other theologians had similar opinions on fashion, beauty and jewelry, but their stands are difficult to vindicate with Scripture.
Though fashion may seem trivial, it has cultural, artistic and perhaps even spiritual significance. First and this may seem a circular argument, but if more than half the world’s population (mostly female) deems it important, well, then it just is. Clothing design incorporates all of the elements of art, beauty and personal expression. More than just utility and modesty is involved here.
Looking good is one of the universal, simple pleasures of life and expresses hope for the future at any age. As Ruth, a 100-year-old Advanced Style star who always dresses her best says, “You never know whom you may meet on the way to the mailbox.”