Photographer Ari Cohen first became fascinated with how older woman dressed at age seven. His grandmother–Cohen’s “best friend and style icon”–showed him old movies on AMC and regaled him with tales of her college days in Manhattan. “She had these stories of 5th Avenue and the style, and energy and creativity,” he recalls. “Dressing up in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s was a more glamorous, elegant look.”
Two decades later, Cohen took to the streets of New York, scouting for women 50+ who still embodied that style and grace. In short order, his blog Advanced Style, became a book and a series of YouTube videos, shot by filmmaker Lina Plioplyte, and featuring the women’s closets. Now, Advanced Style has become a documentary following seven fabulously dressed ladies, aged from 62 to 95.
The film is part of a cultural zeitgeist that Cohen refers to as the “Age Movement”: growing media attention to the lifestyles and fashions of the over-50 set. In 2008, a few months into the blog, brands like Karen Walker Eyewear, Coach, H&M, Lanvin, and Kmart began to feature Cohen’s subjects in their ad campaigns. “Now you can see the embracing of personal style of older women in magazines everywhere,” he says. “There’s a huge population of baby boomers, so our idea of getting older has changed. Life doesn’t end at 70, 80, or 90 years old.”
In this sense, Advanced Style explores a psychological and emotional component to fashion, which might surprise people who view the obsession with clothes as frivolous or superficial. The women use style as an expression of individuality, yes, but also as a symbol of resilience in the face of loneliness and mortality. Many of the women have outlived their husbands. And though they’re remarkably spritely, age is taking its toll.
“They all say that style is healing,” explains Cohen. “They get up in the morning and when they put themselves together, that makes them feel better.” It’s a testament to this vitality that one of the film’s subjects literally spends her last hours at a fashion week show.
First: You can be highly fashionable without following fashion trends. “The clothes from the ’40s and ’50s weren’t made in mass production,” explains Cohen. “If you had a jacket, not every person could buy that jacket from Top Shop.” In their carefully curated, often outrageous outfits, the women resemble works of modern art, far more than fashion models.
Second: If you don’t have the time or patience to sort through thrift store racks, a little creativity can turn fast fashion into unique expressions of taste. Cohen’s subjects have posed for assembly line brands like H&M. But they always insist on styling their own outfits for the shoots. “Their personal style always comes through,” says Cohen.
Third: Treat dressing yourself like creating a painting or writing a novel; make sure your work of art is fully realized before you reveal it to the world. One of the ladies in the film explains that she has spent months and even years piecing together the right look. She won’t wear any part of it until the whole thing–down to the earrings–is complete. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, then make it yourself. Another woman in the film uses toilet paper rolls to create spunky, high-end-looking bracelets.
Fourth: This advice won’t fly in the pages of Vogue (or US Weekly for that matter), but how you look should matter only to you.
The women in Advanced Style dress solely for themselves–whether they’re “at home and going to the grocery store,” says Cohen. And they don’t give a damn about what anybody else thinks. So if you love crazy hats, wear crazy hats. Or feathers. Or sequins. “Dressing is just the surface,” says Plioplyte, who directed the film. “But it’s really about [your] vitality and the way [you] live life, with clothes or without.”