Advanced Style, a photo blog by self-described “old-lady expert” Ari Seth Cohen, celebrates the stylish older women he encounters and photographs on the streets of New York. This simple yet subversive preference has made Cohen a leading light in street-style photography, and has brought a measure of celebrity to some of his favourite photo subjects. Seven of them appear at length in Lina Pliopyte’s documentary, Advanced Style, which gets its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival on Tuesday. Here are a few images of these women, for whom getting dressed is a pursuit that lies somewhere between a calling and an art form.
Three boldly different looks in one image: the playful, bright-coloured patterning of 93-year-old cabaret singer Ilona Royce Smithkin, the elegant pointed contrasts of former Cosmo editor Joyce Carpati, and the monochrome magic of Lynn Dell Cohen, reigning priestess at her New York vintage shop, Off Broadway Boutique.
The watercolour flowers on Smithkin’s coat have the same soft edge as her pencil portraiture - shown briefly in the film - and give figurative expression to the lightness of all materials in this outfit. The whole thing conveys freedom, springtime and fun, in a palette grounded in the reddish-orange of her hair.
Everything here is huge: the hat, rings, bracelets, glasses, earrings, dress, scarf and scarf pattern. Dell Cohen is great at playing with single qualities of scale, texture and colour. In this case she sustains her essay on fabulous bigness within two primary colours and a few secondary blends.
“Most of my wardrobe is thrifted or gifted,” says Debra Rapoport, who also makes dramatic fair-weather hats from dyed paper towels. A streak of punk sensibility runs through her DIY fashion ethos, which also favours dazzling bracelets made from toilet-paper rolls and furry-torsoed ensembles like this one.
Carpati’s jacket is cut as loose as a housecoat, with a big shawl collar and a playful butterfly pattern. Double-breast buttoning and black edging give it a more formal look, enhanced by the pendular gold earrings. She looks both cosy and regal, with her hair in the rustic pinned-braid style many of us associate with Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko.
Jacquie “Tajah” Murdock was a dancer at Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theatre, is now a model for Lanvin, and wears outfits that emphasize her slim build and dramatic bearing. Here the 84-year-old strikes a characteristic pose in linen trousers and a soft-edged patterned jacket in robin’s-egg blue.
Former suburbanite Zelda Kaplan made her outfits from hand-woven textiles she found in Africa, including the striking red and black fabric used in this four-piece ensemble. The 95-year-old was wearing this outfit when she collapsed in the front row of a New York Fashion Week runway show, leaving this world in what her friends called a fitting style.
Smithkin had trouble finding false eyelashes that suited her, so she made some from clippings of her own hair. Definitely not a look for those who want to get lost in the crowd, but that’s what Advanced Style is about: mature women who don’t accept the invisibility foisted on them by fashion’s obsession with youth.
Tziporah Salamon is a real virtuoso in the art of layering and mixing patterns, as this energetic composite ensemble shows. The mannish, slightly military style of her patchwork jacket gets a boost from the oversized watch, the heavy double necklace and the bead-embroidered fez.
Salamon is a determined vintage-store shopper who says it can take years to complete an outfit. She varies pattern, texture and drape throughout this bold yet harmonious ensemble, from the soles of her shoes to the top of her beanie - a characteristic choice for someone who prefers hat designs that stay close to the head. Note the painted bicycle tires.