Advanced Style: What Your Grandma Can Teach You About Fashion

advanced style

If you haven’t watched Ari Seth Cohen’s documentary Advanced Style or checked out his blog of the same name, you need to do so now. Ari launched his blog in 2008, placing the focus on a demographic that is so often overlooked in a world obsessed by youth: the over 60s. He had long had an interest in the elderly, describing himself as “in awe” of his grandmother, Bluma, with whom he used to watch old movies and rummage through her cupboards, dressing up in his grandfathers clothes. His other grandmother, Helen, wore Escada suits and gold jewellery every day: “We used to go to Los Angeles and people would ask if she was a movie star.”

When one of his grandmother’s friends told him that he must move to New York if he ever wanted to make it as a photographer, he did. He turned his attention to the streets of the city, a constant catwalk, and found himself drawn to the eccentric, fearless style of its older residents. These women, who had grown into themselves, experienced hardship and come out the other side, who were totally comfortable in their own skin, these were the women had the strongest sense of personal style. Ari was mesmerised. Inspired by their bold sartorial choices, he began his blog, and with it, a documentary that followed seven of his most frequent subjects.

Joyce Carpati

Have mystery and you will always be unforgettable.

With her hair always swept up into a perfect milkmaid-braid and ever-present pearls, Joyce is the picture of elegance. Aged 16, she went to Milan to study opera, and was blown away by the style:

There were women who came out in the morning wearing a beautiful suit, just the suit, a lovely sweater, and a pair of pearls. I thought, ‘That’s me. Oh my god, that’s me!’

With that, she found her signature style and has remained loyal to it ever since. Her 83 years have seen her wrack up more pearls of wisdom than there are pearls in her jewellery box. One piece of advice she is particularly insistent on is to embrace yourself, flaws and all, at every age:

What we have to do is look as lovely as we can at every age. You shouldn’t try to look younger, just look as lovely as you can whatever age you are. Your attitude can make you look marvelous. It’s how you feel about yourself, and that’s really what it is. I know I look well and that makes me happy. And I know that I can face the world like I did when I was 30 or 40 or 50.

She credits her daily use of sunscreen for her fabulous skin, alongside Dr. Orentreich’s night cream with Retin-A, which she has used for 25 years. When it comes to makeup, Joyce flies the flag for ‘less is more’, as she believes too much can look mask-like on mature skin. Ultimately, she believes your aura and how you carry yourself are far more important than any physical qualities.

Lynn Dell Cohen 

I am dressed up for the theatre of my life every day.

[Editor’s note: Lynn passed away on 2 June 2015. You can read Ari’s tribute to her here.]

Known as ‘the Countess of Glamour’, Lynn lived and breathed fashion. The owner of Off Broadway Boutique in NYC, she turned this passion into a career. When it came to style, she believed how you carry yourself is far more important than how much money you have to spend:

It is inexcusable for a woman not to have her nails polished, to have nice shoes – money has nothing to do with style.

Always one to make a statement, she was never seen without a hat or some sort of headpiece. Her outlandish fashion sense lead to her own television show, Positively Lynn, as well as multiple appearances on both Huffington Post Live and the Today Show.

When you walk into a room with a hat, you own the room.

Unlike her co-star Joyce, Lynn believed that ‘more is more’ – especially when it came to makeup. Although her skincare regime was simple (just soap, water and vaseline), she liked to go all out when it comes to making up her face; often opting for bold lipstick, liner, and lashes. However, one thing she did have in common with Joyce – and that is a recurring theme amongst all the women featured – was the shared opinion that the most important thing is to always be true to yourself:

Dress for yourself. If you are happy, you will make the world happy.

Debra Rapoport

Hand to mouth is better than 9 to 5.

Ari describes Debra as someone who puts creativity into action. With her handmade papier-mache jewellery and candyfloss pink hair, it’s hard to disagree. Debra was Ari’s first subject who welcomed him into her home: after he first shot her on the streets of NYC, she invited him round for lunch. The two have since become firm friends, with Debra joining Ari on stage for his TED Talk in Amsterdam, 2014. He has even offered to take care of her in her old age – an offer she has refused. She says she will move to Mexico, as personal care is more affordable there than in the US.

Debra’s youthful spirit comes through in her zany accessories, made from recyclable materials such as toilet roll tubes and ribbon. She attributes much of this zest for life to her partner, Stan, who she met when she was 62:

I’m in love all the time! When Stan holds my hand, it goes straight to my heart. I feel like a 12 year old, which is kind of what it’s like.

Her approach to dressing is to follow her ABCs – assemble, build, construct. Debra likes to take risks with fashion, working with different colours and textures, as she doesn’t find any challenge in just going to a fancy store and buying up the latest trends.

I consider my body an armature, and then I just build upon it.

Ilona Royce Smithkin

I would call myself now an artist.

You can’t help but stare at Ilona, with her striking red hair and matching lashes. For years, she says, she had her false lashes custom made by a Frenchman. When he died, she decided to take matters into her own hands and start making her own. She regularly snips a lock of hair off and crafts it into her own pair of falsies. Although this may seem wildly eccentric, she thinks it’s nothing compared to the fashion of today:

Speaking of fashion, you know, now, anything goes. When I grew up, we had certain styles, and certain things were elegant, and certain things were tacky. However now, I look around, sometimes I stand on a street and I see people pass by with the most incongruous things. Things which I wouldn’t dream to put together. But I feel at this stage, if they think it’s fun and they think it’s gorgeous, it’s their joy. It’s their own thing.

Ilona paints and teaches art classes in her spare time, something that she believes really gave her a true identity. She says she came into her own around 13 years ago, when she began painting. She used to be very secretive about her age, only telling her students: “I’m between 50 and death.” Nowadays, she doesn’t keep it a secret, although she does insist she is too old to make long commitments. This includes buying green bananas.

When you get older, you don’t have to have everything, you don’t have to go to every party. Life goes on just the same. When I was younger, if there were six parties, I thought I had to go to every one or I’d miss something. But now, every day living is a party.

Jacquie ‘Tajah’ Murdock


The other day I was pointing at those “old people”. I forgot I’m one of them!

At 82 years old, Jacquie Murdock landed her first modelling job: a Lanvin campaign. Handpicked by Alber Elbaz, her lifelong dreams of becoming a model had finally come true. Growing up in Harlem, NYC, Jacquie dreamed of the spotlight, but as a woman of colour in a nation gripped by the civil rights debate, opportunities were few and far between. After failing to land any high-profile modelling jobs, Jacquie became a dancer and performed at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre. She took on the moniker ‘Tajah’ for her dance career.

I never saw my father in a casual outfit.

During her dance career, she married and had two children. Unfortunately, the marriage broke down. Left to care for her kids, she got a job in the mathematics building at NYU, where they had tuition remission. Intent on improving herself (something she says is important no matter what your age), Jacquie would work from 9-5 and attend classes from 6-10. During her time at NYU, she earned three degrees – including a masters – and made the Dean’s List.

Jacquie thrives upon looking her best and doing her best – she insists she will never retire. Getting stopped in the street is something that happens more and more frequently, but she is always happy to stop and get a photo.

My grandson says I should make a t-shirt that says, ‘Don’t ask, just take the picture!’

Zelda Kaplan (95)

I think I was born happy. I was a 10lb baby.

[Editor’s note: Zelda passed away on 15 February 2012. You can read Ari’s tribute to her here.]

Zelda was a regular fixture on both the New York fashion and nightlife scenes, regularly gracing the front row with her presence, and partying til the early hours in clubs such as Bungalow 8 with socialites a quarter of her age. She said that her bedtime was ‘anytime between midnight and 7am’. Zelda was instantly recognizable everywhere she went, with her trademark uniform of oversized glasses, distinctive bold prints and ever-present matching hat. Her life was jampacked with socialising, humaitarian work, and even appearing as the subject of a documentary film, ‘Her Name is Zelda’, in 2003.

I was a successful ballroom dancer and women’s golf pro in Miami Beach in my 20s, a doctor’s wife in New York in my 30s, and in my 60s and 70s I spent my time largely in Africa and Southeast Asia campaigning directly with local tribal government leaders for women’s and children’s rights.’

Zelda took pride in designing her own clothes; collecting fabrics and weavings from her global travels, sketching out ideas, and bringing them to a tailor. She hated spending money on getting haircuts, didn’t drive a car, and refused to visit ‘new’ Times Square.

I think good style improves the environment for everybody.

Fond of a glass of Shiraz, she liked to fill her days with reading books and magazines so as to better understand the world, which in turn allowed her to ’empower people through daily conversations, and through [her] charitable efforts.’ Most importantly, she loved to have fun and live life to the fullest. She once professed her love of dancing, saing it was something she believed she inherited from her mother. When asked if she still danced, she replied: ‘Very rarely, because my partners are all dead.’

On 15 February 2012, Zelda attended the Joanna Mastroianni fashion show during New York Fashion Week. She passed away after collapsing in her front row seat moments after the show began. Her close friend Richie Rich said of her passing: ‘Passing away in the front row was how it was meant to be. Zelda loves fashion, so she died for fashion. She would have wanted to go out in style.’

Tziporah Salamon

I take it to the Nth degree, most people don’t.

Tziporah believes getting dressed is an art form In fact, she believes it so much that for the past 15 years, she has delivered a two-hour seminar called ‘The Art of Dressing’ on the Upper West Side. Part instruction and part show-and-tell of her extensive vintage wardrobe, the class is normally held at Tziporah’s apartment on 72nd Street. It is not only Ari who she has caught the attention of over the years – she is also loved by iconic street style photographer Bill Cunningham, and was picked to appear in the same Lanvin campaign as Jacquie. She has even opened up her wardrobe to designers such as Diane Von Furstenberg and Ralph Lauren, who have used her collection as an archival reference.

Sometimes I’m building an outfit an outfit for years –  like seven years one outfit took, because until I found the perfect earrings for that outfit, I didn’t wear the outfit. You know, if the painting is not finished, I don’t take it out into the world. I do a portrait with clothes. This is my art, this is my life, this is my passion.

She views her clothes and accessories as her babies, and is particularly proud of her collection of over 200 hats. Although she has never married or had children, she still believes that both are in her future; saying that she hopes to marry someone who already has children that she could have a motherly relationship with. She cycles everywhere on her turquoise Milano Bianchi bike.

I bike everywhere. You get places very quickly and people see you… I kinda like to show off my outfits on a bike. I do not wear a helmet and I should wear a helmet. But I’m doing an outfit and helmets take away from the outfit!

Advanced Style is available to stream on Netflix.


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