Elders: Culture Shift
- Good Fashion Has No Age Limit
Good Fashion Has No Age Limit
For the women featured in Advanced Style, getting dressed up is the beginning of something new.
The personal style of 78-year-old textile artist Debra Rapoport jumps out the minute she comes into view. Like now, on a Zoom call, she’s adorned with black chunky earrings she’s repurposed from paper towel sheets and twine, a navy layered conical hat made of hardened and spray-painted paper towels, and several necklaces crafted from recycled paper, oversize buttons, and found metals. This is how she dresses every day, and on most days, she captures the wanted attention of strangers.
“Today, I got stopped by three young women who were here for Fashion Week,” says Rapoport from her home in New York City. “One was from Honduras, one was from Peru, and one was from Mexico. We had the best time talking. We became instant friends. We took a video on the street. It’s fun. That’s how you make new friends, right? It’s all about that.”
Her life has been equally impacted by her friendship with Ari Seth Cohen, the creator, author, and photographer of Advanced Style, the celebratory platform for ageless beauty and eclectic fashions. Rapoport was one of the first subjects Cohen photographed for his blog; she’s also featured in every Advanced Style book and co-stars in the 2014 documentary.
Cohen first saw Rapoport on a rainy afternoon when she stepped into Manhattan’s New Museum. You could say it was her shock of pink hair and eccentric wardrobe that made him run over and enthusiastically ask to take her picture. But looking back at how his subjects have captivated him over the last 15 years, the author says he’s ultimately drawn to a person’s spirit. “My project was never about fashion,” he says. “It’s about how these women express themselves through what they have on, and that attracts people to them and keeps them visible. For me, it’s symbolic of one’s energy, because [being] 80 and 90, still putting that thing together shows your vitality.”
In a way, Cohen didn’t tap into his creative spirit until he followed his late grandmother Bluma Levine’s advice and moved to New York City in 2008. “She was my best friend and the inspiration for the Advanced Style project,” he remembers. “Being so enmeshed in her world helped me discover the power of style. I always loved vintage clothing because it sort of made me feel like I was living at a time when she was young. When she passed away, that’s when I moved and everything sort of began. It was 2008, and I started taking photos on the streets and meeting ladies to fill that void a bit.” Their relationship, and the new friendships he found, nurtured the type of celebrated artist he’d become: a chronicler of older women with a flair for fashion. His blog-turned-empire has produced four books: Advanced Style (2012), Advanced Style: The Coloring Book (2013), Advanced Style: Older & Wiser (2016), and Advanced Love (2018). His next book, Advanced Pets, will be published in 2024.
Cohen’s keen eye helps him find stylish women to photograph, and he receives recommendations from his featured subjects. Judith Boyd, 80, was introduced to the author’s work through her online friendship with Rapoport. “I so enjoyed Debra, and we communicated by email,” says Boyd, who lives in Denver. “I told her that I was coming for a visit and we set up lunch. When I got to the restaurant, she had brought Ari with her. We all spent the afternoon taking the bus, going to a museum. Then Ari found some other women to photograph. It was just a delight.”
Known for her collection of vintage hats and frocks, Boyd is now a regular model on Advanced Style and posts on her own site, Style Crone. “I worked in mental health centers and we wore street clothes. I became interested in vintage and I would wear the ’40s [style]. The patients loved it [because they saw it] as a form of self-expression,” says Boyd, a retired psychiatric nurse. “My husband was my first photographer. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 2005, and I blogged during the last nine months of his life. This is how we diverted from tragedy and devastation.”
Arlinda McIntosh has been pursuing her singular sense of style since she turned her mother’s curtains into a skirt at age 12. “They were black and white checkered, and I love that print, with red roosters on the bottom,” says the self-proclaimed Jersey girl. “I took a pair of her stockings, pulling them through the place where the rod was, [tying it] around my waist. And that was my first skirt.” Now 65, McIntosh is still creating skirts—the more volume, the better. “I’ve always liked skirts with far too much fabric. I would wear a wedding dress every day just to wear the skirt part,” says McIntosh, who showcases her original fashions at the Sofistafunk website.
“When I first saw Ari’s page, I was in love,” says McIntosh. “I never knew that there were other women that just did what they want.” However, McIntosh noticed there was a lack of diverse faces like hers on his blog. “After we became friends, I told him, ‘I need to see some more Brown people on your page,’” says the designer and stylist, who directed Cohen’s camera toward uptown NYC. “I told him he can start in Harlem, but don’t do it on a Sunday. Mothers will get you about coming up to them at church.” (Amen.)
That’s the unifying thread between the women Cohen magnifies through his lens. They are as unapologetic about aging as they are about their wardrobe. “Everything is a story that we’re telling our mirror. I say it’s an unspoken conversation with the onlooker. I don’t do anything for the onlooker. I do everything for me,” says McIntosh. Rapoport shares a similar mantra. “In my morning meditation, I say, OK, who am I today? My Self, capital S. Then I know intuitively, and I just go in the closet, grab stuff, put it together,” she says. “It quiets me, it focuses me, and it just brings out my spirit.” For Boyd, it’s the simple act of being. “I celebrate my age. It’s a privilege to be 80.”
Cohen is thankful that Advanced Style serves as a motivator for elders who might be hesitant to embrace this glorious time of their lives. “There’s people who, through looking at Advanced Style, started to dress up because they were limited by their careers or by, unfortunately, children and grandchildren who would say things to their older parents or grandparents such as ‘You can’t stand out. It’s not your time.’ I hear that all the time. Like there’s a shame about it,” he says. “Now they are finally like, ‘Whatever. It’s my time again!’ There has always been this desire to express themselves, and maybe that’s just a desire to feel seen, [or] to feel love. And [expressing their] style kind of makes these women get a lot of love.”
For these ladies, getting dressed up is no longer reserved for special occasions because living should be celebrated in grand style, every day.