In a culture that equates youth with beauty, aging (as in, becoming officially old and wrinkled) doesn’t offer too many privileges. But one thing that’s sort of great is that as you age, a certain level of eccentricity becomes almost expected of you. The giant handbags, fussy shoes, and nutty jewelry that would mark a younger woman as Sort of Weird (in a good way, of course) seem perfectly natural—even adorable—on a woman of a certain age. Becoming An Old is a blank check to try out all the batty combinations that younger women are often shy to wear. And there are plenty of older women out there who are exploiting that to the fullest: embracing their eccentricity, subverting the belief that older women should quietly fade away, being loud and dressing as weird as they damn well please.
Blogs that feature stylish older ladies, like Advanced Style, have made it easier than ever to be inspired by the geriatric set. These women are a daily reminder that old is beautiful—and even better, that it’s everyone’s right to define beauty for themselves. Here we pay tribute to my favorite of all the old-lady icons, the fabulous, irreverent Iris Apfel. The interior designer, style icon, and self-described “geriatric starlet” has carved out her own sartorial place in the world. Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart, as they say. So let’s sit at the feet of this well-heeled, idiosyncratic old broad and see what she has to teach us about being fearlessly ourselves, shall we?
Any woman who describes her style as getting “better with age, like an old cheese” gets an A+ in my book. Apfel is legendary for mixing haute couture and vintage clothes with chunky costume jewelry and her giant round Mr. Owl specs. And this woman is as witty as her clothes. I recently saw her speak at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a certain editor-in-chief of mine, and Iris had the audience rolling with lines like “If you put something on and it doesn’t look good, the fashion police aren’t going to come and take you away. And if they do, you might have some fun in jail.” Can someone make this lady my guardian grandma already?
One of the things I love most about Iris’s style is her ability to look eccentric, fascinating, and colorful, and mix about 100 different kinds of prints, without ever looking anything less than perfectly elegant. This takes an
Even though Iris herself is what they used to call monied (I saw her name on a plaque at the Met, I’m guessing those don’t come cheap), she’s a sensible lady who revels in cheap fashion, and understands that you don’t need money to dress well. She’s a dedicated thrift-store shopper (like, actual Salvation Army thrift stores), she refuses to pay more than $15 for a pair of jeans, and although she has a collection of expensive jewelry, she also loves to wear necklaces made out of weird plastic toys and old candy wrappers. Sadly, I could not find a pic of the candy wrapper necklace, but the deer antlers are pretty wacky too:
As Iris puts it, “Price has nothing to do with style. Sometimes the least expensive things are the most amusing and witty, and if you put them together with things you have in your wardrobe, you get a smashing new look.”
Even if you don’t put on 20 pounds of jewelry in the morning, or accessorize with parrots (YET…), I still think we can look to Iris for some style schoolin’. Here’s what she taught me:
1. More is more. If you like something, like plastic bangle bracelets or beaded necklaces, wear 20 of them. Every vintage store has plastic bangles at the jewelry counter for a quarter or two. Or go to street sellers who sell what they call “ethnic” jewelry (you know, the same ones selling Genuine Chanel Purses and wafting Nag Champa onto the street) and pick up some thick bejeweled cuffs. See how many you can stack on one arm. Mixing different colors and thicknesses is good.
If you get really into this look, you can start splurging on some vintage bracelets made out of Lucite (a clear acrylic) or Bakelite (an early plastic used in jewelry in the ’20s and ’30s that people go nuts collecting). You can find a dealer at many antiques stores that specializes in them. Here in New York, there’s a store called This ’n’ That Collectibles that is literally STUFFED with insane vintage jewelry. I want to shop it with Iris like it’s a candy store. There’s also good ol’ Etsy, which is also a great source for my latest obsession: LUCITE BUG JEWELRY! It was trendy in the ’20s and ’30s, and I think it is the absolute height of badassery to have little iridescent beetles and long-limbed spiders marching around your arm. Like how incredible would these look stacked up your arm?
2. Play with proportions. Wear a little cropped sweater with a floor-sweeping skirt. Your specs can cover half your face if you want (have prescription lenses put in a big pair of ’70s sunglasses). If you like necklaces, wear the biggest or the longest ones you can find. If you can’t find ones you like, make your own. With some dental floss, big wood beads and a lobster clasp from the craft store, you can slap together this look in no time:
(Also note that Iris is wearing identical jewelry on each arm for a perfectly symmetrical look. Little touches like that delight me.)
3. Seriously, screw $200 jeans. The only way I’d buy $200 jeans is if they came with a $300 bill in the pocket. My favorite jeans are thrifted high-waisted Levi’s, and some $20 bootcut cheapies I got at Uniqlo. If you’re looking for skinnies, Forever 21’s $10 jeans are my go-to. They last forever and go up to size XL. You don’t need to spend much more than your allowance to find awesome jeans, Iris and I swear to you!
4. A sense of humor is the best accessory. Iris once described herself as “very much alive and just walking around to save on funeral expenses.” When asked what she loves about her equally adorable husband, she said, “he was cool, he was cuddly, and he cooked Chinese, so I figured I couldn’t do any better.” Like style, humor is one of the best defenses against invisibility. And, you know, if you don’t want to get all politicky about it, they’re both just fun too. Whether it’s how she gets dressed in the morning or how she describes herself, Iris is always spirited, always irreverent, and she just keeps saying her piece and defining herself, for her own sake, every day. And she is honestly one of my heroes for that.
If you want more Iris, this is the BEST INTERVIEW with her. There’s also a documentary coming out about her, by Albert Maysles (who knows an eccentric style icon when he sees one), and you can watch the promo for that at Advanced Style. Trust me, this is a fascinating, hilarious, firecracker of a lady that you will want to spend lots of time with. Be my fairy grandma, Iris? ♦