- Joy Venturini Bianchi, San Francisco, CA.
- Maureen Gumbe, Union Square, NYC.
- Ginza, Tokyo.
- Barbara Chapman, Solana Beach, CA.
- Colleen Heidemann, Rancho Mirage, CA
- Roberta Haze, Venice Beach, CA.
- Valerie and Jean(The Idiosyncratic Fashionistas), Debra Rapoport, Diana Gabriel, and Carol Markel, NY, NY.
- Lana Turner, 5th Avenue, NY, NY.
The outdated notion of “age appropriate” dressing has long assailed women into their 60s, 70s, and beyond. As they age, women are sent a clear and unmistakable message from society: to dial down their self-expression through fashion in lieu of more conservative and understated clothing.
“Once you hit 50, you must dismount from the carousel de la mode and start dressing in beiges and greiges, sort of like an East German librarian/prison wardress circa 1950,” writes Simon Doonan in his introduction to Ari Seth Cohen’s new photobook, Advanced Syle: Older and Wiser. “Needless to say I do not support any of these ageist restrictions and neither does Ari Seth Cohen, the Pied Piper of glamorous oldsters.”
Cohen’s photobook is the sequel to his first photobook, Advanced Style, which was published in 2014 along with a documentary film. The project began for him when his grandmother Bluma, an incredibly influential figure in his life, passed away. “She was just the greatest person I’d ever met. And because of that, I had a deep respect for older people. I couldn’t wait to grow old because I couldn’t wait to be as smart, funny and wise as my grandmother,” Cohen told Women in the World. “I think that profound sense of loss started a search for something that was reminiscent of my grandmother’s spirit in New York City. I wanted to share the picture of aging that I had always had, but that I saw was very absent from popular culture.”
In Cohen’s photobook, we’re introduced to a wonderfully diverse group of seniors, women and several men, too, who have long thrown society’s expectations to the wind, dressing instead according to their own unique and creative visions. Many are artists, creators and performers who view their wardrobe as an extension of their artistic practice, and have spent a lifetime honing their unique vision. They exude self-assurance, a joyous sort of glamour, and unshakable confidence.
“I’d always looked to older people for inspiration, but the images I saw either weren’t available, or they were patronizing, or clinical, or depressing. But that was the total opposite of what I was seeing on the street,” said Cohen. “They’re people who are expressing themselves every day — really vibrant, vital, spirited men and women — who are taking a stand against the ageist notions of aging and beauty that we have. They don’t really care what other people think, they’re just dressing for themselves.”
Even more extraordinary are their stories. Detailed in personal essays throughout the book, they’re proof that one’s twilight years can be as revelatory, adventurous, and enviable as one’s teens and twenties. Take 74 year old Valerie Von Sobel, who fled communist era Hungary as a refugee during the 1956 uprising against the Soviet regime and has led a successful career as both artist and interior designer. After the loss of her son to a malignant brain tumor, Sobel has dedicated her life to helping single parents of terminally ill children through the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation. In the essay she penned for Advanced Style, Sobel writes: “I am blessed to be in a state of returning; expressing and sharing my given talent through the gifts of art and beauty, and having the privilege of being involved in what, to me, is the most meaningful philanthropy.”
Sobel takes time each morning to revel in what she describes as a ceremony of dressing. “If you don’t put your own desire into how a day will go, it will just be ordinary and grey,” she told Women in the World. “You can be very casual and very elegant, but put a little thought in it, and it makes the day so special.”
Cohen has learned a great deal from his subjects, forging close friendships and creative partnerships with many. “They’re always looking for new things to do, even up into their 90s and 100s,” said Cohen. “You just see that you’re only limited by your mindset…I was at an aging festival in Montenegro and met a 97-year-old woman named Tao Porchon-Lynch. She just has this joy that emanates from her. She never complained once about jet lag or being tired. She danced the night away and the next day led a yoga workshop.”
Clear throughout Cohen’s portraits is the fact that clothing alone is not key to growing older unburdened by societal pressure. “It’s about lifestyle, not style,” Sarah-Jane Adams told Women in the World. Adams, a 61 year old jewelry designer, has embraced the aging process with a sense of excitement, adventure, and self-acceptance. “I’m comfortable within my own skin and within my own attire, and with my life. And I think it’s more to do with being confident with your lifestyle. That’s what shines through. My body is telling me that I’m aging, as are experiences in my life, and I accept all of that without resorting to wanting to change my body,” Adams told Women in the World.
Adams, whose clothing style is a wonderfully rich combination of pattern, color, texture, and cultural influence, stressed that there’s no “formula” for self-expression through dress. “It’s not a matter of loading yourself with bits and pieces of one thing or the other. Find what works for you, accept that, and develop that,” she said. “If black and white works for you, whatever floats your boat, do it. And do it with passion, conviction, and self-appreciation.”
It’s easy to see how Cohen’s subjects have themselves been the catalyst for what he describes as the “Advanced Style movement.” Since Cohen published the first iteration of Advanced Style, he’s noticed subtle shifts in ways that the fashion and media industries are recognizing seniors. “All of the sudden, older women were being cast in campaigns internationally, “ he said. “I receive emails and messages on a daily basis from men and women of every age, saying they no longer fear aging, and can’t wait to grow older and have this sense of freedom that these women have,” Cohen said. “Now it’s really about learning what can we do on a daily basis, to treat older people with the respect that they deserve.”
To purchase a copy of Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style: Older and Wiser, click here.