I can’t say that a fashion documentary is entirely in my wheelhouse, which probably speaks to the power of Advanced Style, considering that I found it so very appealing. In many ways, fashion is more arbitrary than art, and what can be called great style is incredibly more individualistic than what people might call a good book, or movie, or TV show. What is good style? What does it mean to wear something well? When it comes to fashion, the only constant in all those runway shows is that the people wearing the clothes are all young. Advanced Style tries to turn all that on its head though with the suggestion that one doesn’t have to be youthful to be fashionable, they just have to be young at heart.
Advanced Style shares its name with a blog started by Ari Seth Cohen, which features a collection of photography taken from the streets of Manhattan of stylish women who are over the age of 60. A number of Cohen’s regular models are profiled here. None of them are younger than the age of retirement, and along with learning more about them, what informs their style, and, of course, why age isn’t anything but a number, we see just a few cracks in the youth obsessed society. Or as 80-year-old Joyce puts it, the point isn’t to look younger, the point is to just look great.
Given the potential of the subject matter, Advanced Style manages to avoid the desire to be preachy and teach us all a lesson about inner-beauty and how age is nothing but a number. The message is more of a cheerful celebration of style and individuality, and the ladies that the documentary chronicles have interesting insights on life, and take genuine joy in their new found senior celebrity status. The film is shot in the warm and sunny glow of a New York summer, and even when it has to stop and get serious, it doesn’t wallow in any kind of gloominess or moodiness. There is a sad turn in the end, but even that development doesn’t slowdown the movie’s positive view of life.
Director Lina Plioplyte finds a really great cast in these ladies, and skilfully ping-pongs back and forth between them, allowing the audience to be quite acquainted with the cast. They’re also a diverse group, too, all coming from different backgrounds and experiences, painting a fascinating picture of life after 65. There’s Lynn, age 79, who owns a boutique fashion store called Off Broadway, which she’s run for decades with her impeccable eye and direct advice. Jacquie, age 81, was one of the original dancers at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and is still self-sustainable even though she’s legally blind. Ilona, age 93, already has a bit of fame for painting a portrait of Ayn Rand that was used for many of her book covers, and she still makes her own eye lash extensions.
And because the movie has to be about more than just fashionably inspired old ladies walking around the streets of New York in their fabulousness, we see the ladies become a new kind of fashion icon. Cohen’s blog becomes a book, and it’s like no one had even had the idea that older ladies could be fun and fashionable before. Companies from low-end (K-Mart) to high end (Lanvin Paris) hire the ladies as actual models for their clothing, and invitations to appear on the Discovery Channel and the Ricki Lake show are also made. The ladies’ excitement about appearing on Ricki Lake in particular is quite funny because, you know, it’s Ricki Lake.
Obviously, those networks, shows, fashion houses and businesses see the same appeal that we do in the movie: life doesn’t end at 30 and aging doesn’t look like a slow, devolving crawl to the grave. Not that it is, but it’s nice to be reminded that life is what you make it, and if you make it bright, and colourful, and marvellous, then you are the master of your own golden years. Although style plays a part, the fashion-minded ladies of Advanced Style might as well enjoy singing in a choir (Young at Heart) or writing songs and doing art (Still Kicking), the lesson being that finding something you love doing is a sure way to keep one vital.
Advanced Style is immensely rewarding if you’re like Cohen, and considered his grandmothers his best friends, or if you’re some poor soul who worries incessantly about aging (and if you are, Hot Docs has a movie for that too). It’s a charming film that warms the heart and makes you appreciate the gift of age and wisdom. Maybe it will even make you look forward to it, and that is what they call movie magic.