I’m still sorting out my thoughts about the Advanced Style documentary I saw on Saturday as part of the Hot Docs festival. Based on the incredibly successful blog and book by photographer Ari Seth Cohen, the film introduces us to a number of Cohen’s regular muses/models; a collection of stylish, creative women who have stood their ground in the face of society’s patronizing attitudes towards older people, and have refused to go to a quiet, beige place and crochet doilies.
Each of the women has their own style and their own story, but nothing feels especially in-depth. I learned more about each of the stylish women by reading an article in The Guardian than I did from the film, and instead of focusing on their personal style – how it developed, how they put together outfits, how they manage on budgets, etc., the film instead centres around the growth and popularity of the blog. We follow Cohen and the ladies to Los Angeles where they appear on the Ricki Lake show, and we see a couple of the women model for a Lanvin ad campaign. Throughout it all, there’s an odd undertone of… cattiness. These ladies are not friends, they come from different walks of life, are different ages (ranging from mid-60s to mid-90s) and have been brought together only by their shared interest in Cohen and his project. There’s a weird feeling of competition that is uncomfortable coming from a piece of work (and a group of people) that is supposed to be celebrating diversity, creativity and really, self-esteem.
That’s not to say that some of these ladies aren’t fantastic. Pink-haired Debra Rappaport makes her own jewellery out of upcycled materials; Tziporah Salamon wears outstanding vintage outfits and works as a stylist, model and teacher; and Ilona Royce Smithkin is not only a renowned artist but makes false eyelashes from her own hair.
For a slightly different take, however, I’d recommend also tracking down Fabulous Fashionistas, a doc created in 2013 for Channel 4 in the UK. The premise is the same – 6 amazing women, average age of 80 – who still rock their own personal style.
This doc spends more time actually exploring the styles and motivations of the individuals, from Bridget the activist who shops at thrift stores and advocates for elder rights, to Jean with her blunt-cut bob and Doc Marten boots, to Sue, the most colourful of the lot who makes magnificent coats out of amazing fabrics. More classic in style is Jean Barker, Baroness Trumpington, member of the House of Lords, former Bletchly code-breaker, and flipper-off of annoying colleagues. She’s a Thatcher Tory, but she’s a hoot and epitomizes the stylish older woman who is comfortable with herself and gives not a shit for your opinion of her.
Fabulous Fashionistas allows each woman her own segment and delves more into their individual styles and how they put things together, as opposed to pushing disparate characters together to promote what has really become something of a brand.
Both are interesting and inspiring works but I’m more inclined prefer the UK doc, simply because it focuses on the women and their personal style and makes no pretense of a story, related drama or that these individuals are part of some kind of trend that even needs documenting. I’m still a huge fan of Cohen’s blog – these ladies are all inspiring, both in their style and their attitude towards life – but I’m a fan of these ladies as individuals, not necessarily for their role in the larger project that is Advanced Style.