Advanced Style (2014)
Editor’s Notes: Advanced Style opens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema tomorrow, December 19th.
When photographer Ari Seth Cohen started his blog in 2008, his mission was a simple one: to document stylish older folks, both the “sophisticated and well dressed to the accidentally stylish and colorful,” as he encountered them on the city streets. Advanced Style, the new documentary based on Cohen’s photography, features a bevy of these beauties, all women of a certain age, with a flair for dramatic fashion. Some are artistic, some classically styled, and all are fabulous, their outfits ranging from accidentally charming and chaotic to well-studied, researched ensembles.
Advanced Style introduces us to women like Zelda Kaplan, a socialite and activist that New York Magazine once called a “party animal,” still a fashion icon well into her 90s.
Advanced Style introduces us to women like Zelda Kaplan, a socialite and activist that New York Magazine once called a “party animal,” still a fashion icon well into her 90s. There’s Jacquie Murdock, once a fixture of Harlem ballrooms where she danced under the name “Tajah,” who at age 81 was made the face of Lanvin’s fall 2012 collection. We also meet Ilona Royce Smithkin, 90-something artist and cabaret singer, who wears false eyelashes made from snippets of her own hair, and many more. It’s a diverse group of women who share a dedication to fashion as personal expression, and a belief that one is never too old to chase their dreams.
These women also possess an admirable confidence, though a few are blessed with a case of full-blown self importance. Strong personalities lead to competition, and egos flare and bump up against each other. It’s fascinating and adds a layer of humanity the film lacks otherwise. Advanced Style is at its best when it steps away from the relentlessly sassy and light tone, though unfortunately, it rarely dares to get real. There is very little of substance here beyond showing fabulous older women living fabulously, however, and the few steps the film makes toward adding content, up to and including a completely useless soundbite from Dita von Teese, only highlights the film’s emptiness.
Focused so heavily on being a companion piece to Cohen’s blog and book, the film misses out on a host of interesting topics that could have taken this from a good documentary to a great documentary.
Whether it’s behind the doors of a major fashion house or in a thrift shop in Greenwich Village, fashion has its issues, everything ranging from class concerns to gender roles to the ethics of manufacturing. There are hints of that in the film — one maven says lack of money is no excuse to not have painted nails and nice shoes, for instance — but nothing ever comes of these little moments. Simply put, there’s more there there than Advanced Style is willing to acknowledge. Focused so heavily on being a companion piece to Cohen’s blog and book, the film misses out on a host of interesting topics that could have taken this from a good documentary to a great documentary.
It’s impossible to not be both inspired and charmed right out of your socks by the women in this film. They’re aging with grace, are strong and independent, and are entirely their own creations. Their nonconformity is so natural and easy that their personal style is a political statement, albeit for many of these fashion mavens, an unintentional one. Advanced Style is a great watch and a vibrant, cheerful jab against social convention.
Advanced Style is a great watch and a vibrant, cheerful jab against social convention.