Age dressing is tyrannical, and the philosophy behind it runs deep. To break free from it takes work — and women like Iris Apfel are paving the way. If you don’t know who she is (amend this immediately!), Iris is a 94-year-old fashion obsessive who was born in Queens in 1921, became a world-class textile importer and interior decorator for the rich and famous in the 1950s and 60s, and collected kooky outfits from all over the globe (billowy caftans, giant gorilla furs, sequin turbans...you know, your typical wardrobe), which ultimately led to her second act as a New York style beacon. In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged an exhibition of Iris’ closet called "Rare Bird," and it became a runaway success — soon Iris was posing in magazine editorials, and sitting in the chair of honor at galas just for her eccentric way of dressing. Last year, Albert Maysles released a documentary about her life (his last, sadly) titled Iris that you can watch right now on Netflix. Don’t wait! This article will still be here when you get back. Back? Now you can see why I dressed up as Apfel for Halloween this year.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Iris last year. I rode around in a car with her on a sweltering summer day as she shepherded a group of very lucky University of Texas students around the city to meet with fashion industry bigwigs for a weeklong seminar. They met Jenna Lyons of J.Crew, the head of Swarovski crystal, designer Wes Gordon, the furriers of Pologeorgis, Harold Koda of the Costume Institute, and others. Iris designed the program to help young people learn about all the angles of the industry and how to break into fashion, and also, she told me, because it kept her young. As she rode from place to place, she would invite each student to accompany her in her car and tell her about how they decide what to wear. She liked anyone who took risks — the boy with a shock of neon green in his hair; the girl who made her own necklaces out of newspaper; another who boldly decided to teeter around the city in razor stilettos — but mostly, she told me when we were alone, she was bored with contemporary style. She said that “no one ever has fun with it anymore.”
There’s some truth to that: Next to the conservatively dressed college crowd, Iris stood out like a parrot among pigeons. At 94, she seems to be having more pure fun with clothing than anyone. She mixes high and low — a $5,000 Ralph Rucci fur with a black turtleneck she bought in a three-pack, her arms piled high with 50 funky bangles with 50 different origin stories. She never stops trying to innovate. Except for her oversized glasses; those will remain forever.
When I dressed up as Iris, I didn’t have to buy anything new except the wig. I already had the paisley bedazzled palazzo jumpsuit, I had the mountain of bracelets, I had the bushy fox stole, I even had the glasses. But I had them because I started to channel Iris from the moment I met her. I found her refusal to let age stop her — from evolving, from playing dress-up, from demanding to be seen — to be a revelation, even in my early 30s. I realized if Iris doesn’t have to dress for her age, then I don’t, either, and I will never have to. No one does. Still, the idea of “age-appropriate” attire, an insipid set of rules that never seems to go away, haunts all of us when we get dressed in the morning. Think about how many times you have pulled out a crop top and asked yourself if you can still go for it at your age? Or conversely, how many times you have run your hands over a cozy muumuu but told yourself that you would look like someone’s grandmother in it, and then run the other direction?
There is a kind of perennial women’s magazine article (we have even run them on this site in the past — oops) that offers tips to women on “dressing your age.” They all tend to go a little something like this: in your 20s, you can pull off almost anything. They tell you to start investing in statement bags and shoes early, but not to sweat any particular look too much — teens and twentysomethings are free! Wear a Big Bird costume to work! Wear a lamé jumpsuit! You are young and invincible. But oh, the 30s. Things start to get a little more serious. You get the big promotion and/or have a child and/or achieve your first brushes with power and success. Time to put the fast-fashion leather leggings away, time to invest in real ones from Helmut Lang. Time to start thinking about installing Dr. Scholls in your high-heeled boots (but still wear them, the magazines say, heaven forbid you get over heels before 50). Then come the 40s: more cashmere, more leather goods, more luxe. Then 50s: you turn a corner. You should be wearing all designer clothes by now, say these articles, but nothing too flashy. Stick with tailored suits and demure blazers.
But in your 60s, should you make it that far, you finally get to start having fun again, with costume jewels, big fur coats, kimonos and gaudy statement flair. The same rules seem to apply for the 70s, 80s, and 90s — magazines don’t really acknowledge women over 60, turns out. They all seem to say, wait until death is right around the corner, and then start having as much fun as you did as a child.
Style has never been about obeying fashion rules, but listening to your inner compass about where your creativity should go — where you should put your focus. When these articles tell a woman what is and is not befitting of a lady her age, it is a way of both policing individual choices and creating new mass objects of desire that can be marketed and sold. As women get older, and have more disposable income, of course the industry would benefit from telling them that they need to buy more and more goods not only to look young, but even to look properly like themselves. But glamour has nothing to do with shopping and everything to do with perfectly committing to whatever look you choose, whatever makes you feel like you can walk around with the bearing of royalty even through the hallways of an office complex or a food court. If dressing in cloaks and granny heels does it for you at 18, go for it. If you are 65 and still want to wear overalls printed with yin-yangs, truly no one can stop you but yourself.
We have all seen those people walking down the street whose outfits feel out of place and trigger a pang of judgment; our brain immediately jumps to age as the culprit: he/she is wayyyy to old to be wearing that. But that is a misplaced assessment of why a particular ensemble isn't working. What we should be thinking about, when we see someone who sets off our taste alarms, is why the person looks so uncomfortable in what they have on, why they seem to be pretending to be someone they aren't. Discomfort, rather than a mismatch of age to outfit, is truly the basis for all fashion mistakes.
There’s something deeper to take away from letting go of age-dressing, however, and it is this: The thing that radiates outward from a person that translates to the world as style has very little to do with the actual clothes, and everything to do with her mental state. Yes, you need to know how to put outfits together, how to work with proportion and texture, how to wear the clothes that look best on your own particular miracle of a body. But those are the basics, and they are easy to learn. Iris couldn’t experiment the way she does without understanding herself as a canvas first. But after that, the rest is about the way you approach the day, the kind of woman you want to be when you slip into something. And “age-appropriateness” has served to subtly undercut and diminish anyone who chooses to step outside of the rules, which, in turn, dampens the enthusiasm for fashion little by little over time. This is why older women who wore bright Pucci mod minidresses in their youth might age into woolen drabness; it isn’t that the woman has changed, but that she has been told over and over that she isn’t allowed to stay the same. These rules can dim a woman’s light.
Iris often says that fashion has kept her alive; I think there is a lot of truth to that. If you need an excuse to wear whatever you want, whenever you want, blame it on Iris. Tell everyone who gives you a strange look at school or at your job or in your book club that you are doing it for your health. Giving yourself the permission to don whatever you desire will keep you excited to wake up the next day and do it all over again; when you turn your closet into a playground, you are prolonging your own life. And nothing is more age-appropriate than that.