Fashion documentary charms with charismatic, elderly subjects

Ari Seth Cohen/Courtesy

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Some dress for others, whether it’s for their jo­b or for their school, but it is undoubtedly people who dress for themselves who make an impression on those around them. The subjects of Ari Seth Cohen’s documentary “Advanced Style” do exactly that. Cohen profiles seven New York women ranging in age from their early 60s to late 90s and their very distinct aesthetics, from vintage Chanel bags to DIY bracelets made from toilet paper rolls.

Cohen’s affinity for older women as well as his penchant for the fashion world stem from the close relationships he has with his grandmothers, who he says dresses like movie stars. To Cohen, it is the audacity and the individualism of older women that inspire him.

“They don’t have a job, they don’t have to impress their bosses, their children, their lovers. They have no one to please but themselves,” Cohen told the New York Times.

Although the documentary doesn’t contain that much substance in its story, its charisma makes up for what it lacks in content. Throughout the film, the seven women emanate a lighthearted, feel-good atmosphere, all of them preaching confidence not only about how they carry themselves but also in how they choose to dress.

As with many other documentaries that profile older individuals, “Advanced Style” maintains a focus on the process of aging and how these seven women have dealt with it. Although some have lost their husbands while others are still finding love at 70, the rag-tag group of seniors leaves the audience with the idea that happiness and confidence isn’t something that decays with age but rather something that comes along with it.

“When one grows older, one has learned to accept one’s self and become less self-critical,” said Zelda Kaplan, a fashion icon who passed away during the filming of the documentary. “I was never so self-critical, because I thought, ‘This is who I am, there’s nothing I can do about it.’ ”

Among the subjects of “Advanced Style,” Joyce Carpati, a former advertising executive at Metropolitan and Good Housekeeping, stands out the most, not because of her eccentricity but because of her refined simplicity. Her timeless and elegant aesthetic, from her silver hair tied in a chignon hairstyle to her vintage pearls, contrasts starkly with the boisterous patterns and colors the other women are so fond of.

The other six are more partial to over-the-top, almost clownish, displays of fashion: beaded floral jackets; teased pixie cuts dyed hot pink; long, orange, homemade fake eyelashes; hats that range in shape from traffic cone to oversized acorn. If not for Carpati, it would seem as though the only requirement Cohen has for putting someone on his blog is that they must look more eccentric than the last picture that he posted.

In his blog, Cohen leaves the readers a message to “respect your elders and let these ladies and gents teach you a thing or two about living life to the fullest” — a message that he carries through his documentary. “Advanced Style” is Cohen’s way of telling the world that a stigma against old age exists, especially in the world of fashion, where these elderly style gurus often go unnoticed among the crowds of 20-somethings all wearing variations of the same trend. The documentary is Cohen’s challenge of the cultural convention of worshipping youth and instead points to the reverence of elders as cultivators of fashion and individualism.

But despite the obvious anti-ageism cause that Cohen advocates in “Advanced Style,” he doesn’t bring much else to the table. The documentary is instead solely a heartwarming 65-minute profile on seven elderly New Yorkers that defies the idea that one fades away as one ages.

“Advanced Style” is running at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood.