I am one of Iris Apfel’s 1.6 million Instagram followers. In a society that worships youth, and in which fashion models seems to grow younger all the time, 99-year-old Apfel is a breath of fresh air. The unconventional style icon’s fabulousness and ageless spirit is on full display in each and every photo.
She is proof positive that one needn’t become less stylish, or invisible, with age. Much like her signature oversized trademark eyeglasses, and vivid red lipstick, Apfel’s approach to fashion is bold, colorful and playful.
Apfel has been the subject of books, documentaries, a Barbie Doll styled in her image, and even a coloring book (whose proceeds go to charity). This year, she will turn 100. To commemorate that momentous occasion, she has partnered with Lowe’s, the home improvement store, also celebrating 100 years, to curate several home interior design collections.
Women like Apfel make older age look good – and, frankly, less scary. They belie the notion that beauty and style have a short shelf life. We need more women like them, I often think. Then I realize there are others, including a few that I know well in my own life.
At 90, my cousin’s mother-in-law, Emelia Vella, is one of them. On every holiday, Emelia is dressed for the occasion. For Christmas, she is resplendent in a red blazer, seasonal earrings and matching red polish. On Easter, she looks festive in cheerful spring colors, with pastel nail colors to match.
“I try to wear the colors of the holiday,” she says.
Emelia’s makeup is artfully applied, and her hair is always done. She has standing salon appointments for both.
Each time I see Emelia, I see a woman who is comfortable with her age and style; a woman who continues to make an effort to put her best face forward.
When I recently asked where her sense of style comes from, especially her keen eye for accessorizing, she seemed surprised by the question. Emelia doesn’t necessarily see herself as stylish by design.
“It just comes to me,” she said.
She told me she has always liked clothes. But junior high school was a turning point. That was when boys first noticed her and commented on how attractive she looked in her sweater and skirt ensembles, so popular at the time.
“They told me they liked the way I dressed,” she remembered with a smile.
Before she was married, Emelia worked at an insurance office building in downtown Manhattan. Nearby her office, the opportunities to indulge her fondness for fashion were close at hand.
“There were a lot of boutiques to shop at,” she recalled.
Later, when she was an insurance agent on Long Island, her style shifted. Pantsuits had come into vogue for working women. Glamour was the order of the day when her late husband was president of the local Sons of Italy chapter. She was the president of the ladies auxiliary.
“There were a lot of dressy affairs to attend.”
Emelia has kept the majority of her outfits. “I didn’t want to get rid of them. They bring back memories.”
The woman who once frequented the malls now shops mostly from catalogs. Her style has changed, too. Her tastes now run to sportier clothes, and she has a penchant for turtlenecks and blazers.
Her interest in looking good, however, continues. “I do it for my own ego. It makes me feel good.”
At 96, Doris Shankman is another ever-so-stylish nonagenarian. Like Emelia, Doris seems to come by her style effortlessly.
“I don’t know if I ever thought of myself as having style, to be honest with you.”
“It just seems to come naturally. If I’m wearing something that requires gold earrings, I’ll wear gold… otherwise silver… whatever… I like to put things that look well together, but really don’t fuss too much,” she said.
Perhaps being chic is in her DNA. Doris said that her mother always “looked lovely” and her father worked in fashion.
“My father was a designer. He did the embroidery, stitching and pleating of women’s clothes,” she explained.
“Very often, when I was a young child, he and my mother and I would go and look at the 5th Avenue windows, like Bergdorf Goodman’s and Bonwit Teller’s, to see how they were decorated with beautiful outfits,” remembered Doris. Sometimes it was her father who created some of the embellishments on the clothing.
He would also sometimes add special touches, such as embroidery on a sleeve, to the clothing of his wife and daughter.
“My father had a loft in the garment center,” recalled Doris. From there, he would work with wholesale fashion houses.
On Saturdays, she would often go there to shop.
“I never knew what it was to buy a dress retail,” she said with a chuckle.
The first time I met Doris we were at a mutual friend’s barbecue. I immediately noticed her casual elegance. It was not only reflected in what she was wearing, but also in her poise. She was clearly comfortable in her own skin.
When Doris, who once worked as a teacher and a social worker, stayed at home to raise her two children, she tended toward casual clothing. Still, she enjoyed dressing for the occasion on outings with her late husband, a popular physician.
“When we went to something special like a show or concert, I would be more fussy and wear something a little dressier,” she said.
Although Doris said that, except for the basics, she hasn’t gone shopping in a decade, she continues to take great pains about her appearance.
“Is it vanity? I don’t know. I know I always like to look neat,” she said.
She’s far from alone in her continued interest in looking good and enjoying fashion.
Apfel, a true social media influencer, has played a big part in encouraging other women of a certain age to celebrate their panache. During the height of the pandemic, as Apfel quarantined, she challenged her Instagram followers who were also stuck at home to take everything out of their closets and “put things together in a fun, creative way and then send me some photographs.”
More than 3,000 people did just that. The photos are joyful reminders that love of fashion, and feeling attractive, never grows old.
The three women inspire me. I marvel at their vitality, a vitality that makes them seem ageless. They are not chasing youth. On the contrary, they are embracing who they are today. They make me want to step up my game, especially on those days when making myself any more than presentable seems like too much effort.
There’s no doubt that facing the world with confidence in who they are has helped them face hardships and personal losses.
The days of shunting older women off the stage are hopefully coming to an end.
“People are living longer. So maybe that attitude will gradually change,” said Doris, adding, “I hope.”
As Apfel has famously noted, “What’s wrong with being 72 or 82 or 92? If God is good enough to give you these years flaunt them.”
Look around at the mature women in your life, and take the time to see the beauty in their faces, and the distinctiveness in their style. You may even pick up some pointers.
Do you follow any fashion or style influencers who are older than you? Are there stylish women in your life, who are well into their mature years? Do you think they care about others’ opinion, or do they set the rules? Please share with the community!