Having one or two grandmothers is lovely, but what if you had seven? Could you imagine the wisdom and wit they could impart on you—the stories and the lessons, the heirlooms and grace? Lina Plioplyte has found her own army of “grandmothers” in the stars of Advanced Style, the film she directed that was inspired by a popular blog and photography book of the same name.
The film was a nearly five-year labor of love for Plioplyte and producer/blogger Ari Seth Cohen, ultimately touring the country and earning screenings at Tribeca. The consensus? It’s thrilling to see “women of a certain age” on the cutting edge of fashion.
Take the now-95-year-old Ilona Royce Smithkin, who doubles as the cover model for the Advanced Style DVD. The painter and performer rocks tangerine hair, accentuated eyelashes, extreme prisms of color in her outfits and a passion for jewelry.
“She just drenches herself in turquoise!” Plioplyte exclaims as she calls from a winter-drenched Nashville. “Because, you know, it makes her feel amazing. I mean, she also happens to be the owner of the most amazing orange hair and orange eyelashes,” she adds, laughing. “So, to each their own amazing thing.”
That, to the Lithuanian filmmaker, is the beauty of her subjects. Each woman (ages 67 to 95) has that one thing that makes her pop. Tziporah Salamon has an affinity for historical Chinese fashion. Debra Rapoport is a thrift store fanatic. Opera singer and journalist Joyce Carpati’s signature look is a lux braids-and-pearls combo. Zelda Kaplan (who passed away in 2012 after collapsing in front row at a runway show) culled her wardrobe from African-inspired threads. Jacquie “Tajah” Murdock always has an eye-catching accouterment in her hair. And Lynn Dell goes everywhere (even indoors) with her giant, Hollywood-glam sunglasses. They are all undeniably, unabashedly them.
No doubt, the world has its fair share of Fashion Grandpas, but Plioplyte and Cohen wanted the women to be front and center in their documentary.
“Older men have the secondary part as the husbands and the boyfriends and sometimes the voice of reason,” she says. “I call them the voice of Middle America because Sam, Debra’s boyfriend, would comment how he thought she was a little clownish. I think really, Sam—or a lot of people—were like, ‘Whoa. Why are you having purple hair at 70 years old? What are you doing?’”
What the film subjects were doing was glowing with a zeal for living—at much higher energies than many of her millennial peers. Plioplyte laments that too many people her age were dreading wrinkles and slowly casting out their more outrageous outfits for closets full of “safe,” office-friendly duds. The Advanced Age stars have honed in on their strongest suits (pardon the pun), a sixth sense that develops over the years, according to the director. She’s learned from her interviews that with age, one better understands “which colors are your colors, which cuts are your cuts. I definitely switched from all the synthetic material to silks and wools. Definitely inspired by my seven grandmothers.” She giggles and follows with “They’re very not grandmother-like.”
The auteur—who notes that friends have told her she has an old soul—related easily to theseeffervescent elders.
“They’re my life counselors, advisers, and we crush about the boys and men and the rumors on the street and the last movies that we’ve seen. They really live the pulse of New York City, which is so beautiful for me to see and am inspired by.”
As Advanced Style made its way around the States at film festivals and screenings in 2014, Plioplyte and Cohen found that bold dressers in their golden years weren’t specific to the Big Apple.
“When we traveled with the movie last year, we met Advanced Style ladies everywhere!” the director says with glee. “In Phoenix, there are three ladies in the movie theater who stayed after the film screening who were like, ‘Yeah, even in here, everybody’s in sweats and tank tops. And here we are dressed up in feathers and we have fun with it.’ So no matter where you go, there is that amazing woman who puts herself together every day.”
Cohen backs that notion up on his blog. In his recent visit to Japan, he photographed many a maven, admiring their flair for mixing traditional and new elements. And Plioplyte notes the growing celebration of Advanced Style, from Joni Mitchell (71) modeling for Saint Laurent, to author Joan Didion (80) donning Céline.
And even her own mother has dared to take a walk on the wild side.
“My mom… she doesn’t speak English, and I remember showing her one of the very, very early trailers of the film, like four minutes [of] cut, loose story about it. I was watching her watching it on Skype and translating as I was hearing it on YouTube, translating it from English in Lithuanian. And a week later, we Skype again, and I see her. And I’m like, ‘Whoa, Mom, what’s this?’ And my mom’s wearing fake eyelashes. She says, ‘Well, if they can, I can!’”
That’s the motto of Advanced Style: Anyone is welcome to dress loudly and proudly. As Rapoport puts it in the documentary, “Style is healing.” And Plioplyte agrees.
“You are a creator when you put an outfit together,” she says. “I believe in playing with clothing, and every single [Advanced Style] lady, they have the same idea; they have the same understanding and believe in the secret power of clothing. … They really improved and fortified that idea about clothing having healing powers.”
Fashionista, heal thyself and see the movie that will help allay your fear of growing older via the official Advanced Style film website. Peeking into the closets of your most fabulous honorary grandmothers might help you see the future as Lina Plioplyte now sees it.
“I think things are only getting better,” she says. After all, who said fashion can’t be like a fine wine and improve with age?