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Aging stylishly, online and in the streets

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
April 28, 2012 -- Updated 1447 GMT (2247 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Advanced Style, Idiosyncratic Fashionistas blogs show older women dressing to impress
  • They dress to be seen and to make the point that youth is not necessarily beauty
  • "Life is too short to worry about what people are going to think of you," blogger says
  • Message resonates with younger generation embracing style as personal, not trend-oriented

Editor's note: This article was originally published April 27, 2012.

New York (CNN) -- Tziporah Salamon typically starts with a hat to create the "painting" of herself that she presents to the world.

On this particular Thursday night, she's dressing for dinner with a new friend she met at the Japan Society art deco exhibit opening in New York. As she looks over her meticulously curated vintage collection, she decides it has to be the "pierrot" clown motif. It's one of her favorites, and it has the kind of whimsy that makes an impression.

She picks a hat -- no, a different one -- and pulls on a black Comme de Garcons pom-pom sweater over black silk pants (bought on second markdown from Saks). Next, a cropped, red wool sweater with billowy sleeves, a chunky bracelet and red clip-on earrings from her vanity -- home to a colorful array of bracelets and clip-on earrings near a framed black-and-white headshot of a younger Warren Beatty. Now pointy black patent-leather flats, red and black gloves, a black Victorian ribbon collar wrapped several times around her neck. Finally, a splash of bright red lipstick followed by the piece de resistance: a tiered, black felt hat with accordion pleats with two red tassels hanging from the top.

"I love playing dress up. For me, it's play and pleasure and my life is so blessed because of it," she says. "I get a lot of attention and people love me for it."

At 62, Salamon is part of a movement "of a certain age," yes, but not aging like its parents.

On the streets of New York, in fashion blogs from around the country and even in ad campaigns, women like Salamon are finding a new audience for their sartorial choices, and their belief that youth is not necessarily beauty: This is about personal style, not fashion or trends, and these are not the years to fade into sweatpants and muumuus. It's the time to be noticed, and not for looking young.

Whether Salamon is substitute-teaching public school kids, treasure-hunting in a thrift store or performing her one-woman show, she dresses to be seen. She bikes to most appointments on her busy calendar and boasts that she can walk into any bathroom or hotel in the world, no questions asked, because of the way she looks. People routinely snap her photo on the street; she keeps a scrapbook of her appearances in New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham's "On the Street" feature.

People like Salamon are challenging the notion that they have nothing more to offer the world in their advanced age by dressing in a way that brings them joy and elicits positive reaction from others. It's a way for them to defy stereotypes about aging while coming to terms with their own mortality.

"Women at a certain age become invisible and by dressing this way I'm not invisible," says Salamon, whose parents worked as a tailor and dressmaker. "If anything, my style just got more pronounced as I grew to know myself better and better. I make fewer mistakes now that I am at this age and know myself and what looks good on me and what I like."

Tziporah Salamon, 62, looks at herself in a mirror as she tries on a new hat at the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show.
Tziporah Salamon, 62, tries on a hat at the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show.
Evelio Contreras/CNN

Yes, a lucky few age with grace and style in the age of movies and magazines that feature pretty young things with smooth skin and shapeless figures. Magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar put out occasional "Ageless Style" features, but even those salvos can be patronizing as far as some aging fashionistas are concerned.

Overheard on CNN.com: Readers weigh in on stylish seniors

It's nice to see actors older than 40, but it's always the same cast of characters: Kristin Scott Thomas, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore. And who, apart from other celebrities, can relate to them anyway?

"What they show in magazines doesn't make sense and it's not realistic," said Valerie, half the duo that runs the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas blog. "That's what they look like on red carpet, but what does a 60-year-old look like going to the supermarket?"

Online, older women with some tech savvy have created a place to share their favorite hats, latest thrift store finds and wearable shoes that aren't branded with the words "easy" or "ortho."

The baby boomer gal pals known as the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas said they started the blog because of the positive feedback they got from friends, family and strangers whose jaws dropped when they saw the pair in patterned shifts and multidimensional hats.

Valerie and Jean (they go by first names to keep professional and private lives separate) met through Salamon at a New York vintage market in 2008. Now, they finish each other's sentences and dress to complement each other at museums, fashion shows and meetups with friends, including some they met through the blog.

"'Growing old gracefully' is an outdated concept," their blog proclaims, "we prefer 'growing old with verve.'"

Valerie and Jean, a pair of bloggers known as the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas, share a moment over breakfast.
Valerie and Jean, also known as the "Idiosyncratic Fashionistas," share a moment over breakfast.
Evelio Contreras/CNN

During a recent Sunday brunch on a patio in the East Village, they dressed in designer vintage, thrift store and sample sale finds with jewelry courtesy of Bakelite and Pylones. A young woman sitting at the next table asked to take their picture for her blog. "You're what makes New York great," another young admirer told them.

"We do have this critical mass thing going when it's both of us, like we're more approachable when we're together. People confess things to us, they say they could never dress like that," Jean said between nibbles from a fruit plate.

"We tell them, why not? You're not hurting anyone," Valerie interjected.

"Our approach is positive. We're trying to build up our compadres to encourage them to be more out there in the world," Jean continued. "We hate the word 'empower' but that's kind of it. Life is too short to worry about what people are going to think of you."

Photojournalist Ari Seth Cohen documents street style of people older than 50 on his blog, Advanced Style. His subjects include 100-year-old Ruth Kobin, who attributes her vitality to weekly pilates, and 81-year-old dancer Jacquie "Tajah" Murdock, who once worked as a typist by day and Apollo chorus girl by night.

"A lot of women are scared of aging so I wanted to present images of women who feel better as they age," the 30-year-old photojournalist said. "It starts with style, but once you start talking about style, the discussion turns to lifestyle and how to live life to the fullest."

Since its launch in 2008, the blog has led to a book, which goes on sale May 22 with a foreword by Dita Von Teese, and a documentary film. It has also made Cohen a quasi-expert on "aging stylishly," someone who is sought after by journalists, filmmakers and everyday people for perspective on aging and access to the Advanced Style muses.

Appearances in the blog have led some women to modeling gigs for a variety of brands, from K-Mart to cane maker OMHU. In the past two years, they've made the rounds on morning talk shows and appeared in articles with headlines about "fearless, fashionable 'glam-mas.'"

Cohen launched the blog as an homage to his stylish late grandmother and his "best friend." He's forged relationships with the women who appear on Advanced Style, accompanying them to social events, collaborating on projects or just dropping by for tea and counsel.

It's not just about dressing outlandishly, although a distinct look helps anybody stand out on the streets of New York, Cohen said. It's more about how they carry themselves and the aura they project.

"All the women I come across -- and some men -- share this confidence and inner peace with who they are," he said. "Many of them will tell you they never felt as good about themselves as they do now, and for them, style is just one thing that keeps them going."

The fashion and beauty industry is starting to notice them, too. The baby boomers are getting into their 60s, and have a game-changing reputation and money to spend. High fashion and the beauty industry have tipped their hat to women older than 50 in recent years with campaigns such as Lauren Hutton for Alexis Bittar jewelry and Gitte Lee for French apparel brand Celine. MAC Cosmetics launched a collaboration with 92-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel, perhaps the style movement's best-known representative.

"People get bored seeing the same thing all the time and big luxury brands are trying to push the envelope from an artistic standpoint," said Zan Ludlum, a casting director who has seen modeling opportunities for women on Cohen's blog. "They're using them to raise the point of conversation that these women are beautiful and worth being celebrated."

It's a risk not all brands will take, Ludlum said. But when an older woman arrives for a shoot, the bustle of the room stands still for her.

"Everyone is quiet and interested in hearing what they have to say," she said. "The biggest art director in the world takes a step back from the rush, the machine quiets and everyone's just like 'Wow, we're so lucky to be in this amazing woman's presence.'"

It's a feeling 24-year-old Brianna Hurley knows well. In some ways, she feels like she has acquired a life's worth of wisdom through her work at Off Broadway Boutique with owner Lynn Dell, New York's self-styled "countess of glamour."

Jean's rings come from a variety of sources, including thrift stores and vintage sales.
Evelio Contreras/CNN

It's a message that's starting to resonate with some of her peers, she said, as her generation embraces the idea of style as personal and unique instead of simply something you follow.

"It's about the freedom to dress and wear what you want, and that's what Lynn and these women are all about," she said. "It starts from style but it flows into all aspects of their lives. They've taught me to take care of myself and be kind to people, with simple things like saying hello and treating people with respect."

"It's humanity at its most dramatic," Hurley said. "These women go through a lot, deaths, illnesses, personal health, but they're classy about how they deal with it."

For many, that's where blogs come in, as a means of working through the kinks of aging within the framework of style. After 33 years together, Judith Boyd's husband was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 2005. Throughout the stress of Nelson's treatment, Boyd realized that piecing together outfits seemed to help her and her husband.

"He loved it when I walked out the door dressed to the nines," Boyd said in a recent phone interview from her home in Denver, Colorado.

She launched her blog, Style Crone, in 2010 inspired in part by Advanced Style. It began with a series of photographs that were part of the couple's ritual during her husband's treatment.

"Nelson would take a picture of my chemo outfit as we were waiting and I would blog as he was receiving chemo," the retired psychiatric nurse said. "It was a way to lighten the experience and to talk about it."

Nelson died in 2011, and her grief poured into her clothes and onto her blog. In a post titled "The Color of Grief," she wrote how disoriented and confused she was three months after her husband's death; she couldn't even choose an outfit.

"It's been healing for me to continue to express myself during my husband's illness and death and during the grieving process," she said. "The feedback I get from friends and followers on the blog also helps get me through. We hold each other up."

In her lighter moments, there's her biannual "hat room transition," in which she takes out her spring and summer hats and tucks away those for fall and winter. She wore a lilac-print dress and a felt hat, a little spring, a little winter.

"In the middle of the hat room transition, in the middle of the seasonal transition, in the middle of the [Style Crone's] transition," she wrote, "an outfit of transition was created with the inspiration of lilacs."

The realities of age aren't lost on these women. They've had time to grow up, to experience life's emotional extremes and still wake up the next day. Those twists and turns have not only infused their personality but also the way they dress and see themselves as they age.

"After my 50th birthday, I saw a picture of myself and it startled me, the wrinkles in my face," said Salamon.

"In that moment the reality of my age became apparent. Do I love my wrinkles? No. But I don't dwell on them. I look at my smile, my neck, my shoulders, other parts that are beautiful."

Judgments around ageism are part of why the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas prefer to conceal their last names and their actual ages. Both have full-time jobs and don't want the "frivolity" of their extracurricular activities to undermine their professionalism.

"If I didn't work for a living I wouldn't care," Valerie said. "I'll never be a spring chicken again and I'm fine with that. I just wish all these things weren't attached."

Ilona Royce-Smithkin, 92, goes through a series of nude drawings she has done over the years.
Ilona Royce-Smithkin, 92, goes through a series of nude drawings she has done over the years.
Evelio Contreras/CNN

For some women, society's renewed fascination with aging gracefully has given them a new starring role, their last chance to leave an impression on the world.

"I'm amazed at how in this late stage I'm getting all this attention," 92-year-old Ilona Royce-Smithkin said.

Royce-Smithkin was interesting before she met Cohen on the street two years ago. She spent most of the 20th century as an acclaimed painter with illustrious subjects such as Tennessee Williams and Ayn Rand. But it wasn't until the last five years that she truly came into her own and became comfortable with herself, she says.

"I'm no longer a little mouse," she said. "I'm much more into fashion now, I can dare to be extravagant."

For the last decade, she has been wooing audiences in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with songs by Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich in her annual "Eyelash Cabaret."

The attention she's earned as an Advanced Style muse has further catapulted her into the limelight, she says. Through the blog, she earned a modeling gig for a cane company and numerous admirers who call her for the secret to vitality at 92. There's also a fair bit of interest in her fake eyelashes, which she makes from her own red hair (daily cleanings are part of maintenance).

A small woman with a sweet accent that recalls her eastern European youth, she says she has become more aware of colors with age and is willing to take greater risks. A silver coiled letter organizer crawls up her wrist in a nod to her habit of "rescuing clothes." She has created scarves from umbrellas and a jacket out of a teddy bear. To her, it's all part of being true to herself and waking up each day with a smile.

She finds beauty in small things, like a tree dancing in the wind outside the window of her tiny West Village apartment, where she has lived for 58 years.

"Young people are too quickly in older life, they have no childhood. It's like speeding up strawberries to grow," she said. "They look great, but there's no taste."

In the case of some women, it can take a lifetime to figure out who you are. But if you're lucky, you'll make it to 100, like Ruth Kobin.

Her style hasn't changed much over the years, she said, but it's just as important now as ever to look classy and elegant. Even when she was in the hospital in early April for stitches on her arm, she always wore lipstick to give her face some color: "you never know who you'll run into."

A former stage actress who appeared in Hollywood movies in the 1940s, she never grew into the idea of pants or blue jeans and hates to see women in bare legs. She still favors a minimalist approach of buying quality goods that will last and gets rid of items that she hasn't woarn in two years.

To keep her mind sharp and her body fit, she relies on a steady routine of daily pilates and weekly private sessions. You're only as old as you feel, after all.

"As people get older they drift into a lassitude that certainly is not good," she said. "The older I get, I don't dwell on it."

Who's your style icon? How would you describe your personal style? Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter using the hashtag #advancedstyle.

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