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Dancing at twilight: the ladies of Advanced Style

Tziporah Salamon, Simon Doonan, Lynn Dell, Ari Seth Cohen and Joyce Carpati.

Tziporah Salamon, Simon Doonan, Lynn Dell, Ari Seth Cohen and Joyce Carpati.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 4, 2014.

“I have become increasingly appalled by the idea of growing old gracefully.” Host Simon Doonan had judged the City Winery crowd well. In his shiny blue designer tracksuit, purple sunglasses and green trainers, he looked like a fever dream of teenage kicks, and got his first cheer merely for refusing to wear chinos in his sixties.

The evening was billed as a celebration of Advanced Style, the film, the book, the blog, the concept, and an opportunity for some of New York’s best dressed senior citizens to stick an arthritic finger in the eye of a fashion industry that pretends they don’t exist.

To Doonan’s right, Ari Seth Cohen, a nice boy in a sequinned matador’s jacket fit for Liberace. For eight years, he has been taking his camera and his winning bedside manner to the street, stopping elderly ladies with an “excuse me ma’am, you look so elegant” and shooting them right there, in their finery.

Doonan welcomed the women one by one. Thrift store queen Debra Rapaport, 69, wore plastic bangles from Chinatown and a striking hat of her own design made from paper towel. Lynn Dell, 81, sported a spectacular feathered headdress with a diaphanous veil. Blind Harlem Apollo dancer Jacqui Tajah Murdock, 84, had on a glittering black cocktail dress. She wielded her cane like Fred Astaire.

Artist Tziporah Salamon, 64, paraded in a silk kimono and tassled cap straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan. Joyce Carpati, 82, her grey hair in a perfect braid, accessorised her black wool dress with a canary yellow scarf and a long string of pearls. And next to Cohen sat the tiny hunched figure of Ilona Royce Smithkin, 94 years old, in a sheer silver blouse and hoop earrings, her false eyelashes cut from her own bright red dyed hair.

Whenever she’s asked her age by students at her painting class, Smithkin tells them that she is “between fifty and death”. She hasn’t been able to do the splits since she had a hip replacement a decade ago. But she is the heart of the documentary, regaling the film-makers with tales of her scarf catching fire at a fashion show and being doused with champagne. “There’s no limit to anything,” she says. “If you look good, you look good.”

Jacqui Tajah Murdock, Joyce Carpati and Debra Rapaport.

Jacqui Tajah Murdock, Joyce Carpati and Debra Rapaport.

The film has its elegiac moments. Smithkin and Dell suffer from ill health. Salamon regrets that she never had kids: “The hats, the bags, the shoes, the jackets, they were my children.” And a seventh star, Zelda Kaplan, gives new meaning to the phrase fashionably late by expiring at a runway show just short of her 96th birthday.

For a moment, as news of Kaplan’s death is cut with ominous music and footage of tall, white, flawlessly skinny models looking like stormtroopers on the catwalk, it appears that the documentary will make its point about ageism more forcefully. But the presence of Doonan, a ‘Creative Ambassador’ from Barney’s, one of New York’s most chic department stores, at the launch, suggests that the industry is well aware of the purchasing power of the grey dollar.

At 64, Vogue editor Anna Wintour cannot preside over a cult of youth indefinitely. After the book was published, French fashion house Lanvin made Murdock and Salamon the stars of an advertising campaign. Rapaport’s face adorned billboards all over New York, a streak of pink in her hair, promoting K-Mart clothes.

“Kim Kardashian bought the dress that I wore in the ad for Lanvin,” Murdock told the Winery audience. A pause. “And the dress was not for her. She had the $4,000 to buy it, but the stretch material was not for her figure.” The crowd hooted its approval. Murdock’s own dress came from a catalogue, she said. “It’s not designer. But I love Armani.”

Doonan asked them to name their style icons. When Smithkin and Carpati both plumped for Marlene Dietrich, he scolded them gently: “Joyce, maybe you can pick someone who hasn’t been dead for forty years?” Carpati volleyed with feeling: “Let me tell you something. It’s very difficult to find someone today who knows how to dress.”

Ilona Royce Smithkin regrets rien.

Ilona Royce Smithkin regrets rien.

“You never saw Lana Turner out in the street in dirty clothes, or ripped clothes,” offered Dell. “Or a baseball cap, backwards,” agreed Salamon. She named her inspirations as Coco Chanel, Wintour’s predecessor Diana Vreeland and Charlie Chaplin.

After a short break, Smithkin came back out wrapped in a red feather boa to sing Que Sera Sera and La Vie En Rose, an “I’ll have what she’s having” moment that reminded me of a favourite bon mot of Vreeland’s: “I shall die very young. How young? I don’t know. Maybe seventy, maybe eighty, maybe ninety. But I shall be very young.”