More is More and Less is a Bore

Happy Mother’s Day if you are in the UK. Always a poignant day for those of us who no longer have to buy a Mother’s Day card, although we may be lucky enough to receive one or two so that we can celebrate in style. I was powerfully reminded of my mum last week when I heard the sad news that style icon extraordinaire, Iris Apfel had died aged 102. Iris was born three months before my mother in 1921, however, they couldn’t have been more different in their approach to style despite being exact contemporaries in age.


To me, Iris Apfel was the perfect role model for our generation of women, with her motto of “More is More and Less is a Bore.”


My mother sadly died at the young age of 67, but she had already begun to embrace the notion that older age should be synonymous with a very toned down aesthetic.  When I helped to pack away her clothes after she died, it was striking how much she had loved to wear grey, navy and cream. She’d never been very keen on jewellery, rarely wore earrings, and her only adornment apart from a gold watch, was a plain gold wedding band and uninspiring glasses. Every week she had a ‘shampoo and set’ at the local hairdresser in a style very similar to our late Queen Elizabeth and, as to makeup, she liked to wear it, but let’s just say that she was a stranger to a vibrant lip colour.


How very different from the living art work that was Iris Apfel! Joyously embracing a signature style that involved big, bold glasses, short cropped white hair, bright vivid colour and an excess of playful accessories, Iris showed that older age could (and should) involve bravery, boldness and a kind of dazzling visual brilliance. In that way, Iris gave us all a very different blueprint for how we could approach our physical presentation as we age. 


The Iconoclasm of Iris Apfel - how she changed the style game for older women:


Always Think ‘Style’ not ‘Fashion’. Iris understood that the fashion industry exists to promote novelty and trends which are invariably showcased on tall, very slim and very young men and women. The clothes themselves are often designed to shock or create controversy so that they garner column inches in the fashion press. Iris also liked to dress in a way that ran counter to convention and expectations, and I am pretty sure that my conservatively dressed mum would have been horrified by her ostentation, which may be part of the attraction for me! What I learned from Iris is that personal style is whatever makes you feel happy, confident and visible.


Iris quote: 'Fashion you can buy, but style you possess. The key to style is learning who you are, which takes years. There's no how-to road map to style. It's about self-expression and, above all, attitude.'


Use Colour Like an Artist. If you study photographs of Iris (do Google her!), you can see immediately that she had an unerring eye for colours that worked beautifully together. A blue outfit would be accessorised with orange jewellery, turquoise blue with green, red with black and the overall effect was visually both arresting and satisfying. And remember that she came from a generation that often expected a woman to wear nothing but black ‘widow’s weeds’ as soon as their husband died. When I was younger my wardrobe was a sea of black, grey and navy. Corporate colours, acceptable in the business world that I inhabited. Iris inspired me to see age as an opportunity for an explosion of colour which I continue to embrace with delight.


Iris quote: 'When the fun goes out of dressing, you might as well be dead.'


Style has Nothing to do with Beauty. Iris was neither beautiful nor pretty in any conventional sense. She didn’t look like Marilyn Monroe (b.1926) or Elizabeth Taylor (b.1932) or Audrey Hepburn (b.1929). She didn’t have amazing hair, a fabulous figure and perfect features, but none of that mattered. She obviously needed to wear glasses to see, so she chose the biggest, boldest, blackest frames and made them an important part of her signature style. She had her thick white hair cut into a short crop brushed straight back off her forehead and which also became an easy, wearable and flattering ‘look’. And she embraced bright red lip colours to bring her face to life. 


Iris quote: “I am inspired by everything around me, by being alive and breathing and meeting people and talking to people and doing things and absorbing what's happening. I think if more people did that there would be better fashion.”


Style has Nothing to do with Money.  Elizabeth Taylor may have owned and worn some of the biggest diamonds in the world but that did not make her stylish. Iris was obviously a magpie collector of clothes, shoes and accessories throughout her long life. The beads, bangles and oversized rings that she loved were costume jewellery, available cheaply in bazaars, markets and small boutiques anywhere and everywhere. The skill was in the way that she chose to assemble these items into a satisfying overall look which worked perfectly to create her signature style. I prefer earrings, and have amassed a collection of more than 100 pairs of them over many years. None is valuable and my latest pair were bought for 15 euros in a tiny shop in Italy.


Iris quote: 'No amount of money can buy you style. It's just instinctive.'


More is More and Less is a Bore: Iris never wore one string of beads if she could wear four or five. And having layered all those chunky necklaces, she’d reach for several brightly coloured bangles and a few oversized rings. She loved feather boas and fur collars. She embraced pattern, print and, above all, she loved bright, bold, beautiful colour. Every part of her style was the antithesis of what we expect older women to wear, and yet it always worked, probably because she was, at heart, a designer and an artist with a very strong and well developed visual sense. What I have personally taken from Iris is a love of bold colour teamed with a great pair of earrings. Not for me those safe little pearl studs my mum occasionally clipped on. I go for size (big), colour (bright), and pizazz (unusual wacky shapes).  Every morning I choose which of my many pairs of earrings will best lift my spirits and put a smile on my face and, most importantly, lift the most mundane outfit above the ordinary.


Iris quote: “Life is grey and dull, so you might as well have a little fun when you dress.”


Age is no Barrier to Style. Iris attained older age, old age and then very old age and at no point did her commitment to looking fabulous waver for one moment. I first became aware of her about ten years ago via the ‘Advanced Style’ photographs of Ari Seth Cohen. Iris was already in her 90s and was the trailblazer for the women that Cohen sought out on the streets of New York so that he could showcase their incredible style. To me, Iris was a true iconoclast because her style was everything I had been told that older women should eschew: frivolity, fun and, of course, fabulousness.


Iris quote: 'If you don't learn constantly, you don't grow, and you will wither. Too many people wither on the vine. Sure, it gets a little harder as you get older, but new experiences and new challenges keep it fresh.”


Thank you Iris Apfel. You came onto my radar at exactly the right moment. At 65, I was starting to wonder who I was, what my purpose in life was and how I should present myself to a world which had started to make me feel utterly irrelevant and invisible. You showed me that self-effacement is neither necessary nor desirable. 


I bought a bright top, a crazy pair of earrings, applied a punchy red lipstick and I have never looked back. May You Rest in Peace.


Tricia x


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