There is no shortage of mature women who know how to accentuate the positive with a flattering shade of lipstick and a well-draped scarf. And then there is Iris Apfel. Small and thin, with a short crop of silver hair, Apfel festoons her 93-year-old forearms from wrists to elbows with a stack of fat bracelets. She circles her neck with a bazaar’s worth of sculptured necklaces, often draped over richly colored tunics and jackets in a riot of patterns–and ties it all together with extraordinary, saucer-size eyeglasses, the frames usually black. The look is so firmly Apfel’s own that for many fashion watchers, just the gesture of raising fingers to face and making owlish circles around the eyes is a recognizable signal: that’s Iris Apfel.
“I like to wear what I like or do what I like or decorate as I like,” says Apfel, who combs everything from couture racks to flea-market hangers for her distinctive style. “I don’t go out of my way to be a rebel or offend. I’ve always figured, I hope you like it, and if you don’t, that’s your problem.”
Soon, the nonagenarian style setter will have an even wider audience. Iris, a documentary about the life of this unlikely icon, is opening at the end of April in New York City–where she was born in 1921, into a family that owned a glass shop and a clothing boutique–and nationally in May. Apfel has opened her wardrobe before: the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art put on a wildly popular 2005 show featuring selections from her closet. But the film by Albert Maysles, the acclaimed documentarian who died in March at the age of 88, goes deeper, following Apfel inside her homes in New York City and Palm Beach, Fla., at an African shop in Harlem bargaining for bracelets and at the 100th-birthday celebration for her doting husband Carl, who is crucial to the Apfel mystique. With his business acumen and her eye as an interior decorator for private clients, the couple founded Old World Weavers in 1950 and built it into a high-end importer that has provided textiles for grand homes, including the White House. Before retiring in 1992, the couple worked on projects for every Administration from Eisenhower’s to Clinton’s (with the exception of George H.W. Bush’s).
The timing of Iris couldn’t be better, since old broads are having a moment. Did I say that? Allow me to put it in more ladylike terms: from glossy high fashion to DIY social media, older women are being celebrated in popular culture for their style, sexuality and beauty.
This is far from the first time that women of a certain age have been venerated for their daring aesthetic and devil-may-care attitude. In 1961 the English poet Jenny Johnson wrote, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” Her defiant lines inspired a worldwide sisterhood of mature women who really do wear purple and ruby-colored headgear, and meet up for outings as members of the Red Hat Society. But in an industry known for its embrace of the young and fresh, the renewed esteem for mature, fearlessly individual women is a welcome trend.
Women of a Certain Chic
Flip through the latest fashion advertisements and you might be fooled into thinking that mature beauty is this season’s must-have item. Helen Mirren, 69, is the face of L’Oréal U.K. (She also stars in the new film Woman in Gold.) NARS cosmetics ads feature 69-year-old actor Charlotte Rampling, and 66-year-old Jessica Lange is modeling for Marc Jacobs. New ads for the cooler-than-cool fashion label Céline showcase 80-year-old writer Joan Didion, fearsomely tiny in a black turtleneck, her face hidden by giant black sunglasses. And 71-year-old singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who was recently hospitalized after being found unconscious in her Los Angeles home, shows up in print ads for Yves Saint Laurent.
No list of silver foxes is complete without Carmen Dell’Orefice, who began modeling as a teenager. Now 83 and still working, Dell’Orefice happily claims the title of the world’s oldest supermodel. For women facing the dye-or-go-gray dilemma, Dell’Orefice’s silver-white mane and haute cheekbones make the case for the glamour of gray.
For older women who are not already well known but do possess dramatic “me being me” style, the current moment offers a particular opportunity to get noticed. And the timing is ideal, says Lynn Dell, the 82-year-old owner of Manhattan’s Off Broadway Boutique–a mecca for women who are proud to be the opposite of invisible. “We’re all living longer,” she says. “We are enjoying our lives. We have a sense that I can do what I want now. I can make a statement now.”
Dell’s panache is regularly featured on Advanced Style, a popular site run by 33-year-old Ari Seth Cohen that showcases all sorts of beautifully put-together seniors, from impeccable traditionalists to silvery bohemians from the Carole King school of natural woman. (A spin-off documentary film, Advanced Style, was released last year and is now available in home theater and digital versions.)
Cohen regularly returns to a core group of muses who have never met an outfit that was too architecturally ambitious. Their hats tower and tilt, their wraps engulf, and their color combinations demand attention. It’s daily fashion as a form of public theater–and it requires the confidence of a life well lived to pull off.
Such sartorial swagger seems to be rarer in older men. Cohen shoots occasional photos of stylish senior men, but they are often part of a couple whose outfits are coordinated to enhance their shared presentation. These men tend to be the beneficiaries of spouses with more adventurous tastes. That’s certainly the case in Iris, where Carl Apfel looks game enough to wear the patterned trousers and studded cap his wife picks out for him, while Apfel seems genuinely excited to buy them. Perhaps it comes to down to Apfel’s simple maxim: “It has to feel right.”
Follow Your Muse
The rediscovery of mature style is partly rooted in the fashion industry’s belated recognition of who can afford the high-end stuff. “Marketeers play to all the youngsters,” Apfel says, “but the youth market doesn’t have the money for all these things. Designers do dresses for a 15-year-old that do not look good with your 60-year-old arms–70-year-old knees ain’t pretty.” Indeed, women ages 55 to 64 spend the most of any age group on clothes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The second most? Women ages 65 to 74. “You’ve got to attend to us,” Dell says of her cohort. “We are important!”
Apfel is pleased that the industry has come around, but she deflects her status as a fashion icon with gestures of dismissal. “I don’t live for getting dressed,” she insists. “I’m very involved with living and working, and designing.” Those jobs include starring in a new ad campaign for Kate Spade in which her one-of-a-kind persona is played off against the creamy prettiness of 22-year-old model Karlie Kloss and–in red eyeglass frames this time–modeling Alexis Bittar jewelry opposite 18-year-old fashion impresario and actor Tavi Gevinson.
Still, Apfel is wise enough to know that the cultural moment she helped bring about could end at any time. The trick, as she sees it, is to do what she’s always done: follow your own muse.
“The greatest faux pas is looking in the mirror and seeing somebody else, which many women do,” Apfel says. “If trying to find out who you are is not for you, don’t push it. It’s not so important. Style is a matter of attitude. It has to be. It’s better to be unstylish and badly dressed and be happy. What’s the sense? Relax!”
She says this, of course, looking fabulous.
This appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of TIME.