By Nicole Roth
I had a writing professor in college who told me, “Beware of early success.” As a twenty-two-year-old creative writing major, those words were not what I wanted to hear. I was getting ready to graduate and had no job prospects. I suppose I was hoping for something like “you’re going places, kid” or “here’s a book deal!”
Although my expectations were unrealistic, I can see where they came from. Many of the literary works that stood out to me at the time were penned by young authors. These were people who miraculously wrote enduring classics at an age when I could only manage studying them. In countless English classes, we read T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which Eliot published when he was 27. Charles Dickens started publishing in his early twenties and his first runaway bestseller, Pickwick Papers, was compiled into one volume when Dickens was 25. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published the first version of Frankenstein when she was only 21.
The ranks of the young and talented extend into other areas of the arts as well, most notably in music. My own music collection in college was dominated by twenty-something singer/songwriters and bands. Over and over, pop culture suggests that the most successful years in musicians’ lives happen during their twenties. The Beatles wrote their most enduring music when the members were in their twenties. The Rolling Stones, though they still release music, are best known for the music they wrote in their twenties. Even looking at new artists it is rare to find a band or solo artist making it big when they are middle-aged or older.
The pattern of young artists producing great works becomes panic-inducing for a fiction writer like me. If some of the most revered creative works tend to come from the young, then I need to hurry up and write before I get too old for a top 30 under 30 list. Why am I wasting my time doing anything else when I should be writing a successful, time-enduring novel? But that kind of pressure is unsustainable. It is also the best way to guarantee that I will stare at a blank computer screen for hours until I give up and watch TV.
To fight the rising panic, I embrace any story I hear about someone who finds their best creative expression later in life. No matter what kind of expression—writing, composing, whatever—those stories tell me that it will be okay. I still have time to write.
The documentary Iris (2014) tells one of those hopeful, later-in-life stories about 93-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel. In the first frame, Iris is looking at her reflection in a mirror, adjusting the large black frames of her glasses and playing with the arrangement of her necklaces. Towers of bracelets clink together on her arms as she shows off the different pieces and describes the outfits that she likes to put together. Sneakers she designed for the Home Shopping Network paired with denim and bracelets from Harlem. Or embroidered suede smoking slippers, a modified Miao tunic, and layered amber necklaces. Or a patterned Ungaro jacket and Versace trousers with a black turtleneck. Just some things she’s been collecting.
As she gets dressed, Iris compares putting together an outfit with jazz. She never puts together the same outfit twice. She is always trying something different. As she gets ready for a party, Iris explains a quotation she finds truthful and poetic—sometimes it is just more fun to get ready than to actually go out somewhere.
As the music swells and title credits appear, Iris walks across the grand and empty hallway entrance of her New York apartment building. She’s dressed in a beautiful, dramatic fur coat and her cane makes a soft clack on the floor. Next, we see Iris in Loehmann’s, where she gives fashion advice and explains how she helped different women put together outfits. In between cuts of these outfits, Iris tells the story of her encounter with Mrs. Loehmann over fifty years before. When Iris was a sales clerk at the store, Mrs. Loehmann told Iris that she did not have beauty but something much better—Iris had style.
The longer I watched Iris, the more the meaning of Mrs. Loehmann’s seemingly rude statement made sense to me. Style is expression with clothes and lasts long after beauty fades. Later in the documentary, Harold Koda, Curator of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explains this idea when he describes Iris’s creativity. Every time she gets dressed, she is expressing an idea. Some people might argue that getting dressed can’t be art if everyone can do it, but Koda argues that it is just like photography. Sure, everyone can take pictures with their phones, but that doesn’t mean we are all photographers.
As the film continues, we often see Iris shopping, sometimes with her faithful husband Carl in toe. They patronize couture shops and flea markets, stopping to look at whatever catches Iris’s eye. She tries on pieces and haggles. She even places a spiked and bedazzled flatbill hat onto Carl’s 99-year-old head. In the next shot, he’s wearing it.
There is something monumentally refreshing about watching Iris at work. Never once in the movie does she say “I like this, but it isn’t age-appropriate.” If she is attracted to something, she wears it. Perhaps that is part of the distinction between a clothing collection and just a closet full of clothes. Under Iris’s careful, editing eye, her collection expands to include pieces that represent moments in time. The combinations that Iris makes with pieces old and new keep those moments in the now, preventing them from falling into the trap of nostalgia.
At one point in the movie, the discussion turns to Iris’s age. She mentions feeling her ninety plus years, but she avoids giving in to her aches and pains. She stays busy and creative by investing her mental energy in doing what she loves.
If I have learned anything from Iris, it is that life is a continuous journey, one best spent in pursuit of a passion. When creativity and individuality are at the center of one’s life, there is a reason to keep moving and to push aside the idea that fashion, art, and creativity are only for the young.
That idea is hard to keep at the forefront. Every day seems to bleed into the next. Get up, get dressed, go to work, repeat. But it doesn’t have to feel that way. Every day can feel like the gift that it is. A chance to break free. A chance to debut a new outfit. A chance to pursue a passion that makes you feel ageless.
As a fiction writer, that kind of process-oriented thinking appeals to me. When the daily worries quiet down, I find myself scheming to get back to my novel. Who knows if it will ever be a masterpiece or a great American novel, but that doesn’t really matter. It is all about the story and the characters. When I am in the act of writing, the characters speak in such a way that I am taken up in the moment. I am wrapped up in the drama of their lives, and I forget my age-obsession and the fact that I don’t belong in their world. It’s only after I stop writing that I remember that the world values the young, the successful, and the productive. The world doesn’t give a damn about the creative process, but the process is the best part.
The documentary ends with Iris talking about why she doesn’t like pretty. She explains that the fascination with outward appearance means that people who are born beautiful don’t really work hard to be anything else. They don’t have to be interesting or creative; they just have to sit there and look pretty. While beauty often fades with age, personal expression and the creative process can always deepen and blossom. At the very end of the movie, Iris says most people don’t agree with her, but she doesn’t care. Well, Iris, I couldn’t agree with you more.
Iris is available streaming on Netflix and for purchase wherever movies are sold. You can also find it at a library near you by using the amazing worldcat.org.