Iris Apfel: A fashion dandy who proved age is simply a number, darling

From her impact on the fashion world to her lessons on how to live boldly, Iris Apfel's legacy will last long beyond her 102 years.

Elaine Obran

ANU Reporter Senior Writer

In a cultural landscape obsessed with women not being allowed to show their age and, indeed, being told to dress their age, Iris Apfel was a breath of fresh air.

Her statement looks of beads, feathers, a kaleidoscope of colours and endless accessories created an immutable fashion force that flew in the face of the idea that "less is more".

Dr Robert Wellington is an art historian from The Australian National University (ANU). He says Apfel’s bright and bold style has left a colourful legacy.

"The fashion industry tends to privilege youth and a certain kind of beauty," Wellington says. "And I don’t think people always expect to see a senior person, or a person of a certain age, dressing in an unconventional or avant-garde way.

"She shows that age is unimportant, and if you can just free yourself from the shackles of conformity you can have a lot of fun and dress-up."

Although Apfel initially made her mark on the interior design world, with her clientele including nine United States presidents, she gained the attention of the fashion world when the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute dedicated an exhibit to her expansive closet and personal style.

Entitled Rara Avis - ’rare bird’ in Latin - the 2005 exhibit turned Apfel into a celebrity at the age of 84.

When she was 93, she starred in her own Emmy-nominated documentary Iris by Grey Gardens documentary maker Albert Maysles, who gave us an insight into her world and gifted us with lines such as:

"I’m not pretty, and I’ll never be pretty. But that doesn’t matter, I have style," and "I don’t see anything wrong with a wrinkle. It’s kind of a badge of courage." A nod perhaps, to her lessons on how to dress, but perhaps more importantly, on how to live.

Two million Instagram followers later and a modelling contract at 97, Apfel continued to blaze fashion trails until she was 102. She passed away in March 2024, leaving behind a legacy as colourful and far-reaching as her personal style.

Fine and Dandy

According to Wellington, part of Apfel’s magic came from the rebellion she led against "the conventions of beauty standards".

"Apfel belongs to a tradition of dandies," Wellington says.

"She reminds me of people like Quentin Crisp - he didn’t like the idea of being fashionable and preferred to think of himself as a great stylist. That’s what made Iris so cool. She shouldn’t make sense. It shouldn’t work. It should look absurd, but because of how she styled herself, she looked like the Grand Duchess.

"She had curiosity and was a lover of the beautiful, the wonderous, bizarre and magnificent. She blended those things together and, in that sense, I feel very much part of her tribe; she was a kindred spirit."

Her age, or the fact that it refused to let it define her, only added to her reputation as an inimitable clotheshorse of inspiration.

Being bold is being brave

Wellington is all too familiar with the flight paths of rare birds, something that became clear as we chatted over Teams. He was wearing blue trouser braces that evoked an Apfel energy that could be felt even through the computer screen.  

Although a lover of pushing fashion boundaries himself, Wellinton explains doing so takes a certain amount of brash boldness and bravery, à la Apfel, who had that in spades. 

"The way that we dress is one of those decisions that everybody makes. Even if people are just trying to fit in, that’s a decision," Wellington says.

"When I was younger, I wanted to look and dress like the people around me because that created a feeling of tribalism, of being part of the pack."

"It’s more daring, of course, to be the person who’s wearing the things that nobody else is wearing. And when you do that, it’s a statement of defiance. But there’s a certain amount of bravery involved because people do notice, there are subtle conventions, and clothing is one of the most pervasive because we’re all dressed.

"If you’re looking different, that is a choice; it’s a way of living."

That’s not to say Iris passed any judgment on those who didn’t choose to live life against the grain. Wellington says it’s here that she brought refreshing warmth and acceptance to the fashion scene. 

"From watching her documentary, it becomes clear that if she sees someone dressed in a normal tracksuit or something like that, she didn’t judge them. She had a lovely spirit about that - she wasn’t snooty, in that sense."

"If you look at somebody like Anna Wintour or Karl Lagerfeld and the way that they speak about people - there can be a bit of a coldness. But Iris wasn’t like that at all. She just wanted people to feel happy in how they dressed and how they expressed themselves."

Being bold is being brave

While the world is undoubtedly a little less colourful without Apfel in it, it’s clear her legacy continues to shine as brightly as the life she lived. Extending beyond the outfits she wore to what they represent.

"If you’re ever feeling like today isn’t the day to dress up, or you’re lacking confidence and wondering how people are going to judge you, Iris reminds us not to care," Wellington says.

"She represents a freedom found with age. You don’t have to care so much about what others think."

"Even in my own life I’ve found that you do get to a point where you stop dressing for others; you stop worrying so much about what people are going to think of you. Iris was really an emblem for that."

Perhaps there’s a rare bird living within us all? Here’s to letting it take flight.