I have no special penchant for documentaries,  but I was persuaded by the critics to see Iris (2015) at the NFT (National Film Theatre). It was shown at the Studio screen, where, if short of stature, your viewing is obscured by rows of backs of heads unless you are seated in the front row where you are likely to acquire a stiff neck in no time. A quick assessment of these heads showed no female white hair and only a sprinkling of men’s more or less abundant head covering.

Personally I have no interest in fashion and I must admit that I struggled against dozing off during repetitive scenes of Iris choosing couture clothes that she adorned with costume jewellery fit for giants. She displayed these on her body in a flamboyant performance of style and assurance. Young women involved in the fashion industry admired her as did Maysles’s camera.  The witty remarks referred to in the reviews were few. The most quoted ones were “It is better to be happy than well dressed” or “A woman is as old as she looks but a man is never old until he stops looking”.

It seems to me that what used to be the tyranny of fashion in my youth has given way to the tyranny of  ‘style’.  Two documentaries about old women and ‘style’ have obtained, in the last few months a limited but still general release in London:  Advanced Syle (2014) and Iris (2014). It distresses me  to notice that even in old age women are given attention when they function as clothes horses.  At the same time Sue Bourne’s Fabulous Fashionistas (2013), where women are seen as full human beings was only shown on TV.

I must admit, however, that like a handful of critics, I saw under the ‘fashion icon’, the Apfel ‘brand’ an infinitely sad ageing woman. Towards the end of the film Apfel does reveal under the outrageous make up, the huge glasses and the false smile and mask, the futility of possessions. She stands in the middle of a warehouse full of her objects, a tragic look on her face. Young women are giving delicate care packing the expensive dresses she has accumulated over the years.  “Does the decision (of what to give away)  keep you awake at night?” She replies : ” No, much more serious things keep me awake”. Pressed to elucidate she murmurs: health and …. It seemed to me that in this instant, Iris grasps the futility of the mass of worldly artefacts collected over the lifetime by her and her husband. She is asked to smile for the camera and she smiles.

In this film  we get only glimpses of her life as a career woman and her collaboration with her husband. Their loving relationship is only skimmed over. Her insistence that one cannot have children and a career has a tinge of regret.

What often strikes me is the difference between what a film shows and how it is perceived. How many of the reviewers that give Iris the 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes or 80% on Metascore point out the deeper strands in this film? How many of the young women at the NFT sensed the tragic tone of this documentary?  Some of the reviewers who know the work of Maysles have detected under the larger than life, loud, creative woman in her 90s, a frail old loving woman often in pain * who knows how to hide her feelings…filmed by an old 88 years old documentary maker who died soon after.

Celebrity at work again since Iris only became famous after the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition success. The exhibition was called Rara Avis (rare bird) a name that I find a tad patronising and dare I say, ageist… ** The light shines over ‘style’ rather than the inner life of the woman.


This film would make a great subject for research in spectatorship, or a focus for a discussion on ageing, fame, consumerism.

*“Whatever I have two of, one of them hurts,”

**Stylish, creative old women are not rare – at least not in New York – see Ari Seth Cohen’s work-  or London – see Sue Bourne’s. Yet another collection of photos of  ‘elegant old women’ : Tirza Brott’s Pentimento “Sometimes she asked for their stories, but mostly she preferred to keep their pasts a fantasy”.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
This entry was posted in Ageing, documentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. rinaross says:

    Glenda has asked me to copy this as she would like to ‘continue an argument’

    This film was a real feast of eye candy . Iris’s dress style and home decor were so overwhelming that my husband escaped to a soothing game of solitaire .
    Nothing about Iris’s clutter appealed to my taste, but that didn’t stop me appreciating and enjoying her panache. Of course you’d have to be in New York or London not to be ridiculed. There was some evidence that women felt safer in numbers with this flamboyance. If you find Advanced Style on You Tube, you might think that some of the women look like alarmed parrots, but there is something about Iris that deserves the title ‘icon’, her clothes and jewellery attracting crowds to museums and store windows.
    Behind all this was a tender marriage with a hundred year old husband ….she’s ninety three. Iris had a sound philosophy about give and take in marriage; it was touching the way she let Carl think she’d just fallen when in fact she was having surgery on a broken hip.
    Her determination to stay in the mainstream as opposed to retiring into a low key family life is something to discuss.
    Her international shopping sprees were glimpsed and I’d have liked more of her celebrity interiors, especially for The White House to have been shown. For how long do clients stay inside their new Aladdin’s cave?
    Like it or not Iris is the ultimate in capitalist consumption .

    Glenda Hemken

  2. oshunschild says:

    I did not see Iris, but I did see the documentary about the Advanced Style Women. Despite the fact that I do enjoy seeing the women in photographs and being represented in fashion, I got very bored of the documentary. It also appeared to be quite voyeuristic. The director is a young man. Looking stylish seemed to take over their whole lives. I mean who has so much time to concentrate on how they look? Do they not have anything else to do, any other interests, concerns etc. I just found these women one dimensional. Although the idea of seeing older women represented in fashion was initially appealing, in the end the extremism of these women worried me. It is a bit concerning when the focus is only on appearance and nothing else. Regarding the comment above. “Her determination to stay in the mainstream as opposed to retiring into a low key family life” ( about the film Iris, which to be fair I have NOT seen) Does it have to be either/or? What is wrong with family life? Rather than dismissing women’s role’s in family we should be glorifying it and putting it on a pedestal. In addition women are multi dimensional fully functional human beings, even when they get older, infact more so and they should be celebrated in their entirety. They are not either just clothes horses, nor just grandmothers. Why do they have to be any type of stereotype at all.

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