What Iris Apfel Taught Me About Being Pretty

I finally got around to watching Iris on Friday night. I was feeling particularly blue about the loss of Prince, one of the most original creatives to have ever graced us with their vision. While Prince made it OK to play characters in work and life, he reminded us that the weirdest parts of ourselves are the parts to be cherished rather than banished. Iris Apfel is one of the few living creators who speaks that same language.

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Perched on a pedestal built from 90+ years of travel, style, and wisdom, Iris is an ultimate authority in breaking all the rules. In her eyes, there’s one way to approach life, and that’s as a maximalist. Iris’ approach to style was born at a time when a woman’s place was at home with the kids, when her bag had to match her shoes and they both had better match your outfit. When you think about the career she was building in the 50s, you really begin to understand what is at the heart of her style. It’s all about gut. It’s all about finding your own way through high expectations, tenacity, and a good dose of common sense. 

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What struck me the most about the film was her take on beauty. It seems her maximalist aesthetic is partially the result of a lifelong wrestling match with the traditional definition of “pretty.” She was told at a young age that she’d never be pretty, so she might as well find another way to “make her way” in the world. Well, Iris defied those expectations in every sense of word, finding true love both in a partner and in her work, and in her twilight years breaking into the cookie cutter it-girl scene as the coolest if not the most authentic “geriatric starlet” in town. Bow down, ladies. 

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At 94, Iris knows a thing or two about aging. Aging has never been easy, and if you’re a woman reading this, please nod with me knowing this is both a gross understatement as well as a very broad generalization. When my skin was glowing and I was hovering around 105 pounds, I hated my nose and was obsessed with my weight. When I was voted “Best Figure” in high school (please tell me they don’t allow that anymore) I was mortified and thought it was a practical joke.

In my mid-20s my first gray hair saluted itself to me in the mirror, and panic rose in my throat over what I was inevitably going to lose, and what this “loss” would mean for my small footprint in this big world. For most of my life, I had been “lucky” in not being hideous. What was I going to do when my looks went? Who was I going to be? It was a sad realization, and one I have spent many years avoiding and later decided to address head on with the tenacity and metaphorical speed of a 220lb linebacker.

A little older and wiser, when l beat myself up about things I should be grateful for, I remember that my looks are only a fraction of my being, and that I’m smart enough to rationalize my irrational thinking. And yet, this irrational thought, it is understandable…because it’s what we’ve been taught. It’s what our mothers were told, it’s what our mothers hoped we wouldn’t be told, but here we are. Pretty is good. But pretty, it fades.

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This is where Iris Apfel nails it: she talks about how not being pretty made it necessary for her to be interesting. She said her friends who had gotten by on looks had a difficult time handling the aging process, so much so, it may have played a role in their demise. 

She has a point. Those with substance are generally survivors. They know how to fight for what they want, how to work for it. The best thing that can happen to a hungry, young creative is the word: no. To grow into a woman when there were so few options for free-thinking females, Iris’ tenacity for life and sticking it to the beauty & style industry have made her a magnet for those of us trying to navigate the modern rules of beauty and style.

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You’re so much better off being interesting.


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