Iris Apfel: Farewell to style icon whose attitude to life was inspiring - Christa Ackroyd

I have always had an unhappy relationship with tights. It stems from my childhood.

As a 12-year-old girl I became so obsessed with what was then a relatively new invention, gaining popularity in the ’60s as hemlines got shorter and shorter, that I begged my mother to be allowed to wear a pair for a school choir concert.

Against her better judgement she said yes. And so armed with what was then just a few shillings (2/6d as I recall) I set off on the bus heading for the market, before excitedly returning home with what seemed to me to be the very symbol of adulthood in readiness for the big event. Putting them on before donning my school uniform was, as I recall, not quite as satisfying as I had imagined it would be. This you must remember was before the multiple denier, multiple size, options and as far as I can recall so long ago there was only one colour, American tan. And boy was it orange.

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Instead of feeling grown up, by the time I got to the stage to sing I was having to yank them up and they were sagging in rivers at my ankles.

Iris Apfel speaks during the 25th Annual ACE Awards on November 02, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Accessories Council)Iris Apfel speaks during the 25th Annual ACE Awards on November 02, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Accessories Council)
Iris Apfel speaks during the 25th Annual ACE Awards on November 02, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Accessories Council)

What’s more only me and Jeanette Morris had managed to persuade our mothers that ‘everyone else will be wearing them’ prompting my mother to say she would never believe a single word I said to her ever again. I don’t know who was more mortified me or her. But it was a valuable lesson. Just because something was in fashion doesn’t necessary mean it looks good on you. And just because ‘everyone’ is wearing something doesn’t mean you should feel the need to either.

Of course tights have come a long way since then, though I still find them restrictive and somewhat unattractive. I would far rather be bare legged and in a pair of trousers. And let’s be honest they are still not the most flattering of under garments until they are covered up whether they now promise to pull you in here or shape your bottom there.

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And so I nearly choked on my coffee when I saw Kanye West’s wife, Bianca Censori, wearing nothing but a pair of tights (and I mean nothing) for the second time to go out for dinner in Paris. As if we hadn’t seen enough the first time. At least she tried to cover up her dignity with a mobile phone. But no wonder her parents are worried about more than her modesty. Now I like fashion. I like crazy fashion, even daring fashion.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with showing what you want to within reason. It’s your body your choice. If you want to wear nothing but a quarter of yard of fabric holding your breasts together go for it. If you want to wear a skin tight all in one or a cropped this or a cut out that who am I to say you shouldn’t? It’s not my thing and never has been but that’s up to you. But a pair tights! And nothing else!

Talk about the emperor’s new clothes. They are no prettier now than they ever were with their interlocked body seams and their thick elasticated waist band. And I could think of better ways to get noticed. In fact I have. Or rather someone else did.

This week saw the passing of a style icon aged 102. You will have seen her I know. You certainly couldn’t help but notice her.

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Iris Apfel was a stunning woman in all senses of the word. An American, she influenced the world of fashion but was never an ‘influencer’. Behind her trade mark huge spectacles she saw life in full multi coloured splendour. And she shone brightly in a dull world. But Iris Apfel was a leader not a follower.

She found fame as a model in her 80s. She became a muse not for some man (take note Bianca) nor for the paparazzi but for millions of women who fear they are being thrown onto the scrap heap of life because they no longer believe themselves relevant or even noticed. Because boy was Iris Apfel noticeable.

But there was always so much more to this woman than a unique sense of style. A textile designer and expert in antique fabrics, she was an interior designer at the White House for nine presidents. She travelled the world buying non western pieces of clothing which she wore to high society parties long before Boho was even a word.

She was acclaimed for her exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she was well into her seventies where she dressed the mannequins in clothes and costume jewellery as she would wear them. She was on best dressed lists around the world and adored by fashion designers everywhere.

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She was signed to international model agency IMG at the age of 97. She advertised cars, technology and clothing, putting catwalk models a quarter her age in the shade. But it was her attitude to life that was as inspiring as her individuality. Put simply she didn’t give two fig leafs what anyone thought of her. She dressed for herself and herself alone, saying fashion you can buy, but style you possess.

Fashion made her smile, and she made us smile when she said: “If you put something together and it doesn’t look so good the fashion police are not going to come and take you away. And if they do, you might have some fun in jail.” Jewellery she announced takes people’s minds off your wrinkles about which she said: “I don’t see anything wrong with wrinkles, they are a badge of courage.” Make up she thought was potentially difficult, “but even a moron can put on a lipstick.” She did. It was always bright red.

And one of my favourites: “When you don’t dress like everyone else you don’t have to think like everyone else.” How totally freeing was her attitude, especially when the world seems to take notice of those paid to tell us what we should look like.

But it was her opinion on life in general and to growing older in particular that Iris Apfel will be remembered for. “Every day I don’t learn something is a bad day,” she told one journalist who asked her the secret to her sunny outlook on ageing. “I have to be interested,” she said. “If you are not interested you are not going to be interesting.” Her goal was never to look pretty. Her goal was to “look in the mirror and enjoy what you see.” Her attitude to getting older was simple.

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“Not to mourn what is lost but celebrate what remains.” On Iris’s 100th birthday she was photographed in a sea of frothy yellow. On her 102nd birthday she wore a powder pink satin cape and an orange top alongside a 100 beads and bangles reminding us when asked how many bracelets one should wear “it depends how long your arms are.”

It would be too easy to end this column with the words there will never be another like her. Only there should be. You and I and everyone can be a bit more Iris Apfel. We can both dress and live life for ourselves while remaining interested and interesting along the way.

And above all we can aim to add a little colour to each and every grey day. And remember in the words of a woman who walked her own path until the day she died. “Less is not more. More is more”. Oh and black is not really a style. “It’s a uniform”. And how colourful is that?

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