Conversation at the Costume Institute

 What Generation Gap?

Tevi Gevinson, Iris Apfel & Judith Thurman
(Photos courtesy The Metropolitan Museum)

Each year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts sit-down conversations with the fashion elite in celebration of the Costume Institute’s latest exhibition. If you think a conversation about fashion, style, chic, and good taste/bad taste staged between two gals with a 74 year age gap, sounds implausible, if not utterly impossible, you might want to think again.

On Sunday, The New Yorker writer Judith Thurman, who wrote an article about “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” (and who also wrote the introduction to the book which accompanies the exhibit), moderated a discussion “Good Taste/Bad Taste: The Evolution of Contemporary Chic”. The ‘stars’ were the “youngest AND the most venerable style icons”: Iris Apfel, the 90 year old bona fide style icon, and Tevi Gevinson, the famed 16 year old blogger.

Tevi is undeniably a precocious, bright, and talented young lady who has a lot to say, an individual point of view, and the formidable credentials to back it up (she has a huge following many of whom showed up at the SRO event). The Chicago based high school student started her blog The Style Rookie at age 11, is working on her own on-line magazine, has appeared in fashion films, starred in Uniqlo ads, and routinely shows up at Fashion Week. In addition, she has an old soul which completely belies her youth, while Mrs. Apfel, is not only the coolest person in any room, but the youngest at heart, (she refers to herself as “the oldest living teenager”) and thus, the generation gap was ably bridged.

But while Tevi more than held her own during the course of the hour long event, it was unsurprisingly the famed nonagenarian who stole the show with her spontaneous observations and uncensored, off-the-cuff, no holds bars advice. Let’s face it, 70+ years of experience are invaluable and cannot be underestimated. She often had the audience in stitches and was responsible for the best lines and most memorable quotes of the day.  When Ms. Thurman asked how each woman chose her outfit for the afternoon, Tevi said the Prada skirt (printed allover with surrealist black lips), was a gift from the designer and she liked its goth quality.

 For Iris, it was simple: “I have this jewelry and this outfit. If it looks good together, great. If not, it comes off and I try something else”. At one point, Judith asked if getting dressed is akin to performance art and a form of play. Both agreed it was. Tavi noted: “The fun side of fashion is what is so great”.  Iris noted: “When the fun goes out of it, I might as well be dead” and “Good fashion is good performance art. You assume a persona that comes with the outfit.” She also advised, “Pursue your own fancy. Don’t play by the rules. You have to relax and have fun. What’s the worst thing that can happen? The fashion police aren’t going to come and take you away. And if they do, you may have some fun in jail” (The audience howled)

Iris then channeled Diana Vreeland with her assessment that “too much good taste is bad”. Ms. Thurman mentioned the Miuccia Prada quote which is blown up on one wall of the exhibit: “I fight against my good taste” and began speaking about good taste vs. bad taste and the notion of “ugly chic” and “ugly cool”. Mrs Thurman showed slides to illustrate her point  — included were some Prada and Schiaparelli “ugly chic” designs from the current exhibition, selections from Marc Jacobs’ infamous grunge collection, Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Rabbi Chic” collection, and Rei Kawakubo’s “Quasimodo” designs for Comme des Garcons during which she padded her clothes in the worst possible places resulting that the models looked disfigured. She also showed images of the impeccable looking Duchess of Cambridge, the epitome of ‘good taste’.

Iris had her own thoughts about this: “It’s nice to be intellectual, but designers are making clothes that have to fit a woman. I see no value in spending money and looking like a freak. Women want to look good. I can do ugly on my own and it won’t cost me a penny.” (This was the best line of the afternoon). She went on to note, “Personal style has to evolve from yourself. You have to find out who you are” and “I don’t dress to be trendy. You can’t be trendy and have personal style.”

Iris then evoked her favorite quote (source unknown): “Personal style is curiosity about oneself” (Judith and everyone in the audience concurred). “I don’t give a damn about what anyone else thinks. My rule many years ago was that I would not wear anything that would offend my mother or my husband. But otherwise, I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” “Fantasy is so lacking today. That’s one reason my (museum) shows were so successful.”

Ms. Thurman asked her how she dressed in the 40’s and she answered, “I was probably the first woman to wear jeans”. “In Wisconsin at that time, the only people wearing jeans was Paul Bunyan and a bunch of lumberjacks”, and she  recounted what she painstakingly went through to finally get a good fitting pair of jeans (they were eventually mail ordered from the boys’ department).

Ms. Thurman asked both women who their favorite designers are. Iris quickly mentioned Ralph Rucci “I wish I could afford to wear more of his clothes” and Dries Van Noten who once said he doesn’t have a specific woman in mind because that would be too limiting. And because she is an avowed accessory “nut”, she prefers architectural clothes with “good lines and good fabric” “I keep and wear my things for years. I am very loyal to my clothes”.

Tevi observed that she likes outfits that are “collages” and prefers designers who have a narrative that runs throughout their work. For that reason, her list includes Meadham Kirchoff, Rodarte, Creatures of the Wind, and Prada (who is also interested in “human features”).

The idea of feminism also came up (both Prada and Schiaparelli are considered to be feminists), and the discussion went on to include beauty. Tevi said she doesn’t really “care about being attractive” which is why Cindy Sherman appeals to her. She also noted that today, “there is more freedom in fashion but not in beauty.” At this point, Iris chimed in that “beauty is stressful for women over a certain age” and spoke about how difficult it is for this group of women to find anything to wear – – particularly, dresses with sleeves. “Women over a certain age don’t want to wear widows’ weeds or sack cloth and ashes. If I could, I would open a store called ‘Sleeves’ on Madison Avenue, and everyone would come.”

At the end, Judith asked: “What kind of show would you like to see? How would you curate a show at the Met?” Tevi noted that “this fear of aging is scary” and “Both Iris and I are fans of the  ”  and she would like to see something along those lines. Iris concurred, “This would be a very healing show”. Ms. Thurman liked the idea of ending the conversation with the notion of ‘healing’. While she said she could not take questions from the audience, she did invite people to come up to the stage, and ask questions of the two women.

-Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

  1. "I don't give a damn about what anyone else thinks. My rule many years ago was that I would not wear anything that would offend my mother or my husband. But otherwise, I don't care what anyone else thinks." I totally agree with this and it reminded me of a friend I have that doesn't care at all what others think of her fashion choices.

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