Mixing hand-picked designer threads with thrift store finds, and jewels with trainers, is a verymodern approach to dressing, but it has always been the way the inimitable Alice Careyhas expressed herself. Her style is irreverent, original, unflaggingly creative. So why is the 60-something-year-old Alice only now getting noticed?
Words by Iona Shearer
It was the glamorous lifestyle of her mother’s former employer, theatre producer Jean Dalrymple, that really sparked Alice Carey’s love of fashion. The only daughter of Irish émigrés, Alice has worn many guises, but from the day she was stopped on the streets of New York to feature in Ari Cohen’s famed Advanced Style blog, Alice has worn the label ‘style icon’ as casually as she would Bill Blass or Yves Saint Laurent.
‘The first picture was a January day, very very very cold out, and I was on my way to the drycleaners with my husband’s shirts over my arm. I’m in a really worn tweed jacket, tweed jodhpurs that I bought in London, and Doc Martens. And this little guy stops me – he’s short – and he has dark hair and he has big glasses, and he said – he says the same thing to everybody – he said: “You look fabulous, can I take your picture?”’
Despite her husband’s coy suggestion that Ari might be ‘a crazy’, the initial interaction between Alice and the street photographer ended up in New York magazine and has since led to ‘a barrage of photographs’, not only on the blog, but in publications as high profile as Japanese Vogue.
However, the typically unflappable New Yorker is unfazed by her newly elevated status, and instead of cringing away from the term ‘style icon’, she coolly describes her own experience of turning from unobtrusive civilian to style guru. ‘I think what is very very moving – and I do think moving – is the amount of young women who stop me. There is something very moving about a young woman who has yet to develop what she would say is style, because she’s too young to do it really, stopping to ask me questions.’
One perk of becoming an icon in your sixties is that with age comes wisdom, so when Alice is asked for style advice by random strangers she is not afraid to look the recipient straight in the eye and say exactly what she thinks. ‘I explain to them that it’s very important always to look as good as you can. And it doesn’t take money, because most of the clothes I’m photographed in – they’re all bought in charity shops. Designer clothes bought in charity shops everywhere, including Ireland.
‘You make them your own, you try to be you. I mean, you look at this girl and she’s short, you look at this girl and she’s really not pretty, you look at this girl and she could be bridging on “you gotta watch your weight honey”, but I’m trying to give them hope, and I think that’s what’s really so great about being a fashion icon.’
Although her frank way of talking comes across as quintessentially New York, Alice in fact credits her Irish roots for the way she speaks and presents herself. ‘I have a very black sense of humour and I also have a satirical bit, in that I really do make fun of things, and I find – I’d basically say since 9/11 – a lot of New Yorkers, they’re very, very literal.’
Alice doesn’t believe in taking life too seriously, explaining: ‘I follow no rules for the simple reason that I don’t have to. I don’t have to show up at a 9 to 5 job, I’m not beholden to anybody and that includes my husband. I, simply, am Alice.’
Alice grew up primarily in New York, but has always had one foot dangling in the pool of her Irish heritage. A writer and thinker as well as a fashion icon, Alice’s newest book Manhattan to West Cork details her struggle with trying to integrate her dual Irish and American identities, as she endeavors to discover the Ireland her parents left behind.
‘I have a term – it’s called the “knot in the bow”, you know, two loops and the knot in the middle. My life is a knot in a bow, because one loop is New York City, Greenwich Village, theother loop is County Cork – and the knot is me. Both places are me, both places are my life. I feel it most when I’m on the plane, when they close the door and they say “fasten theseatbelts papapapa”, I sit there, and I think – to quote the great American satirist Dorothy Parker – I think, “what fresh hell is this?”
’The dichotomy of Alice’s entrenched Irish conservatism and the glitz of the city she grew up, in is central to who she is, however in terms of developing her personal style, Aliceadmits that New York was the real influence – particularly the time her mother spent as a maid to the opulent Ms Dalrymple.
The antithesis to her drab Astoria home and the poverty-stricken Ireland hermother had left behind, Ms Dalrymple’s was the Emerald City to Alice’s Dorothy. ‘It was the look of the place, there were napkins, people wore lipstick, there were flowers everywhere and there were boxes of chocolates – expensive chocolates.
You know in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens that door and she says “oh my god, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” – the famous line – I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when I went to Ms Dalrymple’s.’
Although she didn’t step into the realms of glamour herself until a little later in life – and she deems her current style ‘quasi-masculine’ – Alice is, and always has been, a passionate advocate of always trying to look your best no matter your situation.
‘I do think it’s very important, whatever your age, as a female, I think it’s very important to keep up looking as good as you can. I mean a lady of mine, one of the women who swims with me, her husband had been very ill – I think we both knew he was going to die .
It was only about a month ago she came into the pool and she said: “Well, my husband died”.She said to me – and this is very heart rending actually – she said:“What would you do, is there any advice you would give?”
And I tell you what I said, I said: “You buy yourself a new fabulous lipstick. That will help you.” I said: “It’s so temporary, but if you get a new fabulous lipstick you’ll feel a little better”. And she did come back in a couple of weeks and she said: “I did. I went into Sephora and I bought a lipstick”.’
Despite her many and varied interests, Alice is not afraid to talk about style as though it’s as important and intellectual a topic as literature or equal rights. Like so many fashion-lovers,clothes and self-presentation for Alice are a form of self- expression.
And whether it’s fighting for the equal rights of the gay community, or dyeing her prematurely white hair flaming orange, Alice does not, and will not, downplay the importance and the power of being able to be yourself.