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The Unlikely Style Icon Teaching Older Women to Be Fashion Rebels

Judith Rizzio has spent a lifetime on the frontlines of feminism. She thinks there’s nothing more radical than women of a certain age declaring fashion is for them, too.

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Photos by Patrick Scott Bell.

Judith Rizzio steps back and eyes the blue floral-print dresses Joan Marquis holds up on hangers. Rizzio, a 65-year-old self-proclaimed “style activist,” is helping Marquis today with a closet cleanse, identifying items she feels most comfortable wearing and those she can throw out.

Marquis, 69, dressed in a black T-shirt and khakis, is skeptical. She’s afraid Rizzio is going to tell her to throw away everything and start over, which she can’t afford to do on the pension she receives from the public school district. Her broad shoulders are tense.

Rizzio puts a hand on her sharp chin. “Fantastic,” she says. “You aren’t afraid of patterns, which is great.” Marquis’s shoulders relax.

Through her Portland, Oregon–based business, Out of Our Closet, Rizzio helps older women realize the power fashion has to transform — which helps them realize their own power. She cleans out women’s closets and teaches them how to shop on a budget, drawing from her experiences in the theater and thrifting worlds. Aware that many women over 50 face significant financial challenges, she offers her consulting on a sliding scale fee or pro bono, as well as in exchange for goods and services, such as photography, artwork or a meal.

It’s a political statement, too, as Rizzio is pushing against the tyranny of a fashion industry that prioritizes thin bodies and expensive clothing. “I want people to feel just as special as someone walking down the street wearing haute couture,” she says.

It all started with a drag queen.

In 1992, at a Halloween party in a facility for AIDS patients where Rizzio was the director of volunteers, a former female impersonator decided to get into his Dolly Parton drag and perform. He put on a red sparkly dress. Strapped on fake breasts. Painted his face with a full set of makeup and donned a blonde wig. Everything was enormous and sagged on his emaciated frame, but he belted out “9 to 5” in his best Dolly twang while holding onto his IV pole — and for the first time in months, he came alive.

“I sat there in tears, clapping,” Rizzio recalls. “It blew me away to see the life that brought him.”

In that moment, Rizzio realized how the simple act of putting on a garment could bring so much joy, even in times of immense pain. It’s this feeling that she tries to draw out of her clients now. Rizzio asks Marquis if she wears fitted pants. Marquis’s closet is neatly arranged, full of beige and brown with the occasional purple polo shirt. A residual instinct from her Peace Corps days (evidenced by the shelves stacked with Lonely Planet books in her one-bedroom condo), she tends toward practical clothes she can easily shove into a suitcase.

She finds one pair of black skinny jeans her friend made her buy. “They’re tight on my legs, but I talk myself into wearing these every now and then,” Marquis says. Rizzio challenges her to get more pants like this, to show off her calves, which Marquis has said is her favorite part of her body.

Judith Rizzio, wearing the colorful sweater, helps Joan Marquis shop for new clothes and accessories — and hopefully uplift Marquis’ confidence.

For Marquis, this is radical. Throughout most of her life, she has preferred invisibility, feeling like she has never fit in or belonged anywhere. Aging, and subsequently starting to “not give a rip,” as she puts it, has changed this.

Rizzio, on the other hand, is known around Portland for her eye-catching ensembles. A slight woman, absent of curves, with closely cropped gray hair, she can be easily spotted in a tomato red polka dot jumpsuit out at a bar, or sporting a ruffled white 1950s vintage gown while bid spotting at a nonprofit auction, or wearing a narwhal sweatshirt at the high school where she’s costumed and choreographed for the theater department for the past 19 years.

Most of her clothing is secondhand, with the occasional splurge on a $150 dress. She lives by the RuPaul lyric: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Although we slip on clothing each day in order to construct a unique image of ourselves, underneath we’re all the same.

Random women approach her all the time, saying that they admire her outfits but they could never dress like her. “There’s always an immediate disclaimer. I especially get it with women who are my age,” Rizzio says. “Anything that brings attention to women over the age of 50 is almost like territory that doesn’t belong to them.”

Out of Our Closet, which she started two years ago, is a way to give women the permission they won’t give themselves. She’s refusing to let them disappear.

More women over age 50 live in America today than at any other point in history, according to the United States Census Bureau. In a recent interview, Susan Douglas, author of the forthcoming book Older Woman Rising, calls this a “demographic revolution.” Political superstars like Nancy Pelosi and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or fashion icon Iris Apfel, continually make headlines for defying norms. Yet outdated notions persist.

“Age is a motherfucker, especially for women. Older men become ‘sexy,’ and older women become ‘ugly,’” Rizzio says. “But it goes beyond the image thing. It’s that sense of ‘we are done, our purpose is done.’”

Rizzio modeling two of her typical ensembles in downtown Portland.

Marquis is not done. She travels often and volunteers at local theaters or with the Cascade AIDS Project, where Rizzio was the volunteer manager until 2016. In 2013 Marquis was diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing a painful mastectomy on her right breast. The prosthetic breast she’d occasionally wear reminded her of the radiation. The slivers of metal from the mammogram machine. The constant crying. She traded in the breast for baggy tops.

Rizzio knows this about her and is careful. She pulls down the flap of her own corduroys a little. “You see this? This is a hysterectomy scar. Anything that rubs against it makes it really uncomfortable,” she says. “You ever experience the scar tissue feeling on your breast?”

Marquis nods. “If my purse strap is in the wrong position, it hurts,” she says. “I’ll wear undershirts to make me feel better.”

“That’s great,” Rizzio says. “If you’re gonna wear something like that, though, you might consider camisoles with some design or bling.”

For Rizzio, going bolder is how older women can remain visible. To test this, she experimented at the grocery store last year. First, she went wearing jeans, a turtleneck and a black coat. Nobody glanced at her. Then she upscaled everything. Put on a black Russian hat and one of her eight vintage leopard-print coats (she believes everyone should have “puss print”) and went back to shop for broccoli. Countless people commented on her outfit.

She remembers thinking, “OK, I’m not disappearing.”

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Rizzio grocery shopping in style.

With Marquis, Rizzio opens a suitcase she brought of vintage clothes she’s collected over the years. “Sweetie, you’ve got gorgeous gray hair,” she tells her. Marquis pats her closely cut white curls. “Gray hair is an amazing accent. People don’t use it enough.” Rizzio hands her a black swing coat, pillbox hat and a pair of dangling sparkle earrings. “Try these on. Now, this is quite the departure, but I want you to see the possibilities.”

After she dons the ensemble, Marquis stares at her reflection in the hallway mirror. “Ohhh,” she says. She’s not quite sold, but she admits she’s surprised at how elegant she looks. The earrings work well with Marquis’s shorter neck, Rizzio says, and she insists they go buy a $12 pair at resale boutique Here We Go Again after they are done.

Rizzio and Marquis meet a few more times. Four garbage bags and three thrift stores later — including Albertina’s Place, where Rizzio volunteers twice a month — Marquis’s closet only has items that fit and look good. There are more skinny pants, of course, as well as brighter pinks and blues. She also caved and bought a clothes steamer.

It’s an ongoing process, but Marquis no longer wants to melt away. “I’m not worried anymore if people notice me or not notice me. I notice me. And I like the way she looks,” she says, referencing herself.

* * *

Growing up in New Jersey as part of an Italian family in the 1950s, Rizzio was always defiant. When she was 13, she pierced her ears using ice and an embroidery needle, to spite her father, who would always tell her to stop being loud or stop being silly. Her grandmother encouraged her, even buying her $4 gold studs. “She allowed me to be who I was,” Rizzio recalls.

Her grandmother was a closeted lesbian who wore fitted suits and fur coats and taught Rizzio how to sew. Rizzio’s mother, too, had good taste. She’d always say, “If you’re having a bad day, put on something really nice and maybe your inside will catch up with your outside.”

Victoria Argo, 52, was drawn to work with Rizzio because of a desire to have her appearance reflect her growing confidence. Last year, Argo closed her business and dedicated herself to being a stay-at-home mom to her young son. With more time, she’s been focusing on ridding herself of old internalized messages: She shouldn’t be outspoken. She should be ashamed of her weight. She should cover up her arms because women over a certain age shouldn’t show them.

Argo (who works with Rizzio in exchange for acupuncture sessions) is tall with shaggy hair that frames her colorful glasses. For years, she believed her value was tied to her looks. When she was 19, she had a brief stint as a model in Portland and was offered a contract to relocate to New York City that stipulated she lose 10 pounds. She was already a size 4. She declined. After years of fertility treatments and early menopause, Argo is now a size 16, hiding her body under big tops and ill-fitting jeans.

At the Goodwill in the affluent Northwest Portland neighborhood where she and Rizzio go shopping one Saturday, Argo doesn’t hesitate to grab a lime button-down and a couple of striped tops from the racks. She puts another floral patterned top — a mix of coral, pink and red — in her basket. In the month since she’s been working with Rizzio, she’s learned that saturated colors, tailored shirts and high-waisted pants are the way to go.

Victoria Argo and Rizzio shopping at Nordstrom, looking for clothes that will help Argo’s appearance reflect her growing confidence.

Today, Rizzio is wearing a T-shirt she bought from a garage sale in Mexico, boys’ jean shorts, and a necklace that says “Grow a Pair” underneath a picture of ovaries. This Goodwill is her favorite in the area. The clothes are higher quality, and it’s a good place for wardrobe staples like T-shirts and jeans — if you’re game to search.

In high school, Rizzio discovered her first thrift store, the spot where punk rock singer Patti Smith shopped on the Bowery in New York City. She bought a tattered Victorian dress, kick-starting the joy of the hunt. When she moved out west to attend Evergreen State College in Washington in 1973, the first thing she did was look for a thrift store.

The women’s movement was also in full swing, and Rizzio’s activism ramped up. She joined Sisters of the Speculum, which gave demonstrations to women in dorm rooms about how their genitalia worked, as well as various performance groups, beginning a lifelong career in radical political theater and satire. Her costume materials always came from secondhand shops.

Now, at the Goodwill, Argo goes through her selections in the fitting room while Bon Jovi blares. Rizzio gives an enthusiastic nod to the lime shirt, rolling the sleeves up a bit. She lingers on the floral top. Her brow is furrowed, her head tilted.

“Its an unflattering cut,” she finally says. “It’s boxy, but boy are we going to work with those colors on you!” Argo changes into one of the striped tops. From her purse, she grabs a wide blue belt that Rizzio encouraged her to buy earlier for more definition.

“Did I nail it?” Argo says.

“You nailed it, sweetie.”

Argo gives a little clap and puts on another striped button-down. Rizzio jokes about putting the kibosh on the stripes, but Argo says she is going to buy it regardless — defiance Rizzio welcomes. “I don’t feel like I have to do whatever she says,” Argo says. “And that’s another gift of aging.”

What Rizzio does do, however, is tuck some fabric into the front of Argo’s jeans to show off her curves. It’s called the French tuck, which the TV show Queer Eye has recently made into a full-blown trend. Rizzio likes to stay sharp. “I have no pretense that my eye here is the best,” she says. Most nights, she’ll watch YouTube tutorials from personas like Glitterandlazers, where she’s learned more about plus-size styling.

Rizzio going through the racks at Goodwill looking for styling clothes for older women.

Still, she’s gleaned enough knowledge over the years to be able to thumb through a clothing rack and instantly know what will look good and what won’t. In 1976, she moved to Portland, where she got married and started a family and found work running the downtown Wise Buys thrift store for eight years. Often, she’d open the store after hours so that cross-dressing men could shop without shame, setting aside clothes she thought they’d like. “I especially liked doing it for people who thought they had to be closeted about it,” she says.

The American Cancer Society then hired her to open their Discovery Shop thrift stores all over Oregon. Vietnamese women, who had recently resettled in the U.S., often came into the store as part of the nonprofit Dress for Success. Rizzio steered them toward padded-shoulder blazers for job interviews instead of the glittery gowns they’d choose, which may have been more appropriate in their home country — it was a lesson in cultural differences and fashion signaling upward mobility.

“I’m not all about ‘You go, girl!’” says Rizzio. She has admitted biases: No bare skin, no see-through clothing, nothing too short. “If the clothes are wearing you instead of you wearing the clothes, I don’t care how much you like it,” she says. “I’ll be the first to say, ‘Whoa, that thing is wearing you, and it’s not doing you justice.’”

Argo appreciates Rizzio’s honesty — and trusts her more because of it. She says Rizzio has helped her feel more modern and less matronly. With a bag of sleeveless blouses in hand, Argo reflects on how revolutionary it is that she even bought them in the first place. “Showing my arms almost feels like a political act.”

* * *

Rizzio’s 65th birthday is a women-only party held at her husband’s import grocery store, Real Good Food. Scattered throughout the shelves of specialty olive oil are giant tissue paper flowers Rizzio has spent weeks crafting. Bowls of peanut M&M’s and black licorice, her favorite candies, rest on countertops.

The women who come through the doors hail from all different parts of Rizzio’s life. She greets everyone with a kiss on the cheek and a hug, throwing in a “Sweetie, you look fabulous!” or “That’s so hot on you!” When Argo arrives wearing a bright red-and-white floral V-neck dress, Rizzio eyes her from head to toe before exclaiming “Yes!” Marquis is there too. She’s wearing the sparkle earrings, a blue floral dress that shows off her calves, and a bright yellow cardigan — the “Judith effect,” as she calls it.

The effect is seen throughout the crowd. Most of the women are wearing something connected to Rizzio, or at least something she’d appreciate, like the woman who’s wearing her great grandmother’s 100-year-old dress, which Rizzio repaired in exchange for the birthday cakes. Rizzio herself is wearing a gold dress and gold-plated jewelry culled from garage sales (which cost her $25 total) and a paper flower crown her friend made.

Tonight, Rizzio is the queen. And she doesn’t give a damn anymore what people think.

Ten years ago, she lost her son, Danny, to liver cancer. It was the hardest moment of her life, and partly what is motivating her to follow her passion. “I have nothing else to lose,” she says. “I’ve already lost the most precious thing in it.”

On her right hand is a chunky, silver lion ring that symbolizes Danny’s horoscope sign. It is also an outward reminder of the innate power she has. “What this says to me is: If you’ve forgotten, this is your spirit. You can live and not apologize about who you are,” she says. “And take room. And growl loudly.”

Rizzio modeling some of the vintage clothes she has collected over the years.

This birthday in particular has prompted Rizzio to confront her own mortality — and how she wants to spend the rest of her life. She doesn’t see her activism stopping soon. If Roe vs. Wade gets overturned, she’s planned on not only getting arrested but also what she’s going to wear: an all-pink pillbox hat and Chanel skirt suit. Graffitied on the back: “Keep your hands off our bodies.”

At the party, her friend is walking around with a basket, handing out pins Rizzio purchased from Planned Parenthood. They’re attached to a coupon for the grocery store where they’re partying, along with Out of Our Closet business cards with “stylist” crossed out and “style activist” written instead in red pen.

Rizzio’s aware she’s part of a wider movement to redefine aging, but she has zero aspirations of ever becoming an Instagram influencer. It’s clear that being present, in person, with these women is where she feels most at home.

Soon it’s time for her birthday speech. She rubs her forehead, a bit unprepared. Says she doesn’t want to sound like a Hallmark card, but she wants everyone to know that the women in her life are beautiful and give her hope. She points to a giant banner on the wall with an Emma Goldman quote painted on it in blue: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

She raises her glass of prosecco. “So here’s to all of us. And here’s to never forgetting we have immense power,” she says. She nods. “And to getting up and dancing.”

The music starts. After a while, Aretha Franklin’s “Think” plays. The women wave their arms in the air and circle around Rizzio, singing “freedom!” louder and louder as the chorus ascends. Twirling nearby is Rizzio’s friend of 30 years who’s wearing puss-print pants and a black shirt. On it, a button with bold blue letters declares: DEFY. Underneath: “verb: To openly resist or refuse to obey.”

Celeste Hamilton Dennis is a journalist, essayist and fiction writer based in Portland, Oregon.