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. | (Patrick Scott Bell/Courtesy Narratively)
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 motherf---er, 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. | (Patrick Scott Bell/Courtesy Narratively)
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, "Okay, I'm not disappearing."