Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Art of Elegance

It is well known that when times are hard, one should take more, rather than less, care with one’s appearance. Last year I worked as a proofreader in a junk mail company, a job I hated. You should have seen the lovely tea dresses I wore to the office every day. Dressing up made me feel less down, and my dresses-only policy lent structure to what seemed a formless life. I hated my job but needed the money. I wanted to write a third novel, but lacked the courage to begin. My office work left me too drained to make a plan that would allow me to earn money and write. I had no idea what the future held. Elegance was my weapon against entropy. I did not know what I would be doing in six months time, but I did know that I would be wearing a nice dress.

Elegance does not come naturally in this era of down-dressing, of jeans and baseball caps. Fortunately I discovered A Guide to Elegance (1963) by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux . In the Introduction I learned that Ms. Dariaux had honed her expertise working in a Parisian couture house. “From my earliest childhood,” she wrote, “one of my principle preoccupations was to be well-dressed.” Quite right too.

Reading on, I learned that the well-dressed woman is a dressed-up woman. She avoids trousers and always puts fashion before comfort (“comfort is the Public Enemy Number One of elegancy”). Elegance, for the most part, means dressing with restraint and discretion. Career women in particular should avoid “frilly trimmings, printed materials, aggressive colors, shaggy woolens, very lightweight fabrics that are certain to wrinkle, and skirts that are too short.” Shocked, I realized that a full ninety percent of my wardrobe was not Elegant!

I have always thought of myself as a reasonably Elegant person, but apparently I was wrong. I was ignorant of all these sartorial truths:

 The size of your handbag should be in proportion to your own: “it is just as comical—and needless to add, inelegant—to see a tiny woman lugging about an enormous satchel, as it is to see a portly dowager clutching a tiny purse to her ample bosom.”
 “Make-up is a kind of clothing for the face, and in the city a woman would no more think of showing herself without make-up than she would care to walk down the street completely undressed.” (How I shuddered to think of the many times I had showed myself in public with a naked face.)
 Never shop with girlfriends: “Since she is often an unwitting rival as well, she will unconsciously demolish everything that suits you best.”
 Your raincoat, rain hat, and umbrella should match, as should your dressing gown and bedroom slippers.

Nobody said elegance was easy.

Genevieve would have been horrified by the apparel anarchy of San Francisco, where in the course of a single day in the Upper Haight, you might see someone in a clown suit, someone with a single spike piercing both eyelids, and someone in a crinoline made out of plastic forks. The fashion ideal, in San Francisco, is Originality, not Elegance.

Genevieve admired Originality too, but in her view few women can pull it off. Rare is the woman whose fashion sixth sense inspires her “to unearth an old egg basket in the attic and transform it into a beach bag, or to wear her grandfather’s pocket watch around her neck on a long chain.” Most women, in attempting Originality, simply achieve “comic effects,” which, Genevieve warns darkly, are “justifiably feared.” In fact, pulling off Originality is easy—one sees it in San Francisco every day. The challenge is to be Elegant too. It is one thing to be Elegant, and another to be Original, but few manage to be both.


Anonymous Bodhi Cole said...

Elegance and originality are broader terms for what I call functional and fly. I try to keep these things in mind when I am designing clothes. Clothes that are truly pleasing to the eye as well to the laws of physics are a hard thing to come by.

12:53 AM  
Blogger a_professional_receptionist said...

Back in the '70, when being "elegant" was definitely not cool, I was teenager living in Ohio and was reading and following the advice of Madame Dariaux. It has served me well all these years...especially on the job.

I've been to San Francisco several times, and I,too, have found what you say here to be very true. It's the same in Seattle, Portland and much of the Pacific Northwest where I live.

Personally, I'm glad to see some of her wisdom making a comeback. I enjoyed reading this post, and will be back to visit your blog again soon.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Helena said...

What job is this you speak of? I apologize if that is a rude question, it's just that the phrase is too tantalizing to let pass. Don't answer if you don't wish. And I'm very glad to hear, regardless, that you strive for elegance.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous Lynne said...

I'm so delighted to find others who were influenced, subtly yet lastingly, by this sartorial doyenne! I first found the book about 34 years ago when I was about 13, and find it's advice as contempory now as when first written, even though I can't accept that I actually read it for anything more than light entertainment!
Natually I read the novel of last year - who could resist such a book? It's heartwarming to see Mme Dariaux's wisdom being offered to a wider audience, giving her another dollop of well deserved kudos in the winter of her life.

I very much enjoyed reading your post - thank you

3:06 AM  
Anonymous Tracy A. Hart said...

I bought an old edition of Mme Dariaux's book Elegance in 2000 - in an antique shop. She has many wonderful fashion hints, my favorite is about not wearing tweed or heathery tones near ones face, and matching slippers to ones bathrobe! At that time all her books were out of print, including one about Entertaining with Elegance. I just ordered the reprint of The Men in Your Life from Amazon, and hope to send her a fan mail through Harper Collins. She is apparently about 90 now. I think she is wonderful.

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fabulous post. Does anyone have any more information on Mme Dariaux? I have managed to source four of her books from but cannot find any current information on her.

3:54 AM  

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