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elegance

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Advice from Madame Dariaux

Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, scanned from my worn 1964-edition dust jacket (Claude Ohm, photo)
I can see from comments on Amazon.com regarding the reissued Elegance that there are some differences of opinion about the advice Madame Dariaux proffers. Yes, she speaks in very certain terms about elegance, and a woman may shrink from a description that makes her feel she is being classified as “vulgar.” I think it is important to remember that this book was first published in 1964, and the world was in some ways a different place. Many fashions have come and gone since, and it seems to me that the remarkable thing is that so much of her advice is still sound. At the very least it is a tremendous insight into that moment in fashion, and society in general.

Here are some of my favorite words of wisdom from Mme Dariaux:

On age
The most elegant women are those who have discovered their personal style, and who, through years of dressing themselves with care, know exactly what suits them and stick to it. 
On budgeting
No woman has ever lacked elegance because of an excess of simplicity but always because of an accumulation of elaborate details or of ensembles that are badly co-ordinated or ill-adapted to the hour and the occasion.
On comfort
We can no longer bear the thought of the slightest restriction, physical or moral, and many of the details which were considered to be a mark of elegance some years ago are condemned today for reasons of comfort.   
Practically the only die-hards to resist are women’s shoes, whose forms are still absurdly and absolutely the contrary of good sense and good comfort.
...if women continue to seek comfort above all twenty-four hours a day, twelve months a year, they may eventually find that they have allowed themselves to become slaves to the crepe-rubber sole, nylon from head to toe, predigested meals, organized travel, functional uniformity and general stultification.
On discretion
...a sort of refined good taste, is very often a synonym for elegance, and until 8 PM it should be your principal objective. But discretion should never be confused with drabness. 
On fashion
...outstanding perennials are:
Capes
Romantic evening dresses, especially in lace
Straw picture hats for summer
Well-tailored tweed suits for country wear
Well-cut camel’s-hair sport coats
Grecian-style draped chiffon evening dresses
Fur hats, cossack style
Pleated skirts (with the length adjusted to the current mode)
Furred leather boots and sturdy country walking shoes
Long, décolleté black crepe evening sheaths
Pearls
On fashion reporting
...it seems to me that a really elegant woman owes it to herself to rely on her own judgment if she does not wish to look like everybody else and thus become an anonymous figure in the great mass of women who are better and better but more and more uniformly dressed.
On figures
The important point is to realize exactly what are your own physical proportions, to resist the styles which are definitely not for you, and to limit yourself to what is most becoming to your particular shape—especially when the fashion of the moment happens to be one which doesn’t suit you at all. 
On grooming
There is a certain kind of carelessness, a more or less studied negligence, which can in certain circumstances (on vacation, for example) be the height of chic. But these subtleties are not within the grasp of every woman, it is far better to look as if you stepped out of a bandbox than as if you had just tumbled out of bed.
On handicaps [imperfections might be a more modern choice of word]
Even if nature has been rather stingy with you in its gifts, it is useless to moan about what you haven’t got. Instead, exercise your ingenuity in playing up your best features and in camouflaging the rest. Elegance is also a matter of good humor and of optimism.
On originality
...fashion can only be renewed by a continuous stream of original experiments, which cease to shock as soon as they have been adopted by a certain number of people. ...without the inventive women and designers who refuse to be just like everybody else, fashion would cease to exist.
On posture
...it is always to a woman’s advantage to hold herself straight, as if she wished to stretch her height by several inches, even if she is already very tall. A rounded back, sagging shoulders and a drooping chin create an image of extreme lassitude, or discouragement with life...and of being ten years older than you really are.
On pounds
Although it isn’t necessarily indispensable to be as skinny as a fashion model in order to be elegant, it is probably true that the list of the Ten Best Dressed Women is also a list of the Ten Hungriest Women.
...it is ironic that the thinner we are supposed to be, the more fattening modern life becomes, for nervous overweight is certainly one of the maladies of the century.
On prosperity
[a few classic, top-quality items] may in the long run render more service than six dresses in the latest fashion from an expensive designer. 
The stock market isn’t always rising, and it may sometimes be necessary to coast along for several years on what you already own without appearing to be any less elegant.
On quantity
...it is undeniable that the American woman is constantly surrounded by new temptations and assailed by the most irresistible kind of fashion advertising. Moreover, she had been told that her role in the national economy is to continually buy and consume. And yet, I wonder if she wouldn’t profit by replacing once in a while her penchant for quantity with a quest for quality. She might find that not only is her elegance increased, but also the enjoyment and even the confidence that she gets from her clothes.

Oh yes, I do see myself in her admonitions, such as in this entry: “Eccentricity where elegance is concerned is a refusal to conform to the current fashion [and consists, among other things] of adopting the dress of a by-gone era (like the Madwoman of Chaillot).” However, Mme Dariaux does not confuse elegance with other virtues. In describing the young Brigitte Bardot, Dariaux does not consider her elegant, but admits “she has created a style of her own and she sticks to it, which is, after all, very intelligent.”

I love this book, even at times when I would choose to not follow Mme Dariaux’s advice from 1964. I would appreciate knowing what she thought every five or six years since 1964, because I’m sure her eye (and writing style) would have been as sharp as ever...It probably still is!

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Madame Dariaux’s Elegance


One most excellent (and, I might add, hopeful) definition of elegance comes from Geneviève Antoine Dariaux at the start of her book Elegance; a Complete Guide for Every Women Who Wants to Be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions, published in 1964:
What is Elegance? It is a sort of harmony that rather resembles beauty, with the difference that the latter is more often a gift of nature and the former the result of art.
Years ago I walked into a small town library sale and purchased my much-used copy of Elegance. It looked intriguing, but I had no idea just how. As my friend drove us home I randomly turned to pages and read aloud the most pithy, savvy and often funny statements on the subject of dressing and appearing elegantly. Madame Dariaux does not attempt to address other forms of elegance, but she writes wonderfully on this aspect, which she knows so well. In 1964, the author (who is still living) was directrice at the house of Nina Ricci.

The dust jacket from my 1964 copy
The book provides advice in an A to Z (Accessories to Zippers) format. It is a must for vintage enthusiasts, providing insights into how people dressed well in the early 60s. Some of this advice is definitely dated—such as stating that after the age of 20 a woman should never wear hair down to her shoulders—but even her statements tinged with elements of passed fashion still seem sound in their principles.

I believe one actually could appear more elegant today with the help of this book.

This very thought was the subject of the novel Elegance, written in 2004 by Kathleen Tessaro. The novel chronicles a depressed woman finding Dariaux’s book in a used book store and transforming herself and her life, based on the advice. I haven’t read this book, but the premise intrigues me. Also in 2004, Geneviève Antoine Dariaux’s book was reissued...so you may not need to find it at a used book sale!

Next time: Some timeless advice from Elegance

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Meditation on elegance


On 2/17/12 I read a Huffington Post style article titled Stefano Pilati: 'It's Not Easy To Find Elegant Women'. Mr. Pilati, who is the creative director at Yves Saint Laurent, is quoted in an interview with VICE as saying:  
My idea of elegance...is that someone is elegant when he or she shows a good knowledge of what fits them, where you can find naturalness and self-esteem. Not showing off. Elegance is the idea of showing an optimistic depiction of oneself, and to lose oneself in the frivolity of style and fashion. Nowadays nobody gives a shit about being elegant, or chic.
This article has sent me on a search for the meaning of elegance, and whether or not it matters. It is a somewhat personal quest because I don’t feel elegant myself. I wonder if I should, whether or not it is important. Mr. Pilati does not exhibit elegance in his choice of words; is he correct in saying that it is hard to find elegant women now?

I start by showing and quoting Audrey Hepburn, the most elegant woman I can think of.


“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.” —Audrey Hepburn

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