One of the last books I scanned for the Internet Archive before I fell ill was a novel called Elegance by Kathleen Tessaro. The book was typical chick lit that left me unimpressed. However, I was fascinated by the book that inspired the novel. It was A Guide to Elegance: For Every Woman Who Wants to be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux. The author was a maven of haute couture for Nina Ricci during the early 60s.
I finally read the book last week and found myself as inspired by the anecdotes and advice as I had been by the snippets I had read in the novel, Elegance. The book is organized in short, succinctly written chapters that cover topics from Accessories to Zoology. There is no occasion in life for which Madame Dariaus does not have sage advice. And though she was originally writing this advice in the era of Jacqueline Kennedy (it was updated in 2004), I found her tips and insight quite sound and applicable to any era. For Madame Dariaux, achieving elegance is a matter of knowing yourself well and being comfortable in your own skin. From there, it simple to dress in clothing that feels as good to the wearer as they are flattering. The elegant woman does not wear colors or prints simply because they are the hot style. She is never a slave to trends in fashion. Nor does she wear clothing that is too tight or awkward or uncomfortable. Her advice is also practical for any budget. Any woman, no matter her age or her physique (Madam Dariaux described herself as unfortunately shaped like an oval), can achieve the serenity of elegance with a little care and effort.
I found this tome to be uplifting and affirming – almost feminist in its message to celebrate your womanhood and be confident in herself. I was thus surprised and very disappointed to find the women on my social networks giving it reviews that totally missed the mark (thinking it was parody) or were outright hostile to the themes. I was puzzled. I thought a long time about why this might be. I mean the women in generations that have come after mine are born with more confidence than I had as I reached adulthood. Why would they find advice on what to wear to a funeral hard to handle? And then, I remembered the last time Jon and I attended a function that we thought called for some formality.
Before I continue, let me say that I am far from a slave to formality. My goal in life is to find a way to spend the majority of my time wearing pajamas. I have, in fact, found pajamas that are so nice that I have worn them to work for years. I have even found a cardigan that goes with them so well that it looks like a causal suit. I will not reveal this find as I do not want everyone to snatch them up.
That said, My husband and I were invited to a religious ceremony by a close friend who was going through a rite of passage. It was a most unconventional religion and we were given the basics of what the ceremony entailed. We decided on dressy casual. We were still the best dressed people there other than those participating. There were many pairs of flip flops. There were even wrinkles amongst the congregation. My husband and I shrugged at the time. But I think that is where the reason for the negative reaction to the book can be found. The generations behind me have such a sense of their own self that a sense of occasion is what that individual deems it to be regardless of the reality. That is why my friends who are office managers have to teach incoming MBAs that casual Fridays don't include crop tops and flip flops. Or some of the advice I received about meeting European businessmen at the Cannes Film Market involved advice on not dressing like I was heading for a day at the beach (not that I would have. The advice was for all American filmmakers).
I think the Twitter generation likes to live by their own rules and are loathe to have them imposed upon them in any fashion. If I am following all of these rules, I can't ever really be me. Madame Dariaux's sage wisdom seems out of step with that philosophy. But it really isn't. If the reader follows the advice and learns how to be totally at ease with themselves, it is easy to find an appropriate dress that is comfortable and elegant in any situation. In closing, I give prospective readers of Madame Dariaux, Audrey Hepburn. She was as elegant and comfortable in Capri pants and ballet flats as she was in the chicest of evening gowns and opera length gloves and she knew when to wear each outfit. Ladies, read the book, find yourself and for goodness sake, burn those flip flops.