Our regular style columnist, Samantha Wilding, regrets the loss of elegance in today’s busy world.
I recently worked with the team at The Grand in Brighton, supporting the rollout of their gorgeous new Gresham Blake-designed uniforms, which are inspired by 1940s elegance. And it got me thinking. What is elegance? Who has it, and why? Can you ‘learn’ how to be elegant? And why does there seem to be so little of it around these days?
What is elegance?
Elegance is defined as being ‘graceful and stylish in appearance or manner’. This is quite a feminine definition, but I firmly believe that elegance can apply equally to men. Nevertheless, it certainly describes something that is intangible. Elegance is not just about what you wear, but how you wear it and, even more importantly, how you behave while doing so.
It’s telling that when we talk about elegance, we often cite icons from the past, rather than our contemporaries. Now it’s true, there are incomparable men and women (particularly from the mid twentieth century) who practically embody the word (Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Mason, Katharine Hepburn… I could go on) but there are plenty of modern examples too. Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba are elegant. Mark Ronson has abandoned youthful trendiness for grownup elegance. Mr Beckham certainly has it. And so do the Duchess of Cambridge, Joanna Lumley, Catherine Deneuve and Aung San Suu Kyi. Notice that many of the women are older; designer Bruce Oldfield once said that elegance comes with age: women in their 50s and 60s wear ‘simple good quality clothes… they just get it right’.
Dressing up to go out
When I was a child, it was an unspoken rule that if we were going to the theatre or out for dinner, that I would be dressed appropriately. Which usually meant a dress and some patent Mary Jane-style shoes. That habit has stuck with me (dressing appropriately – not the Mary Jane’s !). Mr W and I went see Cosi Fan Tutti at the Royal Opera House a few years ago and I was horrified to see a considerable number of people in casual clothes – including jeans. I think this shows disrespect to the performers and undermines the sense of occasion. If we dress the same way all the time, how can we tell when it’s a special event?
Comfort rules supreme
Why has this happened? Well, I think we have followed the Americans down a very slippery slope – comfort and convenience over any sense of style. Texan designer Tom Ford recently said ‘Men don’t wear fashion any more except in Italy and London. Americans have lost that.’ Please, let’s not lose our sense of style completely and venture too far down that path. I see more and more people in loose, baggy clothing (including huge t-shirts, sweatshirts and tracksuits) presumably because it’s ‘comfortable’. But I agree with Karl Lagerfeld, who once said. ‘Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You’ve lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.’ Stop ! Take back control before it’s too late !!!
Life today is the opposite of elegant
But let’s face it, modern life is not exactly conducive to appearing or, for that matter, behaving elegantly. It is all about comfort and convenience. Eating on our sofas in front of the television. Not engaging in meaningful conversation as a result. Table manners neglected – are there such things as sofa manners?
And it’s not just at home. You see it on the street, every day, wherever you go. People hunched over phones not paying attention to where they’re going (never mind the traffic). Food is available everywhere, at any time of the day or night, which means we are subjected to appalling manners and pungent smells on the street or on public transport. It’s not a pretty picture, is it?
Now I’m not suggesting we return to the stiff formality of years gone by. But in these uncertain and divisive times, wouldn’t it be nice to restore a bit of old-school propriety? There are some simple things we can all do to up our elegance stakes. See the box for my suggested eleven steps to effortless elegance, everyday.
Eleven Steps To Effortless Elegance
1. Wear clothes that fit properly – without a good fit, you will never achieve elegance
2. Get things altered if you need to, to make them fit (modern high street sizing is erratic and inconsistent)
3. Keep it simple – less is always more – particularly when it comes to accessories
4. Women: if you can’t walk in high heels, don’t
5. Think about ‘polish’ rather than ‘flash’ – covering yourself in designer logos does not suggest elegance – in fact it indicates the opposite
6. Remember that clothes that are cheap, look cheap – buy less, but buy better
7. You don’t have to be dressed up to the nines to look elegant – a crisp white shirt and dark jeans often does the trick (for both men and women)
8. Make an effort: pay attention to the way you dress (and behave)
9. Watch your manners – going out of your way to make others feel comfortable will ensure that you are too
10. Always be gracious: courteous, kind and pleasant - and finally…
11. Retain an air of mystery. Don’t reveal everything (literally and figuratively).
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