I picked up a copy of this 1964 gem at my grandmother’s: Elegance: A Complete Guide for Every Woman Who Wants to Be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux. I have every reason to suspect that my grandmother took very seriously the dictates of this classic guide to style, and that with a few well-placed parameters helped shape my mother’s ideas of what is truly feminine and proper, who, in turn, passed those same principles on to my sister and me. I am still haunted by whether my shoes match my purse or not, and the ‘no white shoes after Labor Day’ rule. I remember my grandmother’s abject horror that I had appeared at my eight-year old piano recital in red finger nail polish (my mother was out of town, and Daddy couldn’t have known, of course). And when I married, my mother saw to it that my trousseau lacked nothing; though styles have changed in six years, I still have a very strong foundation of classic and well-made clothes.
Mme. Dariaux’s guidebook is a true lodestar for any woman who values femininity. There is advice for every situation, arranged in an accessible A-Z format for even the most time-sensitive fashion quandary. More than a rambling list of outdated do’s and don’ts, Elegance is a timeless code of true beauty: that which is not contrived, or enslaved to the often ridiculous decrees of the fashion industry, but which emphasizes the charm of simply being a woman and the possibilities which naturally follow if a sense of personal style is developed. (Her notes on the ‘American Look’ are really quite mortifying, and recall to my mind the reason for the simple rules my sister and I enforce upon ourselves when traveling overseas—‘wear black and keep your mouth shut’. And, according to Mme. Dariaux, no one should ever be permitted to wear shorts above the age of 16, and then only ‘on the beach, the tennis court, or on board a boat’.)
The enduring favor of a carefully dressed woman is further underscored in this favorite quote from Tasha Tudor:
Why do women want to dress like men when they’re fortunate enough to be women? Why lose our femininity, which is one of our greatest charms? We get much more accomplished by being charming than we would by flaunting around in pants and smoking. I’m very fond of men. I think they’re wonderful creatures. I love them dearly. But I don’t want to look like one.
When women gave up their long skirts, they made a grave error. Things half seen are so much more mysterious and delightful. Remember the term “a neatly turned ankle”? Think of the thrill that gentleman used to get if they caught even a glimpse of one. Now women go around in their union suits. And what a multitude of sins you could cover up with a long skirt if you had piano legs.
When we were at Williamsburg last week, a gentleman in the George Wythe House was speaking on the rules of 18th century deportment, explaining the decrees which prevented a young lady from playing a musical instrument which contorted her features in any way (namely, any wind instrument) or caused her elbows to fly about in an ungainly manner (the violin). We were amused, of course. But as he proceeded to describe the proper posture expected of a woman of the day, his gaze rested on my sister and he gaped a bit. “Well, just like that,” he indicated with a nod in her direction. Every head turned to see Liz, prim and upright in her Queen Anne chair, ankles crossed demurely, arms hanging loosely from erect shoulders, hands folded in her lap. In the filtered light of the austere room she looked like she was ready to be painted in oil. But she was just sitting, carefully, as she has trained herself to do. And what an effortlessly lovely picture she made.