My mother found a book in a room she was clearing, and gave it to me. She knew – I think – that its dusty cover and shy gilt lettering, peering from behind the tarnish, would appeal to me. And I’m sure she knew that the subject matter would be of interest:
A Complete Guide for Every Woman Who Wants to be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions
Elegance…a sad and lonely word, wandering through a sneering dictionary…no longer respected: serene, perfect, defeated. Elegance – as opposed to style, which allows individuality to invade its peerless borders – is based on expense and precision. The elegant lady’s silhouette must be geometric; a sum of exquisite parts. Her ideal is a loveliness that does not offend, startle or stand out…she must attain that beauty that makes her invisible.
This remarkable book was written by Madame Genevieve Antoine Dariaux – forward thinking in many ways, but in others a cruel disciplinarian. With a penchant for phrases like ‘women of a certain age’, ‘interesting condition’ and words like ‘charming’, ‘impeccable’, ‘ensemble’ and ‘vulgar’ for those naughty stumbles like hair dye of too harsh a color (Aubrey, is your hair really that black?) it is the ideal window into a woman’s difficult world of 1964.
‘There is a saying in France, “Elegance is the privilege of age” – and, thank, heaven, it is perfectly true.”
“One thing is certain about beachwear: if it becomes any skimpier than it is at the moment, the waterfront will soon resemble one vast nudist colony…I must admit, the sight of a fashionable beach on a hot August afternoon reminds me of the paintings of Inferno as imagined gy Hieronymus Bosch or Peter Breughel.”
“It is the gift of the gods and has no relationship to beauty nor to wealth. One baby in its crib may have chic, while another doesn’t.”
“The Kennedy family has chic; but the Truman family doesn’t.”
“Pastel accessories with a city outfit often seem rather insipid.”
“When comfort becomes an end in itself, it is the Public Enemy Number One of elegance.”
“But in the evening when you meet your weary returning husband at the train, a little more refinement in your appearance would seem more affectionate.”
When you give a coming-out party for your eighteen-year-old daughter, you traditionally receive the guests alongside her…therefore wear…a long evening dress, which should be neither black nor white. Whatever its color, it should be extremely elegant, so that your daughter’s prospective suitors will not be frightened away by the image of what your charming little girl is very likely to resemble in twenty years.”
“Besides, a lorgnette is more elegant in the evening than a pair of glasses; your grandmother’s or a graceful frame discovered in an antique shop would be especially chic and amusing.”
“If you are…over 5’9”, for example, and weighing no more than 120 pounds…you can indulge yourself in…everything that is most eccentric among the latest styles. All you have to do is find yourself a man your own size and you will be the happiest of women.”
“I do not know a single elegant woman who does not wear a girdle under her city clothes and an elasticized panty under slacks.”
On a lady’s ‘interesting condition’: “But since almost every woman is obliged to go through it at one time or another, it is better to accept the situation with good humor and to make the most of it.”
Now, Shakespeare once stated that he wished to bury Caesar, rather than praise him. I would like to twist this sentiment around; I write to praise Madame Dariaux; I do not mock her strict elegance. Yet I cannot help but spare a thought for the beige and burdened ladies who spent their days learning the etiquette of gloves, who kept an evening bra in the drawer of their work desk, who dyed their purses a suitable color to match their city ensembles. I pity their girlish education, yet I envy their womanly grace.