Learn It. Love It. Wear It.

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:

Elegance

A Complete Guide for Every Woman Who Wants to be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions

Our Book

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.

Our Teacher

Madame says:

‘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.

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18 responses to “Learn It. Love It. Wear It.

  1. I read this with fascination. But, I also had to laugh at myself. I am one of those babies in the crib without chic.
    “When comfort becomes an end in itself, it is the Public Enemy Number One of elegance.”
    Oh this describes me perfectly!
    I admire Madame Dariaux. She was true to herself.
    And I will continue to be comfortable and true to myself. 🙂
    Very interesting reading, Aubs. Thank you!

  2. I’m with Lauri, comfort is the name of the game for me, and I’ve always been a fashion disaster. Kind of glad I live in a more casual culture where I can go out in the evening in my jeans and have a great time!

    But, Genevieve Antoine Dariaux does look very elegant in her picture, and to each her own! Live and let live. Reading her advice was very interesting and made me grateful all those rules don’t apply to me! 🙂

  3. Loved this. Loved my grandmother with her wig collection, her long strings of beads, her pocketbooks, her girdles. So, so glad that I don’t feel obliged to spend this much time looking in the mirror (but also glad to look at the women who do!). This was a fascinating way to wake up this morning. Thank you!

  4. What a great find. While I don’t agree with everything said in the book, I nearly choked after reading the beach comment. It really does look like one big inferno – nudist colony these days. I also value comfort, although ideally the clothing would be beautifully made as well. I suppose it’s too much to ask. Most clothing these days looks like a psychadelic nightmare.

  5. That’s right! Meet me at home in a nice dress and pearl necklace!

    Of course, since the Beloved actually makes more $$$ than I do, I wonder if I’m the one that should be meeting her at the door with a cocktail… 😉

  6. I shudder to think what women of yore would say of female fashions today, with barely-there bikinis on the beach, naked pregnant bellies paraded publicly as if they were accessories and little sense of decorum, cover or shame. I’m not fashionista *by any means* but I do prefer the reserve and tastefulness of the Japanese over the let everything hang out of Americans. Some of it’s just gross to look at!

  7. I admire her, though I could never live up to it. Elegance indeed.

  8. I am all for womanly grace, and there are a few ideas about elegance that I still adhere to in my own quest to be the sort of sight I prefer to look at. I think of elegance as I think of art. Because of this, and my own bouts with oppression, I could never praise Madame Dariaux’s strict pronouncements; although, on another day, they could make me smile.

  9. Fascinating! Modern day beaches as reenactments of Hieronymus Bosch’s inferno made me laugh.

    I think all cats are born with chic. Or almost all. Somehow cats manage to make elegance and comfort one and the same.

  10. I recently cleaned out my mother’s dresser drawers, which were so stuffed I couldn’t squeeze in her newer clothes and lingerie. When I dumped them out however, I was shocked by the amount of “equipment” she had from the 40s, 50s, and 60s: high-waisted girdles, garter belts and silk stockings, push-up bras, slips and petticoats—not to mention the earrings with matching necklaces, gloves and handbags. We used to grumble about the amount of time it took Mom to get ready to go out, but now I understand why it took her two hours to get dressed. It’s a wonder she was able to set foot out of the house with the amount of armor she needed to gird herself with.

    These days I think spending 15 minutes on just makeup is too much. It’s enough if I get into something that’s clean and neat-looking and remember to put on a pair of earrings to cover the pierced holes in my lobes. I’m glad those days of girdles and pearls are over. But if guys want to wear them, they’re welcome to it! 😉

    • Amen, HG!
      I don’t even bother with make-up on my days off. And yeah…less than five minutes on days I do go to work…plus earrings to cover up the earholes! Lol!

  11. Elegance is the privilege of age!
    I love that quote and shall embrace it totally!

  12. Lauri – the lives and mores of others are always interesting; it’s one of the reasons why I love history. I enjoy my comforts (pants-wise especially), but I must admit that when I clothes shop, comfort is low priority – I’m afraid that Madame would shake her head at both of us!

    Barbara – yes, the blessings of a girdle-less society; the equal of the liberated corset-less ladies of 100 years ago!

    girl – I would welcome a return of gloves; I have a drawer full of them, waiting to be worn…where? That’s the real problem. (especially as I have a tendency to lose track of them when out shopping.)

    Emmy – I remember looking into a shop window, and thinking sadly to myself, ‘they just don’t have a clue’.

    steve – a cocktail AND a snappy set of pearls, sirrah!

    alleycat – I believe that if Madame was alive and advising today, her book would be called ‘Dignity’: and it would cover many, many volumes!

    LT – accept and respect: to sit and admire is all we can do.

    sparks – Madame looks upon elegance as an art! She even mentions that the time has come to treat fashion as art – you two would get on very well!

    LM – cats define chic. It’s one of the perfectly valid reasons why the Egyptians made them feline gods and goddesses.

    Hangaku – your mom’s dresser drawers sound like treasure troves! I’ll admit that it takes me a cool 20 minutes to put on make-up. Clothes – if laid out the previous night – will take another 10 minutes, if no disaster presents itself (torn stockings, stubborn zipper, etc.)

    FD – Madame would be proud to have gained the approval of a goddess!

    belle – thank you! Nowadays, chic, elegance and style are seen as one and the same thing: so not so! We sometimes do need Madame to lead us!

  13. Oh, my. I graduated high school in 1964. What do I remember?

    *Short white gloves for Sunday, elbow length for formal occasions
    * girdles, garters, and nylons with seams up the back
    * satin high heels dyed to match dresses
    * matching necklaces, bracelets and earrings
    * hats for every funeral, wedding and high holiday
    * patent leather shoes for children, but not for adults
    * NO WHITE anything after Labor Day and before Memorial Day
    * matching skirt and sweater sets

    Now that I look over the list, I see the key word is “matching”. Perhaps, in the end, elegance was a way of bringing order to a life nearly destroyed by the depression and WWII. Not everyone could be rich, but very nearly everyone could strive for elegance.

  14. I applaud the invocation of Bosch and Brueghel in a book on elegance. She knows how to make a point eloquently.

  15. Pingback: Put you best foot forward, and smile, dahling. | Flamingo Dancer's Blog

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