I blame Bill Collins. During my teen years I spent every Friday night glued to his Golden Years of Hollywood show, where he guided me through scores of old movies in his gossipy, gleeful way. Over the years, they became imprinted in my consciousness and established the elegance of the 1930s to 1950s as my fashion benchmark. While all my friends were dressing like Madonna, I was making clumsy attempts to emulate Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly.
My experience is that these early style influences stick. Even during my student activist stage, I opted for a neat mod look rather than the extreme goth style. In my hippy phase, my flowing skirts were still colour-coordinated with a top that provided a flattering silhouette. And no matter how hard I tried to scorn fashion rules during my Bohemian phase, I could never bring myself leave the house with my cleavage hanging out or a bra strap showing.
None of this is to claim that I am a paragon of elegance. I'm too lazy and distractable for consistent high achievement in any area, and this is no exception. Yet elegance retains its siren song for me, and its a goal I return to again and again.
So what is it exactly, this 'elegance' of which we speak? The concept it is linked to most frequently is simplicity. Certainly when we explore the style of famously elegant women, we see simplicity as a recurring theme. (And as someone who is sartorially challenged, simplicity is an idea with great appeal!) Coco Chanel declared that "simplicity is the key note of all true elegance", while Diana Vreeland maintained that "elegance is refusal". By removing all that is superfluous, we can capture or distil that which is most important and true.
This applies not only to clothes; in The Glass of Fashion Cecil Beaton introduces us to some of the most elegant women of his day including Madame Errazuriz, who counselled "if the kitchen is not as well kept as the salon, if there are masses of old things lying about the bureau drawers, you cannot have a beautiful house. Throw out and keep throwing out: elegance means elimination." Not only tidiness, but cleanliness is important, both in our person and in our homes. Beaton himself scoffed "what is elegance? Soap and water!"
And yet simplicity alone is not enough to cover the concept. Elegance also implies beauty and high quality, and an effectiveness and efficiency in achieving the desired outcome. Form and function are combined intelligently and harmoniously to create a solution that is 'just right', meeting the needs of the situation perfectly, with no fuss or extraneous detail. Certainly this is the quality we see when the term is used to describe an 'elegant design' or an 'elegant solution'.
It is this quality that lends a timelessness to elegance. Something that is beautiful and useful can remain beautiful and useful for generations. "Elegance is the only beauty that never fades", suggested Audrey Hepburn.
So, elegance involves choices about what to eliminate or refuse. But of course, just as important is what we choose to acquire and include. Indeed the word 'elegance' comes from the Latin eligere, meaning 'to select'. Choices reveal character, and true elegance reflects the true character, authentic and free from pretension. In A Guide To Elegance, Genevieve Antoine Dariaux suggests that "to be elegant is first of all to know oneself". This self-awareness allows one to discard confidently and select with courage and flair. "Elegance is good taste plus a dash of daring", opined Carmel Snow, editor of Harper's Bazaar from 1934 to 1958.
Having a clear sense of your own priorities, tastes and beliefs can underpin the serenity that elegance embodies, as well as providing a clear-eyed ability to see beyond hype. This quote comes from a Buddhist writer, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, writing of elegance in a spiritual sense: "Elegance means appreciating things as they are. There is a sense of delight and of fearlessness. You are not fearful of dark corners. If there are any dark, mysterious corners, black and confusing, you override them with your glory, your sense of beauty, your sense of cleanness, your feeling of being regal."
Yet for all this talk about expressing your personality and being 'regal', elegance is not showy or narcissistic; Giorgio Armani believed that "elegance is not about being noticed, it's about being remembered". And elegance is not arrogance. Yves Saint Laurent sagely noted "we must never confuse elegance with snobbery". Balance is important, as Christian Dior advised: "I will only say now that elegance must be the right combination of distinction, naturalness, care and simplicity. Outside this, believe me, there is no elegance. Only pretension."
All of these ideas confirm that elegance is about much more than superficial appearances. Diana Vreeland insisted that "elegance is innate. It has nothing to do with being well dressed", and “the only real elegance is in the mind; if you've got that, the rest really comes from it.” Novelist Henry Fielding suggested that "a truly elegant taste is generally accompanied with excellency of heart".
Writer Edmond Rostand has the magnificent character of Cyrano de Bergerac take this even further: “I have a different idea of elegance. I don't dress like a fop, it's true, but my moral grooming is impeccable. I never appear in public with a soiled conscience, a tarnished honor, threadbare scruples, or an insult that I haven't washed away.”
Elegance is often typified as having a quality of ease, but considering all that we have discussed so far, it sounds like an awful lot of work. William Hazlitt wrote that "elegance is a word that means something different from ease, grace, beauty, dignity; yet it is akin to all these; but it seems more particularly to imply a sparkling brilliancy of effect with finish and precision." That 'finish and precision' requires a great deal of thought and effort, and yet we don't want to fall prey to frenzy, confusion and exhaustion. The trick is to invest our energy in a discerning and intelligent way so that we can relax and enjoy ourselves later. As Yves Saint Laurent observed, "isn't elegance forgetting what one is wearing?”