Sunday, October 25, 2020

Weekend Review: A Guide to Elegance


A Guide to Elegance / Genevieve Antoine Dariaux
London: HarperCollins, 2003, c1964.
224 p.

I picked up this little book for $2 at Goodwill, thinking it would be an entertaining read. It was -- although there is quite a mixed reception for it over at Goodreads with some readers loving it and some hating it, and quite a few, like myself, appreciating the historical context but not taking it for a useful modern document. 

It is exactly what it says, a guide to style and elegance, from the perspective of a French stylist from the 60s. So you can probably imagine what a lot of it covers -- from the correct day suit to the style of glove to wear for varied occasions, to how to pack effectively for a transatlantic sea voyage. So, a heck of a lot that isn't relevant for today, but is interesting for a look at the complex social norms of a fashionable society that was MUCH more restricted and bound by widely accepted expectations than ours. It's tiring just reading it! 

It's organized alphabetically by topic, from Accessories on down to Zippers and Zoology. It's not only fashion that is discussed, but also grooming, behaviours, event protocols, and more, although it does cover mostly wardrobe and what is and is not chic and elegant. There are lists of the small wardrobe needed by the elegant woman, and this is what I found very intriguing -- there aren't many clothes there at all. A day suit, one pair of trousers, a plain skirt, a few blouses and a sweater, should do you for most things. Plus one white day dress, one black dress a little more formal than the first, and one evening gown. You're set! Don't forget the colourful winter coat (never black) and some expensive accessories, though. 

It's also very amusing, sometimes unintentionally, but sometimes due to the author's arch tone. There were some bits that made me laugh out loud. Beach wear for example: the author notes that no matter how much like a goddess you may appear in a swimsuit, the only appropriate place to wear it nevertheless is the beach. I'd have to agree with that one. She recommends only plain red nail polish for the feet in summer, but most importantly, "Your legs should be perfectly smooth. Nothing can destroy the charm of a woman in a bathing suit more completely than careless leg grooming." I'm not sure why, but this was one of the most memorable lines of the book for me. I laughed a lot and laugh again whenever I recall it. 

It gives a sense of a world of the past where rules and judgements were strict and easier for people to use to draw lines between classes. I can see the danger of people finding this appealing and wishing for a lost world where how to be one of the "in" crowd was both clearer and a much more limited option. The appeal of a restricted cool circle, which one of course is a part of, will always be there for some people. 

I enjoyed reading this for the whiff of the past and the bits of humour. However, I reject the kind of wealth based, classist interpretation of Elegance portrayed here, in which women and men exist in very particular roles, and racial, political, and gender equality are so very far from consciousness. So while this is still worth reading and has some interesting fashion tips and historical context to learn from, I am not a reader who could say that it is currently relevant. I'm afraid that to be Elegant in the ways shown in this book would also kind of by definition have to include other elements of the social conditions it was written in and for, and I certainly don't want to go back there. 

Take it with a grain of sartorial salt, and a view to history, and you'll likely enjoy the read. Just promise me you won't start judging someone for their careless leg grooming after you're done!


  1. I'm pretty sure I'm the one who would be judged on my careless leg grooming.
    Thank you for the reminder of the past.

  2. Now I've got the phrase "careless leg grooming" stuck in my head. I love this type of book because for all its superficiality, it is in many ways a true picture of a part of society in another era. The rules for what to wear for a transatlantic sea voyage are just as fascinating to me as other historical accounts such as how people kept food without refrigeration or the complex servant hierarchy in homes of the aristocracy. None of these things is applicable today, but the lives of people who came before us were incredibly interesting.

    Now can you please share what she included in the category of Zoology?🤣

  3. I bought this book many years ago and I think it was there I found the idea for lining a long vest: bottom medium gray, top cream, with a narrow band of the gray about 1-1/2 inches above the seam that joins them. I think she also said dots were the only acceptable fabric pattern to wear.


Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!