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A Guide to Elegance (thoughts)

June 30, 2009

A Guide to EleganceYou should realise that there are many men who simply adore doll-like women, and you ought to accentuate your appealing air of ‘a little bird fallen from its nest.’ Be delicate, extremely meticulous in your grooming, scatter-brained, tender-hearted, and helpless. And when you are old, be an adorable little lady always cuddling herself to keep warm. Men will want to protect you throughout your life, and you will always be spared the tiresome chores which your taller sisters are expected to cope with all by themselves. (From the entry “Handicaps-being extremely short”)

Despite the seeming ridiculousness of that excerpt, I truly enjoyed reading Genevieve Antoine Dariaux’ A Guide to Elegance. Imagine you have a dear old French grandmother, who is always impeccably dressed, taking you out to tea and giving you little bits of advice on elegance, mostly pertaining to clothes but occasionally including wider life issues. Of course, you’re not always going to agree with her, since she’s two generations removed from you (and pre-feminist movement), but much of what she says gives you food for thought, and even makes you approach your wardrobe in a different way. So it’s pretty simple to overlook her more dated views.

It is seldom possible to recognise a bargain at the time you buy it, because the true cost of a garment is not necessarily the sum that is marked on the price tag. In order to figure out how much it really cost you, you would have to take this price and divide it by the number of times you wear the article in question, and then accord generous bonus points for the pleasure, self-confidence, and elegance it may have given you. A dress marked down to half price and worn only once is sheer extravagance, while a perfect little custom-made suit costing six times as much and worn with confidence day in and day out during eight months a year for several years is an outstanding bargain!

The book was originally published in 1964 by Darnaux, a French woman involved in fashion and boutiques in Paris. She wanted to share her life experience to help other women love themselves and their clothes. In her own words, “If I may be permitted to use a high-sounding word for such a minor art, I would say that to transform a plain woman into an elegant one was, and still is, my mission in life.” It was republished in 2003, probably due to the popularity of makeover shows and books. It’s written as an alphabet book, with Darnaux’ thoughts and advice on 101 topics including Age, Colour, Girlfriends, Ideal Wardobe, Posture, Shopping, Travel and Yachting. The entries vary from a few paragraphs to several pages in length, with the more general/important topics getting more space.

If you consider that when you are far away from home and surrounded by strangers, you are judged entirely on the strength of your external appearance, perhaps you will realise the importance of being flawlessly well-dressed whenever you travel. Which means that your clothes should be perfectly adapted to your role of traveller and not give the impression that you are on your way to a wedding with a veiled hat and a fur stole-or, at the opposite extreme, toward the conquest of Annapurna with a knapsack on your back.

Even though it’s written alphabetically, it still has a nice flow, I suppose because there’s a strong voice and point of view throughout. Dariaux really is quite charming, and I enjoyed every page of this book, even the ones I didn’t agree with. (For any guy readers, are short women more attractive when scatter-brained and tender-hearted? Perhaps I should adopt a new approach to first dates!) It made me long for a smart linen skirt suit, which I have yet to find in a store, and affirmed my own femininity. I absolutely loved reading it, and I’d like my own copy for reference in the future (much of her advice really is wonderful, towards a simplified, high-quality, perfect closet).

One of the most striking differences between a well-dressed American woman and a well-dressed Parisienne is in the size of their respective wardrobes. The American would probably be astonished by the very limited number of garments hanging in the Frenchwoman’s closet, but she would be bound to observe that each one is of excellent quality, expensive perhaps by American standards, and perfectly adapted to the life the Frenchwoman leads. She wears them over and over again, discarding them only when they are worn or outmoded, and she considers it a compliment (as it is meant to be) when her best friend says, ‘I’m so glad you decided to wear your red dress-I’ve always loved it!’

I’d recommend this to those who love clothes (or wish they did!), anyone who adores old movies, any francophiles, anyone who loves the ton all of the excerpts I’ve included, and those who can include a grain of salt with their reading. It is definitely directed towards women, so I’m not sure if les hommes would enjoy it or not.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2009 9:35 pm

    I think I would love this. Will see if my library has it! Being neither short nor delicate, I have to settle for sturdy elegance. Maybe she’ll help me!

  2. June 30, 2009 10:31 pm

    What a wonderful review. Sounds like a lovely book!

  3. June 30, 2009 11:29 pm

    This looks great. I started skimming your review (only because I am so far behind !) and then had to go back and read some of the exerpts. Now I’ve added it to my list!

  4. July 1, 2009 5:49 am

    Please, my dear, refrain from presenting yourself as scatterbrained! ever!! ;)
    I had a roommate in college who amazed me how much she spent on items of clothing but when we compared closets, she likely spent less than I did – simple elegant extremely well-made. She made quite an impression on my buy-cheap-in-quantity purchasing habits. I aspire to this but I do tend to dress all matchy-matchy and have too many ‘outfits’ rather than timeless pieces that all work together. This book sounds fun but I’d rather have her come to tea and then dissect my closet!

  5. July 1, 2009 10:42 am

    Daphne, she definitely isn’t aiming at just small people! :) This was from a fun entry called ‘handicaps,’ in which she basically says women are silly for hating being born a certain way.

    Linda, thank you!

    Stacy, I skim when I’m behind too. :) Doesn’t she have a wonderful tone?

    Care, hehe: I’m not sure I could pretend to be scatterbrained! Well, I did it in Russia when my friends and I were out at clubs for free drinks, but it’s easier to be a ditz in a complicated second language. ;) Very cool roommate! My roommates all wore jeans at least 80% of the time. I still need to work on prioritising quality over quantity….I like having options!

  6. July 1, 2009 10:53 am

    This book sounds great! I love clothes. It reminds me of the show What Not To Wear. I will be reading this. Thanks!

  7. July 1, 2009 10:54 am

    This sounds like a lovely book! I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it.

  8. millerclasses permalink
    July 1, 2009 11:14 am

    I never thought this would be something I would like, but it actually sounds kind of charming. Especially considering the way you recommended approaching it. I think I had some of those same tips from my grandmother until she passed in 2002. lol :)

  9. July 1, 2009 11:15 am

    And I’m always forgetting to log out of my teacher account when I come to your site. Oops! :D

  10. July 1, 2009 3:31 pm

    Ha! I totally do the shopping calculation of cost divided by times I’ll wear it. Good to know that has a history! :)

  11. July 1, 2009 7:57 pm

    This one sounds delightful. Fun review.

  12. July 2, 2009 5:07 am

    Michelle, it is kind of like WNTW. :)

    Memory, I hope you enjoy it!

    Andi, yeah, I had to decide beforehand how to approach it, so that my innter feminist didn’t go crazy. ;)

    Amy, I should do that! It would help me justify some of the things that I buy. :D

    Holly, thanks!

  13. Vipula permalink
    July 3, 2009 5:17 am

    Ever since I finished business school and started working I have realized the importance of being well groomed. I am not a fashion victim and neither do I spend hours in front of the mirror but I believe that one must be clean , presentable and smartly dressed.
    Thanks for pointing out this book – I am sure it will make interesting reading.

  14. July 5, 2009 7:07 am

    What a lovely review – I remember trying to find this after reading Elegance by Kathleen Tessaro a while ago. I couldn’t find it then but after reading your review am going to step up the hunt…0:)

  15. March 4, 2013 3:22 am

    Sounds like a facinating read, I shall have to get myself a copy. I’m about to review The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant. It will be interesting to compare the two.

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