How to Be Elegant

I hesitated to write this blog post, because its title implies both that I believe myself to be elegant, and that I think I can tell other people how to be so. And that’s not quite true . . .

What’s true is that one day, I decided that I wanted to be elegant — that it was one of the qualities I admired, and I wanted to figure out what it was, and how to achieve elegance myself. I was tired of seeing women dressed elegantly, not just in magazines but walking around the streets, and knowing that I could never dress like them, could never be them. Knowing that whatever they had, that air of quiet confidence, was unattainable for me. When I was growing up, there was no money for fancy clothes, and anyway I was taught that emphasizing clothes, or really anything to do with appearance, was frivolous — I should be working on what was in my mind.

Of course, I also grew up in an inelegant era: the deliberate ugliness of the seventies, meant to break the quiet propriety of the fifties and much of the sixties, was followed by the excesses of of the eighties, when shoulder pads sprouted like mushrooms and nothing was the right shape. That was followed by the deliberate dressing down of the nineties, which was better — at least clothes looked as though they might fit on human beings again. And since then . . . well, we’ve been in a twenty-year period when there have been no new ideas in fashion, just constant recycling.

But through all those eras, there were elegant women. I could see them — and I envied them! I had no idea how to be one of them. When I was a teenager, I tried by dressing in what was fashionable, buying the cheaper versions of course — the imitation Izod polo shirts and L.L.Bean duck boots when everyone was preppy for a while. Ripped jeans and off-the-shoulder sweaters when everyone was wearing them, inspired by the success of Flashdance. I succeeded mainly in looking silly. It would have been better if I had stuck to being the nerdy student I was. And then, when I had money for the first time, after graduating from law school and starting my first real job as a corporate lawyer, I did what seemed logical — I bought expensive clothes. But you know, I didn’t look any better in them than I had with my polo shirt collar fashionably turned up. I looked just as much like I was wearing someone else’s clothes, pretending to be someone I was not.

One day, I remember, I was in the dressing room of a Laura Ashley store, looking at myself in a $200 navy blue suit that was supposed to make me look like a lawyer who was also the heroine of an English novel, but only made me appear rather lumpy. I took off the suit and walked out, knowing in my heart that not only would I never find clothes that looked right on me, but I would never become the person I wanted to be . . . no, never. Don’t laugh. Clothes have that kind of power, and dressing rooms are places of deep psychological torture, antechambers of hell. No wonder we walk out of them in despair.

Throughout those years, I had been researching and reading about historical costumes, because I was interested in how women had dressed over time, and what their clothes had said about their lives, their circumstances. Finally (why did it take me so long?), I decided that I was going to research elegance. What was it? Why didn’t I have it? Was is some sort of genetic trait that had simply passed me by? That only people like Audrey Hepburn had? With the help of Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy . . . At the same time, I went back to graduate school. The era of buying expensive clothes had ended for me some time ago (they didn’t help, so why spend the money?), but now I quite literally could not afford them anyway.

In between reading books for my graduate degree in English literature, I read books about women’s clothes, about the history of fashion and style, about ballet (since I was taking classes at the Boston Ballet School) . . . all sorts of things both central and peripheral to this particular question. It was only half-deliberate — I knew in my heart of hearts that I, personally, would never be elegant. But I was interested on a theoretical level. At the same time, for my graduate degree I was reading theories of the beautiful (Hogarth, Burke, Kant). And I was shopping where I have to tell you I still prefer to shop: my local Goodwill, and all the thrift stores around Boston. There, I could buy a skirt for $5, and if for some reason it did not work — if it did not go with anything else I owned, if I ended up hating how it looked on me, if for some reason it just felt wrong after a while — I could return it to Goodwill. It would turn into a $5 donation for which I was getting nothing — except perhaps a lesson in what was not me. And if I loved it but it did not fit exactly right, I could take it to a local seamstress who would tighten a waist or shorten a hem for $25. It would still end up costing considerably less than anything I could buy in a boutique or catalog.

I can’t tell you how it happened exactly — it was a long process of trial and error. But over those years of graduate school, of skimping and saving but also learning and growing, I think I did achieve what I believe to be elegance, for me. My personal idea of elegance, which may or may not be yours (but elegance, I’ve learned, is deeply personal). So what I’m going to give you are my personal rules. If you want to be elegant, if that is even something you care about (and you don’t have to), you can develop your own. Here they are (there are only five):

1. Your clothes should be appropriate to the occasion. If you’re going to a ball, dress for a ball. If you’re going to a punk concert, dress for a punk concert. If it’s winter, for goodness’ sake, dress for winter. Walking around in freezing temperatures without socks because it’s currently fashionable just looks silly.

2. Your clothes should be an expression of yourself. That’s you at the ball, you at the punk concert. What do you feel good in there, what do you think expresses who you are in those places? This takes experimentation, because we often don’t know who we are, we often don’t know our own taste. This is where a store like Goodwill helps, because you can walk down the aisles going “ugh, ugh, no, seriously? wait, yes, that looks nice.” You can develop your taste. And if you buy something then later realize it’s not you? Well then, you made a mistake, and a $5 or $10 donation to Goodwill. Try to figure out who you are, what you actually like, and over time you will learn a lot . . . which is applicable to more than clothes.

3. Your clothes should fit and be in good condition. Your clothes should always fit right, and if they don’t, here’s your opportunity to support a small local business by finding a seamstress. If the problem is a small rip, a stitch coming out of a sweater, a button that needs to be replaced, then learn to mend your clothes. It’s one of those valuable life skills, like cooking. Make sure the heels on your shoes are not too worn — if they are, take them to your local cobbler. Polish your shoes. Make sure everything is fresh and clean and ready to wear. This is also an argument for buying good quality, because clothes that are made well, of material that lasts, can be repaired. (Obviously don’t buy anything you personally can’t wear — wool is wonderful but I’m allergic to it. It’s not elegant if your clothes give you a rash . . .)

4. Your clothes should emphasize what is important. Unless you are a model, what is important is never the clothes themselves, but whatever you are wearing them for. You need to be able to move in them comfortably — if you’re uncomfortable, you’re going to miss the most important part of being elegant, which is the effortless confidence truly elegant women have. (Remember, I studied this stuff. How I envied them!) Even if you’re dressed for a party, you want to be able to walk, move, eat. You want to talk to people, be yourself without worrying about your outfit. The whole point is to put on the clothes and then forget about them, to just be in them. To live.

5. You should never spend too much on clothes. One of the reasons I wrote this column is that I see a lot of advertising for clothes online. Recently, I saw a skirt I liked quite a lot. I clicked on it, and . . . it was $300! I don’t spend that much on my monthly heating and electricity bills, in Boston, in the middle of February! I mean . . . that’s kind of disgraceful, really. If it had been the price for something genuinely beautiful, and the money were going to support skilled workers earning high wages, that would have been one thing. But it was an ordinary although rather nice skirt, probably sewn by women earning very little money, with a fancy brand name. Well, I find all the fancy brand names I need at thrift stores, thank you. I’ve found Ralph Lauren, Diane Von Furstenberg, even Mary Quant, for under $30. If you’re wearing something for which you know you paid too much, for which perhaps you actually went into credit card debt, that outfit will never be elegant because you’ll be wearing it with a worried expression on your face, with trepidation in your heart. And that’s not elegant. There are two things I do spend money on, because they need to be sturdy and last: everyday shoes and purses. Those are the workhorses of your wardrobe, so make sure they’re of good quality, which does not necessarily correlate with price.

In the end, elegance is an attitude. It’s about wearing clothes you love and that make you feel comfortable, and then moving in them gracefully through the world. That’s really all there is to it. It took me a long, long time to have that much confidence in myself. I hope you’re a quicker learner than I am . . .

This was me on a day I felt particularly elegant, in a not very elegant part of the city, reflected in the post office window. Boots and coat by Land’s End; purse (my trusty go-everywhere bag) by Baggallini; dress from Goodwill; hat, scarf, and tights from CVS. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular, just office hours . . . but I felt great.

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10 Responses to How to Be Elegant

  1. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post.

  2. mapelba says:

    Oh yes! I have always wanted to be elegant. Have you ever listened to the podcast Dressed? It’s about the history of fashion. I am no fashionista or anything, but I like the history of common every day things. Anyway, I recommend it if you listen to podcasts.

    I’m quite tall, which has caused me a lot of grief in the shopping department. Very few things fit the way I want them too. But I am a big believer in clothes need to be forgotten about once put on. It isn’t elegant to be pulling at your shirt hem or adjusting straps every other minute.

    You strike me as elegant, and it is a surprise (I admit) to learning you used to feel otherwise. But such is often the case–people often don’t see themselves as they appear to us.

    • Also, I suspect we were all different people at seventeen or twenty-one than we are many years later. 🙂 I was most definitely an awkward young woman, and remained so for a long time . . . and still feel quite awkward some days! 🙂

  3. Thank you. It seems we had/have similar problems, growing up at a particular time. I’m finally learning restraint, and dressing in solids, not wild prints. Jewel tones.

    I may not EVER be elegant but I’ll be somewhat more tasteful. Less obtrusive.

  4. My mother (who I do not miss) needed very much to read this post. She lived for the labels rather than the clothes, and was a slave to what was “in style.” *I* enjoyed reading it immensely, and agree with it wholeheartedly.

  5. seashellley says:

    Wonderful, thought provoking, and deeply relatable the way the best writing is.

  6. seashellley says:

    Upon investigating your blog and press page I realize I like you even more than I did before! The sort of Literature teacher I’ve always wanted. Also quite pretty. Best wishes

  7. Emily says:

    Looking good!

    Honestly, I walk by that post office location and think this is where Theodora Goss takes her pictures. One day when you’re uber famous, they’re gonna have to leave a plaque there in your honor.

    For me, I find it super easy to buy “gear” than just fashion items. E.g., $50 for a new sweater, umm, too much. $50 for thermal shirt, what a bargain! So my style has just turned into super functional, lean do I dare say. Warm hats, warm clothing, warm socks, dry boots. In the summer, it’s breathable materials: light fabrics and tech tees. Rain jacket when it rains. So on.

  8. Elegance definitely is a choice! It’s not easy being elegant but once you’ve decided that you won’t settle for anything else and that you deserve to look and feel your best, there’s such a feeling of deep satisfaction knowing that you’re becoming like the women you’ve admired from afar.

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