Is Elegance Dead?by Mary Sheehan Warren on 10/30/15
Years ago, a magazine editor advised me against including the word “elegance” anywhere in the name of a fashion consulting company I was starting. She added that although she herself valued the idea of elegance, the word would kill any chances with a young market because of its outdated and stuffy connotations.
I suspected that she was correct about this, although I had heard my brothers refer to cars as “elegant” and the word still had an association with luxury items such as jewelry or custom-built homes. And, come to think of it, young women still used the word when they admired movie stars or exceptionally well-made dresses. So I did what any idealistic fashion enthusiast would do: I ignored her advice and unabashedly applied the word to several of my projects.
I really have no idea as to whether or not the word harmed the marketing of the business, but that’s a thing now long in the past. These days, however, I have come to notice that perhaps the word “elegance” is not only anachronistic when used in the marketing of women’s fashion and fashion related items, but so also is the concept of elegance as any kind of reference point for anything in any young woman’s life.
Or is it?
I make this depressing statement because of the significant shift which seems to have happened in the world of women’s street fashion. On the one hand, today’s design for women’s fashion (and, for that matter, men’s fashion, architecture, home décor, and even graphics) is uncluttered, sleek, and mildly upbeat due mainly to the guiding aesthetic of a healthy and athletic body that’s ready to exercise – or perhaps dance – at any moment. It’s sophisticated at its best and willing to have a little fun with pops of whimsy and imagination.
Street applications, however, lose something in the migration from board to the commute on the bus. Sleek becomes ill-fitting and lumpy (picture leggings in all their glory, tight pieces stretched across not-so-athletic bodies, and shabby knits for traditionally structured items), uncluttered becomes lazy (think minimal attention to anything besides comfort), and mildly upbeat is reduced to funny graphics and sassy one-liners on t shirts.
As with technology and many of the habits surrounding the way we eat, work, play, and travel, function trumps form and convenience is the gauge for all things. Somehow elegance is simply lost in the shuffle.
Word meanings change over time. I get that. I also get that fashion – by definition – is a highly mercurial thing, subject to change with the seasons or the zeitgeist of the times. In fact, fashion also changes to distinguish itself from fashions which have passed; it sort of raises the bar for everyone to stop what they are doing, adjust direction, and reach higher for something newer and more relevant.
So if the idea of elegance also implied rigidity, snobbery, or pantyhose with lines down the back of the calves, then of course it’s gone completely out of style and would be the kiss of death in any marketing campaign among the young, the middle aged, or even today’s seniors (now, by the way, the Baby Boomers who threw the word around in the eighties to make up for everything they had done in the sixties and seventies). Certainly, misconceptions about its true value and place in women’s lives fed Simone de Beaviour’s assertion that “elegance is bondage.”
A modern lover of elegance will tell you that, of course, it has nothing to do with any of those nasty, elitist things, and that it’s all about the tone or spirit of an experience. It’s a sort of transcendence of what is ordinarily expected. So a jet plane is an elegant thing because it doesn’t just clunker through the clouds, but soars dramatically above them. A flower arrangement is an elegant experience because it doesn’t just poke from the ground as expected. It poses in defiance of a doomed fate, gracing a place which wouldn’t ordinarily include its kind.
In fashion, one could think of elegance as the ambient lighting at a dinner party. Sure, it’s not completely necessary like dishes and cutlery and food might be; but something is missing without it. A special something is lacking in the experience.
Then again, the ambient lighting might function as a cover for what is lacking at the table (or hide the blotches on the stemware) in much the same way that our grandmothers viewed a hat as a cover for whatever could be lacking on the head. Now, we might consider this same grandmother elegant if she covers every other part of her body. In this way, her clothing works as a sort of ambient lighting, obscuring the view of an aging body that just can’t compete in our era of youth and athleticism. It’s what inspired Co Co Chanel to insist that “A woman’s unhappiness is to rely on her youth” because “youth must be replaced by mystery.” (Or, at least it inspired the person who said it to her.)
So is it that simple? Is elegance just a sort of veil for the decaying body?
Often it is. But at its best that’s not the intent. The driving aesthetic of elegance is the uplifting (think soaring above) consideration for things far beyond merely practical purposes. If “mystery” (as in Co Co’s meaning) is a result, then it is one of the lesser results; a sort of accidental byproduct. It’s what Audrey Hepburn meant by “Elegance is the only beauty that never fades.”
So really, elegance is simply the affirmation that life is worth our efforts to keep in check the despotism of function. Every day life needs that extra special something, that ambient lighting, or transcendence above our material world. And no, this extra something cannot be reduced to the mere practical because, as the art and beauty prophet Roger Scruton observed, “Put usefulness first, and you lose it; put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever.” We need beauty even in the most mundane of activities so that even a material solution must please the soul or we will eventually abandon it.
Of course, elegance takes work. And time. That’s perhaps the real reason it’s abandoned. Between all our choosing and buying and rushing and monitoring of screens, we simply haven’t the time or the energy.
But that, as you may have guessed by this time, is what makes it so much more precious. If we return to the bus to view our shabby friends and also happen to notice the woman sitting beside her, we might see that this new arrival has taken the extra time on her appearance and moves with the grace of one who knows what she’s about. We
delight in the scene the same way we delight at the flower which defies its doom in a place not quite used to its kind.
So is the idea of elegance simply outdated? I suspect that it may have waned a bit, maybe to the point of near extinction. But watch. Just as we notice that the special something we need as humans is missing, we will long to abandon the purely utilitarian. We will rediscover elegance and over time – maybe even overnight – it just might be the next big thing.