Sometimes dressing well is just Good Manners. The Etiquette of Style.
I am an anachronism. Even at 36, I am considered “old school.” Generally, I think things were better in the past, especially when it comes to clothing and behavior. Today’s world is different. If you don’t believe me, maybe an overdose of mind-altering mood elevators has taken hold of you. Don’t let your meds cut you off from reality…visit an airport!
I seem to remember, in the not-too-distant past, ladies and gentlemen dressing for the excitement and occasion of traveling to a glamorous destination. It could have been Peoria or Tallahassee, but at least they arrived in style. It was good manners. And we saw it in the movies. Do you remember Ingrid Bergman’s white linen traveling suit in Casablanca? Imagine how chic she looked as a wartime émigré. How about anything Cary Grant ever wore, whether he was traveling or not? Those doomed passengers in Murder on the Orient Express? They were lookin’ fine—dressed up “fit to die” as we might say in the South. The general public followed suit, so to speak. I vividly remember my mother’s own brown tweed cropped jacket, chocolate suede skirt, and matching knee boots that boarded many a Pan Am plane in the ‘70s. I marveled at her sophistication.
Today, airports look like Greyhound stations. And travelers look, and act, like slobs. Dressing well to be out in public was once just good manners. Where have those manners gone? In every airport, I have an overwhelming desire to call over the waiter from the galactic restaurant of life, and ask him to send a most important message to the chef. Eighty-six those sweat pants with a glittery “Juicy” embroidered across the derriere! Banish the “I slept with Jessica Simpson” T-shirts! Bring back yesteryear!
In a world obsessed with makeover shows, fashion mags, and shopping, it astonishes me that people aren’t better dressed. Does fashion preclude style…or is it the other way around? Peruse the pages of the latest glossy and you’ll find articles with claims like “TWEED—some nifty bobbin’ and weavin’ turns a safe staple sexy” or titles along the lines of “Snug Fit 101.” The impetus that major designers have placed on the “sexy” thing seems wrongheaded. Not every look works for everyone, and people rarely become sexy, or, I daresay, chic, exclusively from the clothes they wear.
In the past 10 years, men and women have spent more money on clothing and grooming than ever. They are still, for the most part, terribly dressed. Why? They’re seeing the wrong influences. A T-shirt is a T-shirt is a T-shirt, whether it be P. Diddy’s $500 model, or Stanley Kowalski’s wifebeater. I love them, but they are not appropriate everywhere. Clothes should not only fit, but also be flattering, and appropriate to the situation in which they’re worn. Clothes are not just for the benefit of the wearer. Dressing, with good manners, means dressing in a manner that delights, pleases and, at the very least, does not offend the people around you. Ask Carolina Herrera, designing guru, and one of the great ladies of all time, what the secret to being well-dressed is and her response never varies: “A full-length mirror.”
She’s right, but her advice is so different from what permeates popular style guides. They tell you about the latest clothing, and oftentimes the most expensive pieces, not whether or not they would be right for you. Books and magazines, in the old days, provided guidance about what to wear for your coloring, height, and build. People read etiquette books to find out what clothes were appropriate for what occasion and why. Those rules, although somewhat relaxed now, still matter.
Amy Fine Collins has an acute understanding of the correlation between manners and clothing. “Clothing is communication,” says Collins, the special correspondent to Vanity Fair, and one of the custodians of “The International Best Dressed List.” “You’d better be careful about what you’re saying. Don’t let your message misfire.” Collins concedes that designers “have always broken the rules they were shattering. You can’t be Picasso if you haven’t learned to draw.”
In the past, Hollywood was part of the solution. Now it’s part of the problem. In the old days, studios trained their stars on how to dress and how to act once they put them “under contract.” Dressing and comportment were always linked together. There are a million different reasons why the studio system does not work now, but the old model did provide some profound benefits, both to the stars and to the general public. The studio bosses made sure their contract players learned style, elocution, poise, charm and manners. There were standards. Today instead of standards we have “stylists.”
In studio “boot camp,” the trainers based their lessons of comportment and dress on the etiquette books, books that now seem antiquated and “old school.” The studio training was “What Not to Wear” and “Extreme Makeover” combined with poise lessons. Once the studio players became the famous stars, they seemed almost superhuman; heroes for mere mortals to worship. In other countries, people adulated royalty or aristocracy. The privileged classes provided a model of excellence. In America, that model of excellence was Hollywood royalty.
Oftentimes today, I’ll see photos of celebrities in a glossy and wonder, “Where exactly are these people going?” I guess I’m a bit of a prude, but really…a long sable coat with sandals and no stockings? Aren’t they cold? It almost seems arcane to be appropriately dressed for an occasion—or even for a temperature. The Hollywood stylists have won!
For every assertion I make, there is, of course, contrapunto. Too much adherence to the rules can result in being too carefully dressed, which can bring along another kind of downfall. Several years ago, I had taken delivery of my new fall wardrobe, and had chosen to wear many of my new things at once for lunch with a friend. The new tie was perfect with the new jacket, which was perfect with the new trousers and new shirt, and new pochette, and on and on. It was all perfectly coordinated, and the result of all that perfection was sensational! In the mirror in my elevator vestibule, I was a smash! I walked into the restaurant; my friend took one look at me and announced expansively, “Well! You certainly must have gotten up early this morning!”
I couldn’t help but laugh. That friend was style icon Nan Kempner. Nan understands clothes and luxury as well as anyone. She never overplays it. She’ll wear a beautiful Italian cashmere sweater, couture fur jacket from Paris, and plain old Levi corduroys from the boys’ department at Bloomingdale’s. She’s taken the rules and broken them to make her own style. Humor, when it comes to clothing or anything else, never hurts.
An arch-snob friend of mine in the South always says, “To have is not to be.” Only the impecunious scion of a formerly grand family could have dreamed that up, but maybe he has a point. Don’t look for an expensive wardrobe to automatically open doors; it will help for sure, but it wouldn’t hurt to learn some manners, too. Dress appropriately. New York author Susan Fales-Hill, herself a member of the International Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame, joins me in astonishment, amusement, and adoration at the passing parade of the world today. And one day, when we write our almanac on clothing, manners, and life, we’ll title it “It Takes Money, Honey…But That Ain’t All!”
- Alex Hitz