A return to elegance was big news during couture week in Paris last summer. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Dior catwalk where designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri appeared to give a two finger salute to the nauseating theatrics and bad taste selfies of Instagram. Opening the show was Ruth Bell, the face of Dior, wearing a midi length cape dress and beret, the first in a line of models dressed in fit’n’flare silhouettes in an exquisitely restrained palette of midnight black and blush nude shades. ‘I wanted to make something that was so subtle you almost couldn’t see it on Instagram’ Grazia Chiuri told Lisa Armstrong at the Telegraph, after the show, ‘of course it has to be luxurious but it doesn’t need to be obvious’.
Elegance possibly wasn’t the first word that sprang to mind when I interviewed the 22 year old Bell the following morning – sitting before me with her shaven head, alabaster skin and the otherness of youth, dressed in an over-sized hoodie and thick cotton trousers from Virgil Normal in LA. The interview had been rescheduled three times; I was waiting for the diva of all divas.
Bell is not a classic beauty and yet everything about her – an unfailingly polite manner, a quiet self-assurance and professionalism, arriving five minutes before our 8 am interview despite working till 2 am the night before, being happy to start the interview on the communal stairs because the offices were late opening so that I wouldn’t miss my Eurostar – was elegance personified.
Elegance is such a loaded word, one that could probably do with a crack PR team to imbue it with any sort of relevance in 2019. It seems so impossibly quaint, so démodé, certainly nothing cool or anything to inspire to. And yet, and yet, through the prism of nine squares, where so much of the tone on Instagram is dominated by a nauseating strand of self-love, there’s a growing curiosity to explore something different. Well at I least I hope there is.
What is elegance? Literally speaking it’s the clean dismount of a gymnast from the balance beam, the smooth playing motion of a cellist, the way a dress takes in your waist just so. Elegance is also the art of less, a sense of timelessness, a beauty that shows unusual effectiveness and simplicity. It is also frequently used as a standard of good taste, except I think we all know that elegance is so much more than that.
It is thoughtfulness and kindness rolled into one, it’s a white lie to save someone’s blushes, it’s the opposite of flaky, it is small gestures that people remember and taking the time to have meaningful every day exchanges – while buying a stamp as much as resisting the urge to put the phone down on your mother-in-law. It is listening, knowing when to hold back, Coco Chanel’s style maxim of refusal, it is seeing beyond the end of your nose, knowing when to shut up and basically being a better person. Call it manners if you like. In our selfie, self-obsessed society, there aren’t nearly enough manners to go round. And why we underestimate the importance of good manners to navigate day to day life is beyond baffling.
What else is elegance? It is respecting yourself too, because there’s some ground between martyrdom (NEVER elegant) and stating your boundaries and valuing yourself. Taking responsibility for yourself – eating and sleeping well, breathing, exercising, being fit and healthy so that you can live up to the many many roles you taken on has always struck me as rather an elegant thing to do, an elegant way to be.
It’s not believing that the world revolves around you: remembering that there is nearly always a rational explanation as to why someone has been slow to reply to your email – an explanation that, more often than not, has nothing to do with you.
A stiff British upper lip isn’t fashionable currently, but there’s a lot to be applauded in “just getting on with it”, instead of constantly worrying how you are feeling. Or how happy you are. Ah, that subject of happiness. We’re so obsessed in trying to reach this unrealistic 24/7 state of eternal nirvana, that we’ve started to believe that our problems, schedules, anxieties and feelings are more important than everyone else’s. Stop it now.
Being a little bit mindful, slowing down or just taking the time to notice the world around you – other people’s behaviour and feelings – promotes a more elegant way of living. And like so much positive behaviour, being elegant is quite addictive once you start giving it any air time. One of my favourite nuggets of wisdom which I want to share again is the sage advice that the sex therapist, Esther Perel received from her father. Every time I read it, it makes me think of what is wrong with the world.
“The quality of your life ultimately depends on the quality of your relationships. Not on your achievements, not on how smart you are, not on how rich you are, but on the quality of your relationships, which are basically a reflection of your decency, your ability to think of others, your generosity…about how you treated the people around you, and how you made them feel.”
Having a strong sense of self, knowing your mind, being confident – of what sits with you and what doesn’t – is helpful too. Elegance is refusal. It is knowing when to say no and sticking to it.