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The Price of Elegance
2010.05.22 / Sophia Butler
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While having a casual conversation with my London girlfriend Marianna who works for a fashion magazine, we broached an ever present problem – the dwindling budget. I am realizing that the cost of being a well-manicured 21st Century female is immense: “I never seem to be able to get my hands on my money!” I complain, “Half of it is gone as soon as it comes in, because it is owed and today I’ll be hit badly again - its maintenance day!”. My girlfriend is sympathetic, she has to keep up with an impeccable standard at the magazine, her suggestion: “Talk to your boss, give him the figures, its £5, 000 per year to be respectable in the office, that’s the average.” Marianna knows me well enough from our student days to know that unless she backs up her latest fashion update with a book, my concentration span is shorter than a goldfish: “There is this slim, grey volume in a satin cover, entitled ‘A Guide to Elegance’ by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux; her mission in life was to transform a plain woman into an elegant one, clearly she dedicated her life to the likes of you Sophia!”. Now I was hooked, the description of the book was intriguing; when I heard ‘out of print’ in Waterstone’s, the bibliophile in me went into rapture!

I am on a pilgrimage again, for the Holy Grail of fashion. I head straight for my version of paradise: Scotland’s Book town Wigtown. My obsession with second-hand books is well documented by my friends as a spiritual illness, which cannot be explained to the unafflicted. I carefully pull out the book, causing the dust on the shelf to rise in puffs; it was exactly what Marianna promised. The book oozed charisma and respect, with the title sparkling like a glistening coin surrounded by the intoxicating smell of the mould and mildew inseparable from the unevenly stacked volumes. Elaborate script announces: "Elegance is rare in the modern world, largely because it requires precision, attention to detail, and the careful development of a delicate taste in all forms of manners. It does not come easily to most women and never will." Great, how will it ever come to me?! I think quickly, utilizing my IQ of 100 plus (I am not prepared to reveal all my secrets!), which has its uses. If you, like me, may fail here disastrously, then do not panic – there are personal stylists who shop with you and wrap you in flattering fabrics for all occasions, match your hair to your skin tone and make up; creating a masterpiece!
In the past, housewives operated in a well-planned week; there was a washing day, an ironing day and a shopping day (food and groceries). All these duties have become somewhat haphazard as three decades later find a day in the monthly planner which may soon appear in filofaxes: Maintenance day! In order to be presentable, at least one solid day per month must be dedicated to keep up with all that is necessary: hair must be either coloured or styled, nails must be painted, tanning (if you like being orange), excuse my cynicism, I simply cannot understand why being pale is unfashionable and waxing or other forms of hair removal must be performed. Exfoliating and moisturizing are an essential part of the routine, as well as hundreds of extras such as face masks and hair treatments. I am reminded of a ‘Sex and the City’; Carrie asks her partner: “Do you think I wake up looking this good?” as she points out her well manicured nails, flawless make-up, styled hair and artfully chosen dress complete with Jimmy Choo heels. Imagine Carrie jumping out of bed without any grooming – scary if you ask me!
Women are constantly bombarded with the ‘new’ way of doing the same thing in the aggressive language of advertising – “You’re worth it!” until you have handed over your money and then you are condemned to call-centre customer services manned by a computer! Make no mistake – Maintenance day is the most costly in the monthly planner, when credit cards are red-hot! Just in case you hadn’t had enough yet, there is the lower region of the female body, an arena where designers and style opportunists have found a niche to torture us and our purses. They set trends, and open endless, easily accessible beauty parlours to have a ‘Brazilian’ or a ‘Hollywood’. It’s just like ordering a coffee in America – a hundred different options - it is a conspiracy against modern woman!
This is only the actual body itself – now imagine that you have to clothe it! We live under a constant pressure to update and accessorize our styles. Even when you have saved for a special garment, instantly, another trend has ousted it from its place. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think that a little black number with a string of single pearls can never look out of place and is always elegant. Drawing on my new-found style bible, it seems that a French woman’s wardrobe is not typically enormous, she will however have many accessories in order to remake her outfit each time she wears it. They also rarely deviate from darker colours, remaining within the black to grey spectrum. With less experimentation in bright colours which are difficult to wear, there is less room for mistakes. We are so daring in the UK, embracing every fashion, even when it is completely unsuitable for our climate - regular fashion calamities are inevitable! The term ‘fashion victim’ is well exercised by the cutting tongues of other women, men and family members!
I love the fact that in Newton Stewart, the closest town to my father’s house, where there is comparatively little going on, women of all ages congregate at the hairdresser and beauticians for a good ‘pick-me-up’. It never fails to be an uplifting experience of endless cups of green tea, massage and a drop of red wine on a Friday afternoon, whilst listening to the latest intrigue in the town. Forget the pub – this is the place to be – you can come on your own and not get bothered by sleazy men! Even the most fragile grannies come in for their regular curlers and blue tints, which is a testament to the spirit of women that I so admire – you have to keep making an effort, otherwise we might as well live in track suits, slob around on the couch and stuff ourselves with sweeties!
I was raised in constantly changing and fresh spaces, Mama’s interior designing meant that we moved often and updated styles regularly. My friends always loved to be in the refreshing amalgamations of gothic, minimalist and traditional styles. I contrast this with my Auntie’s permanent family home which I adored as a child; the biggest change in all these years is the colour scheme of the cupboards, I could walk through the kitchen blindfolded and locate anything. However, in terms of a fertile style ground to inspire fresh creations of the wardrobe and ‘the look’, I can see why my Mama could not have inhabited a space like this.
Perhaps I should not be too hard on my cousin and her friends in America. While visiting her last year, I was glued to the bed with my eyes fixed open as she proudly paraded her collection of clothes which could pay off my student debt and then some, complete with designer tags. By the time she got to the shoes I was in a state of disbelief; even her favourite pair looked as though they had only been for a jaunt round the shop! All this in a student style, shared flat on an unimpressive income; “Do you think I’ve got the foundations for a decent wardrobe?” she asked me seriously at the close of the elaborate show. My advice was that she should open a boutique with a few emphatic expletives! Whilst out with her friends, I noticed their worryingly blaze attitude to plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures; they thought nothing of discussing a nose job or a little lunch-time botox. However, their reality is more plastic than our own and augmentation of appearance has become the norm.
I am smiling whilst writing this since I have become a bit of an obsessive dresser! Determined to look sharp in the office, I carefully camouflage the signs of late nights and over indulgences in wine! I plan my outfits the night before and alternate them with different decoration. I remember sitting in a café in the front row on the Champs Elysées, sipping sugared citron presse, (lemon water) and observing the passing women, all well dressed, exuding confidence and total mastery of their bodies, after all, elegance is a state of mind. As I nurture a fledgling joy in dressing and presenting myself as a grown-up, I realize that I have taken another step on the ladder: a girl becomes a woman and the woman becomes an elegant Goddess only when the natural beauty of a woman is supported by the art of dressing. I am immersing myself in the meaning of style, fashion and vision for and of women. The story of Coco Chanel is an important lesson on this subject; in breaking the images men and history have imposed on us females!
We really seem to be naïve enough that advertising giants can sell us anything - poison to paralyze your face, implants which leak into your system and staples for the stomach! I don’t recommend these sorts of measures, but I do know that I feel amazing when my hair is freshly coloured and I’m wearing my new dress. I have so often condemned all these matters as superficial pursuits, however, if you care for and respect yourself; you want to look your best. Ultimately, I can live with the pain, the cost and the time, because the result is brilliant!
I find myself contemplating fashion as I walk through a meadow of bluebells which are extremely elegant en masse; initially, make-up began because women wanted to emulate the beauty of nature’s variety. Incidentally, the bluebell is a symbol of humility, gratitude and everlasting love. Why not say ‘Thank-you’ to existence by wearing a flower in your hair? It’s my way of accessorizing for spring.

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