My love affair with fashion ‘self-help’ books started when I decided, as a young girl, that I wanted to be a ‘lady’; a refined, polite and immaculately groomed lady.
The first book I bought myself in order to pursue this endeavour was A Girl for All Seasons by Camilla Morton, which featured a comprehensive guide about how to be, well, female. Written in the style of a diary, the book details a typical year in the life of a woman, sharing relevant dates for a lady’s calendar, anecdotes about great women of the past and present, and etiquette for occasions such as weddings and black tie events.
I remember looking longingly at the plump lipped, dazzlingly glamorous illustration of a girl on the front cover and thinking, ‘I wish that could be me’. My poor mother, a stoic feminist of the 70s, would look on in bemused puzzlement as her youngest daughter pored over this book, the attraction of which she would never understand.
As I got older my pursuit of the gentile didn’t waiver. I devoured myriad advice novels regarding the subject of elegance and class, learning answers to important life questions like what would Audrey do? And how can I be adorable?
Yet in spite of my long history with this genre, my seminal ‘self-help’ moment did not come until I had read novelist Kathleen Tessaro’s book Elegance. The story in which the protagonist’s marital breakdown leads to her obsession with a little self-help book about becoming an elegant woman is an easy and enjoyable read, but what I was truly taken with was the object of her obsession; A Guide to Elegance by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux.
This chic little book in bright Tiffany blue is an alphabetized guide that reveals everything it takes to be a proper lady. Some people believe in God, some people believe in science, I believed unshakably in this book. Written in the 1960s by a conservative Parisienne, it is both charmingly quaint and disarmingly honest about what a woman should and should not be wearing.
After reading this little manual of sophistication, I figured I would never come across its likes again. That little old lady sat plumply in the corner of my mind scolding me whenever I dared to try something disgracefully directional, avant-garde or worse… common.
Yet as much as A Guide to Elegance had an impact on my personal style and (I must admit) my opinion of others’, I’d be lying if I said that the didactic tones of Ms Dariaux didn’t get a bit tiresome from time to time. I, therefore, must confess that I secretly hoped that one day something else might come along to counterbalance her strict tenets of style.
Little did I know that my saviour would come years later in the form of the florid, effervescent and ever so tactful Mr Christian Dior, in his The Little Dictionary of Fashion. This tiny treasure trove of fashion know-how explicates (alphabetically, of course) Dior’s opinion about the various aspects of a woman’s fashion world. From aprons to grooming, padding to yokes, Dior’s book can help any lady navigate her way through the maze of ever-changing trends and fashion jargon. Written with a delightful mid-century sensitivity, this little book is just as confident of its sartorial rules as Dariaux’s, but they are given out with a little more love and a lot more tact.
Unfortunately, despite years of books, fashion worshipping and the help of Dariaux and Dior, my quest to become a lady never came to fruition. As much as I tried to appear a pinnacle of grace and femininity I could never quite shake that practical 70s feminist who remained the third person sitting smugly in my conscience, advising me about life. Nevertheless, as long as she remains sandwiched between Dariaux and Dior a battle of wills still wages. I may never be a lady, but my two fashion advisors sure as hell make sure I look like one.
The Fashion Advocate x