It is a mad world when the rich and famous are checking into rehab centers and the people of the working class feel anxious about whether they will be able to hold on to the very jobs that they dislike doing. Sometimes the world feels a little upside-down and the the unimportant gets confused with the important. And sometimes we even ask ourselves exactly how the art of dressing-well and finding one’s personal style fits into the grand scheme of things?
We know for sure that it isn’t necessary to find a study or statistics to tell us that it feels good to look good. And it is a bit of a revelation to realize that looking good does not mean being a ‘ natural-born-beauty ‘ as much as it means defining and refining a personal style. And regardless of how rich, handsome, tall or fit a person may be, style does not play favorites, but waits to be embraced by anyone who has the knowledge and will to express him or herself well through behavior, grooming, and clothing.
Some of the most stylish men in history have not been beauties (Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, Peter O’Toole or the elegance naturelle de Francois Truffaut). Incredibly, even after some of these men are no longer alive, still their strong sense of personal style emanates and is remembered and referred to, even to this day.
Many believe that it is the upper class that dresses the best and has the strongest sense of personal style. Notice that this perception can once again, work to everyone’s advantage since even the man from the most humble beginnings can pull himself far above the masses simply through the way he behaves, dresses and grooms himself. And, while a man of royal decent can look and behave as a buffoon, at the same time, a man of meager means can exemplify the meaning of elegance through his actions and through attention to his wardrobe.
Even though the ability for most every person to dress well does ‘ level ‘ the playing field between the wealthy and the working class, strangely, most people do not take advantage of investing in fully developing his or her personal style. Perhaps the goal seems beyond the reach of many, or laziness sets in, or more likely, there is an ignorance of the power that dressing well can bring to our lives. And, the goal to express personal style is typically not to look as if a person is from a certain class, as much as it is to show that a person has class.
Edmond Rostand, who wrote about aristocracy and beauty (or the lack thereof) in the iconic play “Cyrano de Bergerac”, says this about elegance:
“I have a different idea of elegance. I don’t dress like a fop, it’s true, but my moral grooming is impeccable. I never appear in public with a soiled conscience, a tarnished honor, threadbare scruples, or an insult that I haven’t washed away. I’m always immaculately clean, adorned with independence and frankness. I may not cut a stylish figure, but I hold my soul erect. I wear my deeds as ribbons, my wit is sharper then the finest mustache, and when I walk among men I make truths ring like spurs.”
Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac
And so we agree, that elegance first begins with the character of a person, and only then, is rounded out with grooming and dressing well.
A STUDY IN BEING DISCREET…THE CLASS ABOVE THE UPPER CLASS : THE TOP CLASS
An important distinction can be made between the Upper Class and what author Paul Fussell terms the TOP Class, in his 1983 book entitled “A Guide Through the American Status Systems”.
Those from the upper class often draw attention to themselves through the cars and homes they purchase, the jewelry and clothing that they wear, and the events they attend. In a general sense, members of upper class care very much about the messages they are sending through the possessions that they choose. And although the Upper Class may fail to be discreet at times, still, they seem to exercise discretion in one specific area: they generally prefer older items and antiques over things that are newly produced. They have an appreciation for heritage and tradition in regard to dressing well, and this preference shows up in the things that they own, ranging from vintage cars and watches, to wearing accessories like antique cuff links, and tie bars and pins, and even tattered clothes (more on that later).
A different group altogether, ranking even higher than the Upper Class is the TOP Class. Members of the TOP class are the uber elite and prefer to remain anonymous while attempting to blend with, instead of stand apart from society. Having a massive estate with 42 rooms and a butler is an anathema to the TOP elite, since guarding the secret of his or her wealth and retaining privacy are key motives. In short, a life unhampered by the public eye is a constant focus and discretion is of paramount importance. In a strange way, a TOP elite seeks to be emancipated from the chains that his or her wealth has created, and paradoxically begins to identify with the things that really matter in life. Being discreet is preferred to showiness, and there is overall, less of an attachment to things, with the exception of family heirlooms and rare items that generally hold some type of meaning or purpose.
My own experience with a TOP class person has been enlightening. When I knew her, as a fourth generation member of a wealthy family and coming from what we consider ‘old-money’, Margaret lived in a nice but relatively modest home in a very good, but not extraordinary neighborhood. She drove a car that I barely remember and her jewelry consisted of a wedding ring (of what appeared to be just under one carat), a clean, black-banded Timex watch to be worn for everyday, in place of her Cartier, and a strand of her Grandmother’s pearls. She had custom clothes, but also clothes from Land’s End and Ralph Lauren. She was straight forward in her speech, and I found her to be a basically good and genuine person with naturally correct posture and an easy elegance. I also had a glimpse into her character…when she was going through a bad divorce, she was gentle and discussed her feelings honestly, but at the same time, her resolve was impressively strong to work through the difficulty.
And so, it is intriguing to take note of what some may consider TOP class gestures. Here are some nice, specific practices of the elegant, that is usually not written or spoken about explicitly:
1. Frayed Edges on Clothing
To be embraced, is signs of wear on clothing. The upper echelon detests shopping and readily accepts, even prefers, signs of wear on their clothes, including moth holes, small tears, piling and fraying, as this practice of accepting minor defects not only defines the behavior of the class, but also, wearing items that have been “broken in” can feel more natural and comfortable. It is considered a good thing to eschew the image of the parvenue in favor of patching, mending, and sewing worn spots on timeless pieces. One practice that has been relayed to us is the practice of estate owners instructing their valets to wear the owner’s shirt for a while in order to “break in the shirt” so it is more comfortable and in order for the shirt to appear less “new”.
2. Old Things Trump New Things
An antique or family heirloom, or anything with a history or a story, surpasses a newly produced item.
3. The Color of the Carnation
A red flower symbolizes that your mother is still living, while a white flower means your mother is no longer living.
4. Equal amounts of Shirt Collar and Shirt Cuff Showing Beneath a Jacket (with no Proletarian “Prole” Gap).
The amount of shirt collar and shirt sleeve that is shown beneath the jacket (typically around 1/2 inch) should match in area (e.g., 1/2 inch shirt extending out from beneath the coat collar and 1/2 inch shirt sleeve extending out beneath the coat sleeve). No “prole gap” (collar gap) is imperative, as a gaping area between the coat collar and the shirt is considered a characteristic of the lower class proletarians, who are perceived to have little knowledge about good tailoring.
5. The Tailor’s Label — Hidden inside the Coat Pocket
There was a time when the name of one’s tailor was kept confidential, perhaps to protect a person’s privacy or even to prevent others from copying a look, or more likely to demonstrate discretion. Placing the name of the tailor inside the coat pocket so that the only way to read the tailor’s name is to peek inside the suit jacket pocket is an ultimate gesture, in terms of being discreet.
6. A Handkerchief Inside the Jacket Pocket.
Gentlemen at one time made it a point to carry a handkerchief in the suit coat pocket to handle things on the spot, like cold symptoms, spills, and teardrops. And, a prepared gentleman equipped with gestures such as this, almost always left a lasting impression.
7. The final shirt buttonhole on a tailored shirt is sewn horizontally
Some swear by the practice of instructing a shirtmaker to sew the final buttonhole of a shirt horizontally instead of vertically in order to help secure the last button in place and as a discreet signal that the shirt is handmade (since no one sees the horizontal buttonhole except the wearer of the shirt and those closest to him).
8. Regimental Ties — Worn with Caution
Regimental ties, whose stripes represent a certain regiment, club, or private school, are only worn to functions associated with the entity that the tie represents. To wear one’s regimental tie to any other venue other than those events associated with what the regimental tie represents, is seen as a need to show off or broadcast a person’s membership. When wearing a striped tie with a suit, stripes should point up towards the right shoulder to avoid indicating that a person belongs to a club of which he has no affiliation (since true regimental ties generally point upwards towards the left shoulder).
9. All Sleeve Cuff Buttons are…Buttoned
To leave a button open on the coat sleeve cuff is not even considered, since quality is assumed with this class, and there would be no reason to announce that your buttons actually work on your coat sleeve.
10. A good watch ‘ peeks out ‘ beneath the shirt sleeve, but is not fully shown
Fully exposing a nice watch underneath a shirt sleeve would be seen as peacocking and as a way to get your watch stolen. Also, thrusting a watch forward for display when posing for a photograph is not an option.
11. An aversion to high fashion labels (with the exception of a few favorites specific to the individual)
Old money families steer clear of high fashion flashy labels (associated with “new money”) but welcome a few personal labels into their wardrobe, some of which can be surprising to others, for example, choosing a black-banded Timex watch to be worn on certain days, in place of a finer watch.
SOME SIDE NOTES
How to participate in a «Toast»
Raise your glass with everyone else, when clinking glasses with an individual, always make quick eye contact with the individual, and…never cross wine or champagne glasses with anyone at the table.
Restrict Compliments since Quality is Assumed
Reserve the amount of compliments given to the elite…quality is assumed and mindless compliments are usually seen as unnecessary flattery that holds little meaning.
While these observations may only skim the surface of some elegant practices generally known within an exclusive subset of the population, the spirit of these subtle gestures come through– and brings some nice insight about being discreet and the some of the intentions behind why we dress the way we do.
Sonya Glyn Nicholson. Senior Editor.