Good Taste is Forever: Van Day Truex, Arbiter Elegantium

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(Van Day Truex from the book by Lewis. I believe he is wearing the same suit in which he is pictured on the cover. An elegant suit and an easy pose will always look chic.)

“Good taste is forever.” It may be the Brunschwig & Fils motto, but it was Truex who came up with it and it applies equally well to the man.

The village baker, who worked in his grandfather’s bake shop when Truex lived in Gordes remembers, “Monsieur Truex was always immaculately dressed, even in the early-morning hours when he walked down the hill for his baguette. He was never without a jacket. Our other customers, at that hour, looked as it they had just gotten out of bed. Monsieur Truex was different.” The baker was not alone in his admiration of his customer’s sartorial elegance. In 1974, Truex would be inducted into the International Hall of Fame as one of the best-dressed men in the world. (p. 216)

I’d read about Van Day Truex before. On the internet, of course. My education in the design world is sadly lacking. I bought the book and it sat, undisturbed, on the bookshelf for more than a year. But then Square With Flair™ mentioned it again and a brief discussion in the comments section last week led me to take the biography down from the shelf and settle in whilst nursing a cold.

There is much to learn here. Van Day Truex had a remarkable gift for design and a highly refined “design judgement.” He also had the gift of elegance. All as a result of a trained and critical eye.

One of his students remembers, “Truex moved like a dancer. He struch a chord of elegance when he entered a room.” (p. 58)

Truex is frequently described as elegant and his creations also earn the distinction. But what made him elegant? The author isn’t as interested in exploring that facet of Mr. Truex’s life, but it does bare some examination, if only because Van Day Truex took pains to present an elegant figure to the world. Like Cary Grant, he was self-invented.

“Control. Distill. Edit.” It was Truex’s philosophy on how to achieve the best in design. It could also have been applied to the man himself. He was, by all accounts, incredibly self-disciplined, extremely opinionated and very, very confident. (He was also fluent in French. I just throw that in.)

He was tall, whippet-thin and an early viewing of “Lady be Good” with Fred Astaire left him with a desire to wear bespoke clothing and move through life with a little more style. Time and practice would bring him that. But it was when he was taken into what would become the Parsons School of Design, under the tutelage of Frank Odom that he came into his own. Mr. Odom taught him of the importance of the classical in design and to cultivate society.

Throughout the book the reader can trace the origins of Truex’s lifestyle influences. He was constantly surrounded, both professionally and personally, with people with “good taste” who understood good design and who exercised good judgement in everything from the company they kept to the furnishings in which they invested. There were the Marshalls, hosts with a regimented, yet relaxed, life in Italy. Elizabeth Chachavadze’s simple meals, beautifully presented. Burnet Pavitt and John Mallet, whose “gentlemanly behavior and perfect decorum shielded them from any criticism.” The Princess de Polignac who introduced him to great music and served him the most elegant tea he had had. To say nothing of the number of wealthy women who contributed to his bank account simply in order that he live that way that his refined sensibilities dictated. Hubert de Givenchy described his taste as “cashmere.” Others found his houses “monastic” and him “austere.”

I had meant for this post to be a distillation of what I thought were the contributing factors to “Mr. Taste” ‘s seemingly innate elegance. Instead, I find that it eludes me, too. I can only speculate that he made up his mind to be more refined in all things, and took from his surroundings those things that fit into his world view.

Indeed, in a transcript of an interview that he granted the Smithsonian Institution, he credited his superior levels of taste to having “grown up in Paris,” and said that “unless one is born with the flair (and then you have the great painter or the great sculptor or the great designer, it is there, you see) for most of us, whatever we achieve toward that quality level, it is to the degree that we are sensitive and intelligent and train ourselves.” (Van Day Truex interview, 1971 Nov. 15, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Worth a read; especially since he foresees the end of the era of good taste because of the insistence on profitability first and foremost.)

“Train their eye, instill in them an idea of quality and develop their sense of style.” That was the mandate at Parsons and may do much to explain Truex’s elegance.

Van Day Truex: The Man Who Defined Twentieth-Century Taste and Style by Adam Lewis. Highly recommended.

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11 Responses to Good Taste is Forever: Van Day Truex, Arbiter Elegantium

  1. It’s an appealing notion that you can “grow up” even as an adult. It’s an inspiring story in a lot of ways, but there seemed to be a thread of sadness in the periphery. Another in a long list of fellows whose taste was not based on bank account.

  2. Such a great book. I should go back and re-read it, especially in light of the research I’ve done on Billy Baldwin.

    PS… thanks for the mention.

  3. E,

    The elusiveness of style as innate or acquired has fueled debate and discussion since the beginning of time. Amend that to clothes. Recently, I had posted a photo of Cary Grant in all his sartorial splendor in a scene from “To Catch a Thief,” with this accompanying quote from one of the multitudes of designers who have attempted to analyze or “distill” his essence over the years:

    “It was Cary Grant’s innate sense of how to be a man that transcended everything else beyond his looks and even what he wore. Obviously the cut of his clothing is incredibly important, and we can talk all day about how elegant we could make somebody look, but if you don’t understand intrinsically how to behave as a gentleman, then the finest suits in the world would do very little for you.”

    The notion of bearing, attitude, Manners, and yes, genes do help, has everything to do with elegance and when I read accounts of others gong so far as to support these paragons of style and refinement in order that they might continue to “live that way,” I see it as our own need to be graced with the presence of their creation. Are they any less a work of art?

    We all know Cary Grant was mystified with everyone’s preoccupation with ‘being Cary Grant’ and longed himself to be this exemplar of the debonair man. I remember reading somewhere that following his acting career and stint on the board of Faberge, when he was on the speaking circuit in the remaining years of his life, he was dumbfounded to discover that crowds would actually turn out to see this faltering mass of decrepitude. (I feel certain he said that far more elegantly than I). Yet, while his appearance had altered, his essence was intact … and my verbosity knows no bounds, so I shall quietly leave the room.

  4. eA, Good thought… since CG hadn’t yet existed, it was necessary to invent him.

  5. Mrs. B., of loneliness more than anything else. At least that’s how I read it. Searching for perfection in everything is bound to leave one disappointed. There must be the philosopher’s knot.

  6. P-D, thanks for bringing him to my attention!

  7. Square with Flair says:

    I think that Van Day Truex doesn’t have the fame of other arbiters of taste because his aesthetic in everything was so classic, restrained, and pure. He liked classic suits of the finest quality, and the same for furniture be it Bauhaus or Louis XVI. His early training was in Europe, and there is no replacement for this exposure to centuries of art, skill, balance and proportion, that is visible on the streets of European cities. Unlike so many designers, he did not feel obliged to re-invent the wheel. He understood classic design, balance and proportion. I’m sure that he would consider some of the “innovative” designs of 21st century architects, decorators, and fashion designers as clownish and clumsy. I’m sure there wouldn’t be any Issey Miyake in the wardrobe of Van Day Truex! I wish that more books about him were available. During his period as design directory at Tiffany’s he got rid of any designs that did not meet his rarefied aesthetics, in the process bringing prestige and taste to the reputation of the store that continues to illuminate their name throughout the world. Old Tiffany catalogs from the 1960s are a great place to view his designs, selections, and influence. Like Cary Grant, he appreciated the satisfying effects of sobriety, simplicity, quality, and what is appropriate to function and occasion. In this day and age, more than ever, we need more people to follow his example.

  8. bevglen says:

    When I lived in New York, my telephone number was one number different from that of Mrs Sheldon Whitehouse (Sr.) and many times, I received the most impressive wrong numbers. One early morning, much too early for me, my phone rang and a very distinguished voice said, “This is Van Day Truex” and asked to speak with Mrs. Whitehouse! Trying to sound decently awake, I could only say, “I’m sorry but you have the wrong number” and I gave him the correct one.
    I’d have loved to have had a real conversation with him but it went no farther than that.

    (I wonder what his conversation with Mrs. Whitehouse was……….)

  9. I love the illusion of Cary Grant, I am afraid I cannot stand the phoney that he was, his look and manner on screen were perfection, I’m afraid the man in ‘real’ life was a weak and troubled soul.

    Van Day Truex however, brave, true and faithful to the elegant life in everything he did. (He would have hated me making this comment)

  10. Hello Ms. S-C, thank you for reading and for your comment. I’ve read everything ever published about Cary Grant (including accounts by his butler and daughter). Whilst he did fight personal demons (insecurity, most notably, and the difficulties with his father and his institutionalised), he was by almost every account a decent, highly professional actor, fun-loving, generous friend and good father. His failed marriages may attest to a weakness of character, but I’m sure that the 50% of the population which is divorced may disagree with you. But thank you for your opinion, for taking the time to sound off and for listening to my two cents.

    I chose Cary Grant as the site’s “mascot” because he made himself over into the suave image of him that we know today. I have hopes that it is possible for anyone to fashion himself into whatever self-image he would choose. Truex seems to have been born elegant and with exceptional taste!

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