I had a thought whilst dressing today. I am contemplating having my wig done — cut a bit shorter for the sumer months. But very short hair on me lends a sort of hard edge, even when I’m wearing a suit and tie. I’m not about to spike it up or artfully dishevel it. That’s just not me. But I have thought about cutting it shorter.
Dismissing that thought for another day, I began to think about my watch and opted for the Hamilton tank on the brown strap. It may have been because the watch has a gold case and my belt buckle on my alligator belt is gold, but mostly it was for the silhouette. It is small and slim and though I love my father’s stainless steel Rolex, it simply is not as elegant an instrument to my eye.
Both of which thoughts provoked the question of the day. Does elegance have a hard edge or must it be tempered? Does elegance lean more to androgeny?
Take classic menswear. I prefer the highly shaped, subtle drape and pleat of the 1930’s suit to the shapeless sack of the 50’s or the broad shouldered 40’s silhouette. The 60’s brought in a leaner look that is fine, but still not as… what? Luxurious, I guess, as the London cut.
I love the look of leather, glass and chrome in a sleek Manhattan Ralph Lauren penthouse. But I also appreciate that eclectic grand tour country house look and traditional toile wallpaper.
I set a very formal table and can appreciate and hope to one day let fly with something that Eddie Ross and Jaithan might conjure from the local fleamarket and Calico Corners. Alas, I’m not terribly handy or crafty.
May I ask for your help? Please leave a comment (with a link, if possible) referring to a room, objet, illustration, photo, painting, plate of food, table, what have you, that you think is exceptionally elegant. Together we’re going to nail this thing down a bit further.
19 thoughts on “The Aesthetics of Elegance”
I personaly appreciate so many styles, even if I cannot live with them. On the hair, I prefer short, but look longingly at men with longer cuts ( maybe a woman thing)
I don’t see you going to flea markets with Eddie & Jaithan, maybe Calico Corners!
Art by Karena
I have the same affliction and can see where you are going with this, but fear it may be a know it when you see it kind of thing. That said, the first thing that popped into my mind was a string of pearls.
I don’t know that elegance is necessarily a certain style so much as an attention to detail and quality. It’s about living intentionally.
I understand your dilemma completely as I find myself admiring so many differing styles it’s difficult to settle on one. And not being a designer, the idea of integrating them is beyond me.
I think though that you have answered the question already – elegance must be tempered.
It can be found in many forms (decor, clothing, music, dance, manners), but in all of them there must be a flow, an ease of movement, whether in the movement, or just in the eye. And that’s where you find the elegance. A hard edge is jarring to the eye, and therefore inelegant. Attractive in it’s own way perhaps, but not elegant.
Subtlety is also important. A jarring movement, loud music, or over the top clothing are never referred to as elegant.
Mr. Trevor Nelson beat me to the punch, but I’ll add a few thought. In my opinion, elegance is “one shade less” than commonplace. Understated, but not boring.
This photo essay of a hotel in Japan fits the bill: http://regex.info/blog/2009-02-25/1153
As does most of what Will Boehlke displays on his ASW website…. well except for some of the shoes he favors. Not a fan of the heavily shaped bespoke look he favors.
The Hamilton Watch you’re wearing is also elegant because it invokes a more elegant era of our history. Love the blog!
Hello all and thanks for the comments. I agree that elegance is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is, (in my opinion) however, an empirical thing. We know something has an elegant line, that someone has an elegant bearing, that a thing possesses elegance in its attributes. I’d love to hear of some concrete examples of what you find elegant.
The turn of my lady’s leg, the nape of her neck, her smile. A well cut and fitting suit, vintage analog watches, simple colors in a well appointed room, natural materials, Fred Astaire leading anyone around in a waltz, Cary Grant doing anything.
Shall I go on? 😉
Unfortunately, I feel that elegance is purely intangible. Certainly, there are rooms, dishes, and objects that are elegant; but they are not so because of their pure aesthetics, but of their design. When I think of elegance, I think of something that by nature cannot be described. A very simple example as given above is a wrist watch. Many prefer vintage styles, many prefer Rolex, and yet another group prefers another brand due to its price tag. Regardless of brand, make, or price, most people would consider a certain understated class of watch to be “elegant”. For instance, Movado watches. They aren’t particularly expensive, not generally sought after, and are in all respects fairly boring… but you can’t help yourself from taking two or three glances at the elegance and simplicity.
I feel that elegance is something that can never be possessed (i.e. object, room, etc), but can only be expressed. Elegance is something that anybody can have, regardless of cash flow, experience, or who they know. Elegance is what you do and how you do it. Another simple example are all of the classical French and Italian dishes that everyone in this country knows and love. In France and Italy, those same dishes were considered to be peasant food. However, the fact that they are simple, relate-able, approachable by all, understandable, and generally of utmost deliciousness is why something as simple and basic a Coq Au Vin is considered to be a very elegant French dish.
In summary, elegance cannot be captured in a photo, link, picture, or words. Elegance is the way that someone, something, or someplace makes each and every one of us feel. Elegance by its nature is something that can’t be nailed down or described… only experienced.
There is something about the 20s and 30s aesthetic in architecture, clothes, furniture, and cars that is timeless and “elegant.” Maybe it’s the graceful yet clean lines, the angular juxtapposed against the curvaceous, modern but classic, the symmetry, the shiny and smooth surfaces. It’s seemingly effortless, unpretentious, yet subtstantial.
Duesenberg and locomotive –
Chrysler Building –
Please allow me clarify my use of ‘vintage watch. I chose that as an example of what I see as another essential component of elegance – the existence of, or perception of, simplicity.
Now I am surely no expert on elegantology, but lack of expertise has never stopped me from having a go at something.
Elegant is curvy, smooth, and quite possibly ornamented. Modern is hard, straight, and minimal. At the recent design show I attended, two booths were next to each other. Both highly skilled, both well styled, and the two were nothing alike:
The Open Talon is obviously elegant, while Kala is not. This is not to say Kala is not good, I quite prefer Kala, but elegant just doesnt seem the right word.
better yet, Norman Rockwell was the master but Leyendecker was ELEGANT!!!
Since the reference was made to Calico Corners, I thought I’d share an image that I think captures a masculine elegance–a group of fabrics that we’ve named the Truffle Collection (for the color, not the root). Here’s a link to the photo on the Calico website: http://www.calicocorners.com/category/landingpage/trufflefabrics.do
These fabrics are not elegant in a formal way, but they are elegant in the rich combination of textures–the faux suedes, the chenille kilim pattern, the velvet pinstripe, the silky jacquard bark design, the glen plaid. Very different from what Eddie and Jaithan have chosen for projects recently–but equally handsome! Happy decorating…
I’ve worked too long with scientists. They’ve taught me than an elegant solution solves a problem in the simplest necessary way. Elegant solutions display restraint and finesse.
The signature monochromatic look of the blog’s inspiration, Cary Grant, fits that definition of elegance. It conforms to the rules of men’s dress, flatters his features and draws no further attention to itself than that.
Doesn’t the same apply to successful men’s evening dress as well?
[ed: thought I’d post this email from a reader down under. I’m familiar with the Wasp Style book. By the way, The Architect appears in one of the photos…]
I suppose you realise you’re going to receive responses just like mine, that is, emails with lots of examples only, as ‘elegance’ is one of those qualities that defy a definition. Similar to poetry, you know it when you see it, but you cannot properly explain it. A dictionary may provide several definitions but all of them are at best unsatisfactory. Perhaps that’s a good thing, as true ‘elegance’ as opposed to phoniness is an elusive (not exclusive) quality that has many manifestations.
We have so many photographic images that have become well known as a result of being over-used by the media for decades as ‘iconic’ examples of style, grace and elegance. I’m sure you would be familiar with all of my examples but I offer them anyway with the purpose of simply reminding you of them.
Photos of Fred Astair in tails (ala Top Hat) or wearing a tuxedo, Gary Cooper after he returned from Europe. Any photo of Cary Grant post 1932. Any photo of Douglas Fairbanks Snr in a suit. Anthony Eden. Any photo of Clifton Webb (he was always perfectly dressed and whilst he often played the role of an obnoxious snob, I thought his taste was impeccable). Katie Hepburn in the Philladelphia Story. Any shot of Grace Kelly. The engagement photos of JFK with Jaquie.
Places / rooms:
One of my favourite coffee table type books is “A Privilidged Life – Celebrating Wasp Style” by Susanna Salt. I bet you have a copy of this book. Near the back there are photos of rooms; my favourite is the room with the green sofa, chintz covered chairs and coloured striped rug.
Churchill in the library / drawing room of a friend’s place in the south of France.
M’s study (as seen in any James Bond film prior to Judy Dench being cast as M).
Blair House (Architectural Digest) shortly after it was decorated by Mario Buatta.
Another coffee table fav of mine is “At Home With Books” (yeh, I know you have it) featured many spelndid places but I particularly like Bill Blass’s home.
Go to Google images and have a look at the library of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. Wow squared!!
Photos of the White House’s West Wing during the Reagan administration (Architectural Digest about 1981)
The front room of H Huntsman & Son, Savil Row.
The library of the Athanaeum Club, Boston.
A shingle home in the Hamptons (with obligatory hydrangeas)
Cole Porter’s NY apartment.
And excellent discussion everyone! I might post G. Bruce Boyer’s thoughts on the subject as well. Stay tuned.
Elegance has certain “standards”- core values that elevate itself above sub par, be it sleek, luxe or cozy comfy – it has everything to do with life and living.
A dear man I worked with at my first position in NY, was the quintessential elegant being, he treated me like a gentleman, inviting me to share his company at fine NY spots and on one occasion with my Mother, we arrived at a pleasant NY French bistro and were seated to a lovely round table. The waiter arrived, and my dear friend asked if he could “Please remove the dead flowers?” The waiter blushed and removed the sad centerpiece. Elegance is what makes you happy and we all know that changes over time with education. My answer would be that elegance is very much about standards according to culture and education. You cannot buy elegance. Some try but then it comes off as ostentatious or pompous.
My idea of elegance has everything to do with standards and a certain giddy enthusiasm. I get excited just at the idea of spotting an elegant creature or perhaps that thing that I feel has been associated to an individual who knew elegance and grace.
Grace Kelly, Jackie Stewart come to mind, chiffon scarves, pearls, wing tips, sailor stripes, pin stripes, fluency of languages and cultures, conversant, and enviable.
“No man is happy but by comparison” (Shadwell)
There in point is elegance is truly all about comparison and contrast.
Givenchy was an elegant creature.
In fact the epitome of elegance. Oscar de la Renta is today’s elegant man.
mr. eael i just cut my hair for the summer months to a very short crop without a side part. i can’t wait to be able to part my hair again. =) in menswear i am starting to like padded shoulders again after seeing some old pics of prince ranier. obviously he is a good example of someone who is not effete or androgynous but elegant. a jlc reverso with two faces was the first watch i ever liked. similar to yours in shape. a small round 34mm watch that is thin and gold on a black leather strap with a white face like the ones blancpain first tried to make in the 1990’s are similarly elegant. for another intangible thing i find leather scents elegant because they were in fashion during the 1920’s when people wore black tie more. chanel’s cuir de russie is elegance in a bottle. i like van cleef and arpels for men on myself. the furniture at soane i find elegant in a masculine way. perhaps the french are more elegant but hey i’m a guy! =)
I find this to be an interesting question and I take it personally as I’ve made it a life long study of elegance and the effect it has on peoples lives. To be elegant an item must possess the natural line of beauty, be overall balanced, with a sensual tension. With that said, I see above the mention of http://www.theopentalon.com , I also enjoyed the Architectural Digest Show in NY. I must say, it was my pleasure to see and experience that level of true elegance that exists in The Open Talon’s work.