Remember elegance? Or do you? It’s been decades really since anyone or anything in our society might be considered “elegant.” Elegant, glamorous, suave, and sophisticated have all left the building. Elegance. Even the word itself sounds elegant. There are actually two meanings for the word elegance. One meaning has to do with scientific exactness and precision, such as an elegant solution. There are plenty of things in today’s world which would fit that definition. But that‘s not the meaning we’re concerned with here.
The other definition of elegance, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means refinement, grace, and beauty in movement, appearance, or manners. Using that definition I challenge you to name a person, place, or thing in today’s society that fits that description. It’s not easy but you might actually be able to come up with a throwback old fashioned restaurant or hotel, and maybe a piece of expensive jewelry or china. But what about a person? Where are the Grace Kellys, the Cary Grants, the Audrey Hepburns, and Fred Astaires of today?
Notice all the names I listed were movie stars, but celebrities were not the only elegant people, they were only the most visible. Once upon a time elegance was something that many people in all walks of life strived for. There were ladies and gentlemen. People dressed for dinner, they took pride in their appearance, and tried to look as elegant as they could. Not every woman was Audrey Hepburn, not every man was Fred Astaire, but they tried their damndest. The bar was high.
Beyond appearance, there was an elegance of attitude that went along with it. When you got dressed up, you acted better. Your manners were better, you spoke nicer, you stood and sat straighter, and you walked a bit more gracefully. It all went together as a package, that’s what was so wonderful about it. And other people saw you and treated you better; you elicit more respect and attention when you have an elegant way about you.
All aspects of life were finer. Dining was a part of living elegantly, hence the term, “fine dining.” Music wasn’t an assault, it was beautiful. Compare Cole Porter, Gershwin, and Rogers and Hart with anything written in the last twenty years. Shopping was a joy where sales clerks actually knew the products they were selling and did whatever they could to serve their customers. “Service” was a normal component in daily life whether it was in a store, a restaurant, a gas station, or a movie theater.
The elegance of individuals back then translated to elegance in other forms. Restaurants, hotels, shops, department stores, even office buildings took on a more refined, elegant look. Places had to reflect what people looked and acted like and they did, just as they do now. Years ago people were elegant and the places they went to matched them. Today people look and act sloppy, they are loud and brash, and the places they frequent are the same way. Restaurants are bright, loud, noisy, and unrefined, same with stores and all other public places. Music (or what passes for music) also matches today’s people, as does all the other arts.
Baseball players look like hoboes. Actors look like street people. And try to find a salesclerk in a store who believes in the old saw, “the customer is always right,” and really knows the merchandise. The elegance of good manners is gone, people don’t say “your welcome” anymore, it’s “no problem.” Courtesy has gone the way of hats, gloves, and stockings. Consideration of others is no longer a normal part of everyone’s daily life; it must be legislated if it exists at all.
Keeping one’s affairs private has become as outmoded as going into the buggy whip business. Everyone wants to share everything with everyone else in the world. The irony is no one really cares about anyone else’s cat photos or vacation destinations. Still they are posted for the entire universe to see on Facebook. “Here are my friends and me in this totally cool bar at the airport lounge inSydney. Oh man, we were soooo wasted! LOL”
I suppose we might still come up with a few truly elegant people in life. Prince William and his bride Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, would qualify I think. Author and journalist, Tom Wolfe, has always prided himself for dressing elegantly. And my wife Jane is about as elegant a lady as you’re likely to find anywhere.
We can’t control what our society is; we have no say in the fashion, music, and mores of our times. What we can do, however, is attempt a bit of personal elegance in our own lives. We can start with taking more pride in our appearance; try to dress things up a bit. Go for the glamour, the refinement, the class. Never mind what others look like, go ahead and “put on the Ritz,” as Fred Astaire did. After that, the rest will fall into place.