What Is Chic?
We are indebted to Evelyn Waugh for this thumbnail sketch of NANCY MITFORD, whose latest novel, The Blessing, was the Book-of-theMonth Club selection for November. “She is the first of the long line of daughters of Lord Redesdale . . . all beautiful and wildly individual. . . . Nancy received no education at all except in horsemanship and French. Liverish critics may sometimes detect traces of this defect in her work. But she wrote and read continually and has in the end achieved a way of writing so light and personal that it can almost be called a ‘style.’”With her husband, the Hon. Peter Rodd, the explorer, she now lives in the heart of Paris.
by NANCY MITFORD
I REALLY prefer the word elegance. “Chic” has lost value in its native country — “Chic alors!” cries the street urchin on finding 10 francs in the gutter — and it never had much prestige in England. Roget in his Thesaurus lumps it together with “style, swank, swagger and showing off"; indeed it represents everything that the English most dislike, a sort of bright up-to-date fashionableness they have never aspired to. For elegance in England is of such a different stuff from that in any other country that it is not easy to make foreigners believe in if at all. (As regards the women, that is. English men and small children are universally admitted to be the model of good dressing; our two Princesses set the fashion for the world until they were ten.) It is based upon a contempt of fashion and a limitless self-assurance.
When the Empress Eugénie paid a stale visit to England she went with Queen Victoria 1o the opera. The English sighed a little as two queens stood together in the Royal Box during the playing of the National Anthem; the beauty in her Paris clothes quite eclipsed dumpy little red-faced Victoria. Then the time came for them to take their seats. The Empress with a graceful movement looked round at her chair, but Queen Victoria dumped straight down, thus proving unmistakably that she was of royal birth and upbringing. Had that chair not been in its place the skies would have fallen, and she knew it. The audience was proud of its Queen and never gave the parvenue Empress another thought — indeed nobody in England was at all surprised when shortly afterwards the Second Empire fell.
Nearer our own time, two English duchesses were turned away from Christian Dior for being too dowdy. In England, if you are a duchess you don’t need to be well dressed — it would be considered quite eccentric. Actually I cannot imagine why the two ladies wanted to go at all. Perhaps their poor feet were hurting, and they thought they would like to sit for a while, seeing in their minds’ eyes the soothing empty salons of Monsieur Worth in the days when their mothers dressed there. (In the days of their grandmothers Monsieur Worth came to the house, like any other tradesman.) They had surely not envisaged the scented scramble at the top of the stairs, the enervating atmosphere of a salon where no window may ever be opened, the hideous trellis of crossed nylon legs round the room, and the all-in wrestling match for each and every chair. The duchesses went quietly , and if they did not quite realize what an escape they had had, they were probably rather happy to sit on a bench in the Avenue Montaigne and watch the motors go by.
At the beginning of this century, when the English upper classes were rich and lived for leisure, society women bought all their clothes in Paris. When the dresses were delivered they were put away for at least two years, since, in those days, nothing was considered so common as to be dressed in the height of fashion. Prostitutes and actresses could flaunt the current clothes, it was quite all right for them, and indeed a mark of their profession, but “one of us, dear child,”never. Even the men would not think of wearing a new suit until it had spent one or two wet nights in the garden, making it look at least a year old.
Now this tradition continues in London. The big dressmakers there slavishly follow the Paris fashion of two years before, while the people in the streets lag another year, so that to anybody arriving from Paris the clothes have an odd and disproportioned look, skirls too long or short, waists too high or too low, and so on. Anyhow the word elegant cannot truthfully be applied to the English by day. Ladylike is the most that can be said. They really have no idea of what day clothes should be; and contrary to what is sometimes supposed, their sport s and country clothes are deplorable. They are of tweed thick and hard as a board, in various shades of porridge, and made to last forever. For town clothes English women have only one solution, a jacket and very tight skirt with what the fashion papers call “a cunning slit up the back‚” to enable them to walk, dividing rather horribly over their calves. On the shoulder hangs a fox which looks upon the world with a beady eye.
The women in London streets give a general appearance of tidy dreariness, but these same women seen at a ball are a surprise and a delight. For it is in the evening that English women excel. With their beautiful jewels glittering on their beautiful skins, with the consciousness of an immense superiority showing in every movement, put them in any old satin skirt and deep décolleté and they are unbeatable. There is no more dazzling sight in the world than a ball at Buckingham Palace.
French women, we are often told, are the best dressed in the world. But where are they? Foreigners visiting Paris for the first time are often disappointed because they never see anybody at all well dressed. The fact is that elegance in Paris is confined to a small group of women who are seldom seen in public and never in the streets. They get into their own motors inside their own courtyards, rarely eat in restaurants or appear at the big dressmakers (a selection of the clothes is sent for them to see at home), and in short it is an act of faith for the ordinary tourist to believe that they exist at all. They do however, and are absolutely powerful in the world of elegance, since it is their taste which, in the end, everybody follows.
French dress designers, hairdressers, and cooks are admitted to be the best in the world, but it is a commonplace that they lose their eye, their hand, and their taste after a few years in England or America. Why? Because they are no longer under the disciplinary control of les femmes du monde— that is to say, of a very few rich, ruthless, and savagely energetic women who know what they want and never spare anybody’s feelings in their determination to get it. Back goes the dress, back goes the dish, back into the washtub goes the head, until the result is just exactly perfect — then and then only is heard the grudging “Pas mal.” Their vigilance extends to the smallest details. I once bought a suit in an expensive English shop and gave it to my Paris dressmaker for some small alteration. She told me she had been obliged to take it home and do it herself since she could not risk letting the girls in her workroom see how badly it was finished off. “But how could you have accepted it ?” she kept saying. I didn’t like to tell her that since I had not turned it inside out, as any French woman would have done, I had no idea how the seams were sewn.
Anglo-Saxons do not quite understand French elegance and what it is. They have a vague romantic idea that any French woman can take any old bit of stuff, give it a clever twist, and look chic in it. This may be true of Italian peasants, but not of Parisians. Dressing, in Paris, is not a craft; it is an art not to be come by easily or cheaply; Parisians are not peasants but citizens of the most civilized town in the world. When they cannot afford the time and money to be really well dressed, they abandon the idea of clothes and concentrate instead upon cooking and their children’s education. Cheap dresses with a cheaply fashionable air do not appeal to French women. They are perfectionists and will either have the best or nothing at all.
In writing about Americans I find myself at a disadvantage so great that perhaps I really should not attempt it. For I have never been to America. I study it, of course. I look at Life and Time and the New Yorker; I hang about behind Americans at cocktail parties and listen to what they are saying to each other. I read their books, in many of which they seem to behave oddly, nipping off their own breasts with garden shears and so on, but no more oddly I suppose than the English of Wuthering Heights. America is to me some great star observed through a telescope, and I never feel quite sure that it exists, now, or whether its light is nol coming to me across centuries of time (future time, of course).
If I may venture then to speak about American elegance, as observed through my telescope during many a long wakeful night I should say it is the elegance of adolescence. The bobby-soxers, the teen-agers, who seem to what we call “come out" at such an incredibly early age, are quite beautifully dressed. Their neat little clothes have more than an echo of Paris, the skirts are the right length, the waists in the right place, and they are, very suitably for children, understated. I imagine it would not do to turn them inside out and examine the seams. These young Americans do not care to have one good dress and wear it a whole season; they would rather have a quantity of cheap dresses and throw them away after two or three wearings. As I look through my telescope I see a charming flock of radiant little girls, beautifully turned out, clean, shining, with regular teeth, wonderful figures, and china skins. I also see a crowd of gracious ladies in canasta gowns, impeccable, not one blue hair out of place. But what happens to the intermediate ages? At what point do old little girls turn into young old ladies? Where are the grown-up women in the prime of life dressed as adults?
I think that the elegance of these three countries can be summed up by saying that in England the women are elegant until they are ten years old and always perfect on grand occasions; in France a few women are entirely elegant always; in America most women are smart and impeccable but with too much of an accent on immaturity for real elegance. But the cosmopolitan American woman dressed in Paris is the very height of perfection.