A quiet, reflective pause takes place each August in Paris. The Parisians take off for the countryside or the beach. The city is left to misguided tourists (it’s hot and half the stores are closed.)
Those of us who find the tranquility welcome, nourishing, and productive (misguided writers) get to enjoy empty streets, long conversations with cafe waiters who have nothing to do, and uncrowded strolls along the Seine.
I savor the luxury of reflection to the fullest, and thoughts run random, if not wild. One of these trivial pursuits is the internet’s fascination with ‘French style’ and of course ‘Parisian style’. Blogs and fluff-n-puff news articles breathlessly promise to reveal the style secrets of my fellow citizens to the less enlightened around the world, and especially in the US.
For gents, they offer headlines such as ‘How To Wear a Black Suit’. (My initial response is: put your pants on with the zipper facing the front and then stick your two arms through the jacket sleeves with the buttons in the front, but I’m sure the author had more sophisticated goals in mind for his readers.)
For women, there’s ’36 Ways To Tie a Scarf’, or something to that effect, which put my brain in a blender without even reading the article. Just wrap it around your neck and go!
The thrust of the information overload was to label the ephemeral. To take vapors and lay them out on a table and quantify them. To take an individual example and create a rule.
Obviously, there is no ‘French’ way to do anything, really. There is a way of life here, but it is not practiced by everyone or recognized by everyone. I recognize it because it’s different and unique. I practice it because I like it. It agrees with my sense of self.
And part of that way of life is the appreciation of elegance. To define the Parisian version–or any version–of elegance is a fool’s errand, but, hey, you’ve been reading this fool’s blog for years. So here’s my definition of elegance: the unique, timeless, tasteful, and apparently effortless presentation of oneself to the world in dress, speech, and manner.
This definition leans more toward a personal quest to improve and evolve and less toward a shopping spree to acquire and display.
The challenge for capitalism and the trap for consumers is to create or accept the belief that one can project elegance by purchasing a particular product. Sadly for both capitalist and consumers, such is not the case.
From my laboratory (read: sidewalk cafe) I have watched all kinds of people don all kinds of outfits (and personas) in their search for elegance. From the label-n-logo heavy to the anti-fashion of the jeans and t-shirt, they try. And in trying, they fail.
For elegance does not aspire to anything else. It simply is, without explanation or expectation. I see it in ‘Vlad the Impaler’, a nickname I’ve given to a local eccentric who sports bespoke suits, velvet slippers, and vintage t-shirts. He tops off his look with Tibetan prayer beads, morgue-white skin, shoulder length black hair, the perpetual three-day stubble, and a look of perpetual amusement.
He smokes like a chimney, walks like a king, and somehow carries it all off with aplomb. He is elegant, but, as the warning goes, don’t try this at home.
Another example is my flea market friend whose leonine hair is swept back into a gold helmet, her black turtleneck and black wool pants set off against her red eyeglasses, and her pirate’s smile, usually holding a cigar hostage between her ivory teeth.
Both these people are elegant because they know who they are and they’re okay with that. They’ve refined their choices, certainly, but they have a certain element of disregard in their demeanor. (A lot of disregard, in Vlad’s case.)
Elegance, it follows, is more the result of giving your life and look a lot of thought rather than giving your credit card a lot of use.
So let’s endeavor to elevate our own personal elegance as we head back to work or back to school.
The world needs it.