The word elegant illuminates everything from fashion to mathematics, architecture to handwriting. Yet few are able to define it completely.
Audrey Hepburn enchanted with a European grace and inspired warmth. Grace Kelly captivated as a blonde bombshell possessed by a regal lightness. Jackie Kennedy Onassis fascinated with a razor-sharp intelligence and a steely definition of public versus private.
Yet the unique qualities that made them elegant could only be summed up as that je ne sais quois, that certain special something. In an effort to solve the elegance riddle, let us look to the experts.
“What is elegance? Soap and water!”
- Sir Cecil Beaton
Sir Cecil Beaton made his mark as a portrait photographer for the most beautiful celebrities and socialites of his day and as a costume designer of Academy Award proportions (think: dripping-with-elegance Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady). He not only knew beautiful women, he himself became a member of the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame. And while it may take a bit more than soap and water, it is true—the women who manage to maintain consistently well-manicured hands and feet, glowing hydrated skin and shiny, silky hair are awe-inspiring. In fact, it seems they have it all before they ever step foot into a dress.
“Grooming is the secret of real elegance. The best clothes, the most wonderful jewels, the most glamorous beauty don't count without good grooming.” - Christian Dior
“Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” - Coco Chanel
An orphan by the age of 12, a seamstress who built an empire, a mistress of many, wife to none—very little is simple about the life of Coco Chanel. Inspired by men’s clothing, she defined what it meant to be elegant as a modern woman in the 20th century. The lines were clean, the fabrics slightly scandalous (the jersey used in men’s underwear!) and quite comfortable. Women who change the world rarely do it without disturbances, but elegant ones hardly let you notice the ripple in the water.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
- Leonardo da Vinci
“Elegance is innate. It has nothing to do with being well dressed. Elegance is refusal. The only real elegance is in the mind; if you've got that, the rest really comes from it.” - Diana Vreeland
Diana Vreeland, once the last word in style, spent most of her days at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue dressed in all black, nails perfectly manicured and just one (or maybe two) well chosen pieces of jewelry. She captivated by speaking in proclamations rather than sentences—always deliberate, rarely frivolous. Self-possessed women carry themselves differently, head always held high, words well chosen and a poise that evolves into a slight swagger when they move across the room. The last thing they want is for their clothes to speak for them.
“Knowledge is the only elegance.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Isn’t elegance forgetting what one is wearing?”
- Yves Saint Laurent
Yves Saint Laurent put the 60s beatnik on the map, introduced women to the tuxedo suit (the Le Smoking) and democratized fashion by making prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) reputable. He was a renegade who played with masculine versus feminine and faded the line between wealth and style. For those wise enough to know, no matter what label or the cost, the clothes should always come second. It’s how you carry yourself, and what you believe about yourself, that matters most.
“Elegance is a question of personality, more than one's clothing.” - Jean Paul Gaultier
“Although there exist many thousand subjects for elegant conversation, there are persons who cannot meet a cripple without talking about feet.” - Ernest Bramah
A Renaissance man, the short stories and novels of Ernest Bramah ranked alongside the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. Even George Orwell credited him as an influence. As the creator of Kai Lung, he was known for a popular wit and shrewd insights, yet remained ever reluctant to say too much about his personal life. Those who know what to say and what not to say tend to go far in life. They never display vulgarity in any form and put polite restraint above any begging curiosity. The elegant among us are a pleasure to be around because they are rarely, if ever, offensive.
“Elegance is not the prerogative of those who have just escaped from adolescence, but of those who have already taken possession of their future.” - Coco Chanel
“I will only say now that elegance must be the right combination of distinction, naturalness, care and simplicity. Outside this, believe me, there is no elegance. Only pretension.”
- Christian Dior
The designs of Christian Dior put the woman back into womanly. At one time, he was responsible for half of the fashion exports from France and dressed royal beauties ranging from Ava Gardner to the Duchess of Windsor. Dior himself was a short, slightly round, bald man with a crippling shyness. What he appreciated was someone to smile warmly and listen intently. When a sincere interest is shown, it has the power to dispel boundaries and endear oneself—even if only for a few magical moments.
“We must never confuse elegance with snobbery.” - Yves Saint Laurent
Of course, trying to pin down elegance is a bit like trying to count the stars in the night sky. Its grasp is far-reaching, its complexities many. The elegance of a handwritten thank you note is equally as appealing as the ability to laugh at oneself. We may never be able to define it properly, but one thing is certain—we will know it when we see it.