I just reread a book that I first read some twenty years ago when it was fresh off the press titled The Power of Style. The authors spent four years researching archives of such publications as Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Town and Country as well rare book shops to amass a collection of a hundred stylish women. They narrowed this list down to just fourteen ladies. Curiously, neither movie stars nor royalty were included. So what seemed to be the common denominator that resulted in these fourteen women being selected? People have different opinions about what constitutes style. For example, Jacqueline de Ribes was quoted to say, “Style is what makes you different,” while Givenchy advised, “With style, you must stay as you are.” Coco Chanel, probably the greatest lady of style of the twentieth-century, commented that “Fashion changes – style remains.” Let’s look at some of the ladies who were chosen. Elsie de Wolfe is known as the first interior decorator, transforming the dark, somber interiors of the 1920’s into light and cheerful rooms filled with Chintz. She came from a middle class background and was, in her own words, “ugly”. At about the age of twenty, she spent time in Scotland with relatives complete her education and being introduced to society. After discarding her drab school uniform to be fitted with appropriate dresses, she discovered that the lovely, soft colors of her new dresses in silk, linen and cashmere transformed her appearance and revealed a delightful figure. She decided that she need never again be ugly. Elsie de Wolfe was a gifted interior designer and an adept businesswoman but she perfected her style by recognizing who she was and what colors and styles best complimented her. Her focus was on her positive attributes and never seemed to go back and dwell on those she did not possess.
Jacqueline Kennedy Oanssis was also one of the fourteen women featured. She had an incredible sense of style. In looking over photos of her clothing during the campaign and the time she served as First Lady, it was easy to see that each garment was designed for the same person. She had a skeletal line (her bone structure was prominent) so she selected designs that looked like sculptures, beautifully complimenting her line. She was a reserved, private person and her clothes reflected this – nothing flamboyant but refined and elegant. I don’t believe I have ever seen a photo where she was not appropriately dressed for the occasion. It is evident that she understood her own personal style and remained true to it. The book also included ladies like Diana Vreeland, fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar and later Vogue, Coco Chanel, and the Duchess of Windsor. Some ladies were great beauties, others not. Some came from common, disadvantaged backgrounds, others from wealth.
All of them had excellent social skills but I think what truly gave them style, is that each woman knew who she was and built upon that knowledge. Some, like Elsie de Wolfe, accepted that she was not a beauty but emphasized those attributes that were outstanding. Each lady, recognized her “personal style” and made the most of it, thus, each was chosen as an icon of style during the twentieth century. Now, let’s look at the seeming contradictory statements defining style from the first of this article – “Style is what makes you different” and “With style, you must stay as you are.” If you know your individual style, you will be uniquely you, having a different style than others while at the same time, staying true to who you are. Thus, the quote from Coco Chanel rings true, “Fashion changes – style remains.”