For the New First Lady, Some Elements of Style
Since America’s fashion pride appears to depend entirely on what Michelle Obama wears in the next few days, I thought I could do my bit by offering her some advice from maybe the best paragraphs on style ever written, by E.B. White in Chapter Five of “The Elements of Style.”
White’s subject was writing style, of course, but it doesn’t take too much paraphrasing to see that style is style, whether in lines on a page, or lines on a woman. Getting right to it, with apologies to Mr. White and hoping he would have enjoyed some mirth from it:
In this final chapter, we approach style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of fabrics, causing them to explode in the mind? . . . These are high mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised. There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good fashion . . .
Style is an increment in fashion. When we speak of Jackie’s style, we don’t mean her command of the Empire silhouette, we mean the gleam her clothes bring to the eye.
With some women, style not only reveals the spirit of the woman, it reveals her identity, as surely as would her fingerprints.
Young fashionistas often suppose that style is a garnish for the form, a dressing by which an ordinary dish is made attractive. Style has no such separate entity; it is non-detachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is herself she is approaching, no other; and she should begin by turning resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style – all mannerism, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.
The first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none – that is, place yourself in the background.
Dress in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using fabrics and colors that come readily to mind . . . Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains to admire what is good.
Work from a suitable design. Design informs even the simplest structure. You raise a little black dress from one sort of vision, an inaugural gown from another.
Do not be afraid to seize whatever you have chosen and cut it to ribbons; it can always be restored to its original condition in the morning, if that course seems best. Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your ensemble ends up in need of major surgery.
Do not overdress. When you overdress, the party will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement, as well as everything that follows it, will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise.”
There is more — “Prefer the standard to the offbeat,” for example — but this is a suitable place to close. I don’t know how many women I have stood next to, who I thought were revealing too much, and I had to defeat the urge to ask, “Have you ever read E.B. White?”