Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Loss of Elegance

There is a lot to be said for “old school” practices. For instance, when a gentleman stands up to greet a lady who walks into the room, or when a young person gives up his/her seat for an older person, I am impressed by the good manners. But there is also an aspect of elegance to these actions. Opening doors for others, helping people with their coats, offering an arm to an elderly person who is getting out of the car or crossing the street, are in the same category. I am heartened when I witness such acts of “elegance.”

Unfortunately, in our self-obsessed, fast-paced, must get-ahead society, people often overlook the niceties, or consider them to be frivolous and anachronistic. Even though we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the fact is that we do. Barack Obama carries himself with a certain elegance…and look where he is now.

How we dress, how we speak, and how we carry ourselves go a long way in making an impression.

One of my favourite images of elegance is Audrey Hepburn. With her simple style—black outfits, black gloves, black shoes, black hat, big sunglasses, and white pearls—she epitomizes refinement. Maybe that’s why my wardrobe is crammed with far too many black garments. You don’t have to be svelte like Audrey to look good; just about any shape or size can assume a chic appearance when dressed in black.

People dress to self-express, but sometimes it pays to leave the jeans in the drawer and to sport something that makes people think, “Doesn’t he look sharp.”

My great-grandmother, who came to Canada from Hungary with nothing, always maintained that one must dress well. She scrimped and saved and eventually had a few beautiful garments made to measure—a dress, a skirt, two suits, a wool coat, and a couple of blouses. Her view was quality over quantity. Buy the very best classic design you can afford and then take good care of it. Fifty years later, my sister still wears Nano’s black wool winter coat and looks fabulous in it. Nowadays, we tend to go for quantity over quality and it shows.

One of my pet peeves is when my two sons answer my calls with a resounding, “Yeah?” To help them break the habit, I now charge twenty-five cents each time they answer with “yeah” rather than “yes.” But it works both ways. I’m not one to swear a lot, but every now and then, a word like “sh@#!” slips out of my mouth—usually for good reason, I believe, but not the most elegant choice of words. So when I do make that gaffe, the boys charge me a dollar. I think we are about even.

Littering a sentence with the word “like” is also unappealing. Like when you try to tell a story and like it’s hard to remember all the facts about like where you were and what you like said to the guy. If Barack Obama answered with a “yeah” when he was called on, if he swore when he got frustrated, or if he constantly used “like” when speaking, would he be President? Not likely. The word “elegant” even sounds elegant.

How we carry ourselves is also demonstrated by our confidence, poise, consideration and composure. People seem to be so caught up in their own world that they often lose sight of how their behaviour appears to others. And some people simply don’t care.

A while back I attended an executive development function where the president of a large corporation gave a speech to an audience of mostly women. He started by casually welcoming everyone to the event and it went downhill from there. He told us that he’d completely forgotten his anniversary and that his wife was none-too-pleased to find out that he was busy that evening. He laughed. I cringed. And to make matters worse, he told us, he didn’t even have a gift for her. The rest of the speech was an unscripted ramble about why his company was a great place to work and how progressive it was in hiring talented women. Where was the leadership elegance?

We want leaders whom we can respect, admire, and who make good role models. Is the “gentleman” (or gentlewoman) a thing of the past? I hope not. But I haven’t seen too many around lately.

In society, people can be impatient, nasty and downright awful. And civility seems to be waning. Sometimes I’m really disappointed in the lack of courtesy, decorum, and elegance in human behaviour. But then I’ll see a young person dressed smartly, speaking eloquently, giving up their seat in the subway for a little old lady, and I am reassured that elegance is not yet a thing of the past.

Time Tested Beauty Tips
(A favourite poem of Audrey Hepburn; it was read at her funeral)

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.

For beautiful hair, let a child run his/her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.
People, even more than things, have to be restored,
renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.

Remember, if you ever need a helping hand,
you will find one at the end of each of your arms.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands;
one for helping yourself, and the other for helping others.

The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears,
the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair.
The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes,
because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.

The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mole,
but true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul.
It is the caring that she lovingly gives,
the passion that she shows,and the beauty of a woman with passing years only grows!

By Sam Levenson


  1. I'm a big fan of Audrey Hepburn too. She seemed like the epitome of grace. And I don't know if it's the twenty-five cent fines, but your boys are growing up to be wonderful young men!

  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking and well-written post, Carla! I believe in elegance and good manners, too, and it never fails to touch my heart when people show that they value it as well. The poem is wonderful and very touching. Also, I like that you mentioned your Hungarian great-grandmother's sense of quality and style. Especially as my mood and weight tend to "fluctuate", especially as the weather becomes colder, it's important to remember that elegance and grace come from within, and are not resultant from the size number on my slacks! :) Christy

  3. You must have been happy to hear that the TTC will be charging fines to people who do not give up their seats for the hadicapped, elderly or pregnant women - not sure how they plan to monitor it, but it sounds like a great idea to me!!! It's funny you should write a piece about this Carla, as I have always thought of you as "elegant".