I lament that our culture in many ways has set itself against elegance. We seem to shun it–even to fear it. The rise of inelegance–in humor, in our speech, in musical lyrics–makes me sad.
To be sure, I reject the pretentious as much as anyone else. But perhaps inelegance has become the new pretension. Perhaps in the rush to avoid seeming sophisticated, educated, traditional, and conventional, many of us merely try too hard to prove something without knowing what it is.
I began thinking of this in my adolescence when I looked at family photos from just a few years before I was born. My relatives dressed up for holidays, for travel, and even to go to the movies.
Being fond of classic cinema, I marvel at the fashions, the well-appointed dinner tables, the innocent sophistication of love songs, and the articulate diction of all those decades past. Certainly, it was idealized, but it promoted a sensibility that clearly had resonance for the mass audience of the day. People appreciated elegance; they respected it.
Elegance need not be stuffy nor exclusive nor even sophisticated. A jacket and tie…a cocktail dress…a linen tablecloth and napkins…an ironed handkerchief…fresh flowers in a vase…civility…G-rated conversation…music fit both for our toddler nieces and nephews and our grandparents.
Might we one day regain our tolerance for such things?
I am participating in the Two Writing Teachers March 2023 Slice of Life Challenge.
9 thoughts on “Elegance”
I hear your longing for a different cultural aesthetic. You’ve given me some food for thought.
Paul – How do you come up with tiny little tidbits that unearth a whole way of life and channel of thought? I marvel at your topics and this one is a magnificent pandora’s box. Although I am akin to simplicity, I can totally relate to your lamentation; I have often felt the way you do. I remember a priest at church once not-too-tactfully offered that many of the congregants present looked like they were going to a “tractor pull,” rather than Sunday mass. Although I did not align with his delivery, his assessment wasn’t far off. Even at school, I can sometimes see parallel similarities in faculty dress, and at travelers at the airport, too….
Thanks for getting my point, Deb. I could run the risk of projecting here a classist or culturally prescriptive notion of elegance, but I genuinely mean it more in a manner of quiet, humble dignity. That could mean so many things to different people, I suppose.
Your post brought back so many memories. We were a financially challenged family growing up, but we dressed to go to church in our Sunday shoes. My mom ironed my dad’s handkerchiefs – it’s how I first learned to iron. When my parents could afford to go to a restaurant, it had to have tablecloths or it wasn’t worth the money. This made me think of things of another time. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world could have more elegance?
You seem to understand what I am trying to express–thank you! Funny that you mention handkerchiefs. When I visited relatives overseas for the first time as a young adult, one of them became a kind of mother figure to me and ironed all of my laundry, and I was uncomfortable being fussed over. From then onward, however, I began ironing everything on my own. I have an ironed handkerchief in my pocket right now!
I have many thoughts about these ideas, beginning w/ a longing to know how you define “elegance.” I can’t help but think of a cultural paradigm unique to upper middle class folk who could afford linen tablecloths and napkins, which require ironing. I can’t help but think about language paradigms that privilege a certain standard of English that diminishes others. I taught speech (rhetoric) 38 years and often hear comments from people, especially when I travel, about how well I speak, something that makes them think I’ll police their usage until I convince them otherwise. I remember reading Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” decades ago, and the line “If you do t want your young men to talk dirty, don’t send them to war.” I try to understand the rhetorical moves of those who use taboo language so I know the subtext, what’s at work in their speech, lyrics, etc. I suppose I err on the side of tuning out rather than tuning in when a cultural phenomenon is one I’d rather avoid. A few days ago I saw a series of memes chronicling advanced women have made in my lifetime. These include getting a credit card and keeping one’s job during pregnancy. Your descriptions of “elegance” remind me of a time before I had those rights. To put that in perspective: Im 64. BTW, I like the sneakers worn w/ a dress trend. I suffered through stilettos in my youth, and Im not going back to those days.
I value your commentary because I, too, see a correlation between that cultural paradigm you mention and the oppressive conventions that used to prevail–and do their best to persist. I have struggled with (and written about) the changes that came about around the time of my birth (1968) and the throwing out of the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. This post (https://mrfornalesblog.com/2022/03/30/1968/) might begin to answer the question you raise at the beginning of your remark.
But to state it more concisely, I think of elegance partly as engineers do: as simple and unpretentious.
With all due respect, the dress code you suggest for women is neither simple nor unpretentious. I’d add that standards of simplicity are social constructs, and in terms of language, novels for example, syntactic structures are simpler now than during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (sans Hemingway, and he was an unapologetic misogynist.)
Maybe life was simpler for men in 1968, but it certainly wasn’t for women or POC.
I do think English teachers should—generally speaking—focus writing instruction more on concision and logical discourse, but that, too, we must acknowledge, finds its origins in Aristotelian logic, and even though this is what I taught, I know the inherent problems w/ it.
It’s interesting to me that 1968 is the turning point for you given its importance to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
I really wonder what sense of nostalgia informs your thinking. What have you personally lost as a consequence of these social and cultural changes you lament!
I wonder, too. Lots to reflect upon.