I really prefer the word elegance. “Chic” has lost value in its native country. – Nancy Mitford, The Water Beetle
Reflecting on her love of Parisian couture houses and her annoyance with, what she felt, was the English’s inability to make a decent skirt, Nancy jotted down her fashion advice in the worldly little tome, The Water Beetle. And, she wasted no time with her appraisal. Style, swank, swagger and showing off, she chastised, represents everything that the English most dislike, “a sort of bright up-to-date fashionableness they have never aspired to”. The universal definition of elegance, she warned, was quite different in England. Men and little children, however, were viewed as the model of good dressing, “our Queen and Princess Margaret set the fashion for the world until they were ten”. Elegance to the Englishwoman was based on “a contempt of the current mode and a limitless self-assurance”. Ladylike is the appropriate term. Their sport and country clothes “are deplorable, they are of tweed thick and hard as a board, in various shades of porridge”. The English women residing in town were, to her horror, not much better. They had only one staple: a jacket and a tight skirt with what the fashion lot called a “cunning slit up the back” – to be avoided at all costs, for Nancy realised the slit divided horribly over the calves. Here we go with Farve’s irrational fears of women ruining their legs…
She reflects on the story of two English duchesses being turned away from Christian Dior because the people at the entrance considered the them too dowdy to be admitted into the cavernous House of Dior. The light scent of Miss Dior lingering in the showroom, the mad scramble of fashion models with their wasp waists and exaggerated peplum hips gathering on the staircase, and the “hideous trellis” of crossed nylons was no place for a Lady (in the Burke’s Peerage sense of the word).
“If you are a duchess,” Nancy advises, “you don’t need to be well dressed – it would be thought quite eccentric.” Why Dior, she wondered, when “they would certainly not have ordered anything”. Why indeed. Perhaps they were fatigued from a day of sight-seeing (terribly Non-U) and thought they should like to sit down for a while, having recalled the peaceful, empty salons in the days when their mothers and grandmothers were dressed by Worth. Though, she teased, in those days, Monsieur Worth visited the house like any other tradesman. In the early part of the twentieth century the English were rich and pleasure-loving, foreign currency was no problem, and society women bought their clothes from Paris. When the dresses were delivered they were stored away for at least two years, since in those gilded days, “nothing was considered so common as to be dressed in the height of fashion”. Showgirls and actresses could get away with it, but “one of us, dear child”, never. It was not just the ladies who were self-concious of displaying grandeur, the men, too, would not dream of wearing a new suit until it had spent one or two nights in the garden.
To Nancy, Paris was the most civilised place in the world, and dressing in Paris was an art “not to be come by easily or cheaply”. But what of the Americans?
Having never been to America and confessing to hold its culture in disdain, Nancy somewhat overlooked her prejudices to comment on American fashion. “America is to me some great star observed through a telescope, and I never feel quite sure it exists, now, or whether its light is not coming to me across centuries of time (future time, of course).” Whereas English children were considered smartly dressed, she realised the American teenager was a thing of elegance. “Their neat little clothes have more than an echo of Paris; the skirts are the right length, the waists in the right place, and they are, very suitable for children, understated,” she praised. The praise, however, ended there. She accused Americans of buying often, and cheaply too. The gap between children, teenagers, women and old ladies was muddled: “dolls’ clothes, clean, shining, with regular if rather big, teeth, wonderful figures and china skins”.
After exhausting the perils of dressing an Englishwoman, a Parisienne (Paris, to Nancy, stood apart from France) and an American, Nancy agreed they each had their merits. “In England the women are elegant until they are ten years old and perfect on grand occasions; in France a few women are entirely elegant always; in America most women are smart and impeccable, but with too much of an accent or immaturity for real elegance.” However, neither of the three women triumphed in her scrutiny of fashion. “The Latin American woman dressed in Paris,” she concluded, “is the very height of perfection.”