A dignified grace. Sophistication. Refined taste and manners. An element of gentility. How do we define elegance and its place in fashion today? Claudia Croft identifies what it is, and who has it.
What does elegance mean in the 21st century? Does it have a place in a world where yoga pants count as legitimate daywear? Where leering logos grace the backs of countless members of Generation Z? Where, if you look down, you will be tripping over tank-like trainers deliberately designed to offend the eye? In short, do we even care about elegance anymore?
The answer is yes. Elegance is back – and we haven’t seen the like of it since the louche, lean silhouettes of Saint Laurent in the seventies (the last time elegance mattered). Before that, we can look to the golden age of couture, its codes and silhouettes glorified in Irving Penn’s highly stylised pictures.
Back in the 1940s, elegance was something the women of war-ravaged Europe aspired to. Its expensive polish was the ultimate signal of superior femininity and class. Think of Audrey Hepburn’s swan-like neck or the Duchess of Windsor, whippet-thin in a bias-cut dress, looking every bit as polished as the Cartier jewels around her neck.
"Think of Audrey Hepburn’s swan-like neck or the Duchess of Windsor, whippet-thin in a bias-cut dress."Claudia Croft
Elegance – expensive, composed, haughty and static. It wows the eye, but who has the time, discipline or lifestyle to commit to it in 2019?
"There’s a lot of pressure these days to do things at such a pace that sometimes you lose a bit of the soul," says Givenchy artistic director Clare Waight Keller. "There’s a lot to be said for beauty and craft, for taking time and making something special. People feel that when they see it." Elegance fulfils an emotional need, too. In a messy, chaotic world, the clean line of a jacket, sharp nip of a waist and defined kick of a pair of well-cut trousers provide a much-needed sense of clarity, order and harmony. The look is defiantly unruffled.
The elegance revival started the moment Meghan Markle ascended the steps of St George’s Chapel in her Givenchy wedding gown in the summer of 2018. Grand but simple, the dress was fashioned with just six seams and was so pure in silhouette that it felt like a palette cleanser. Later, when the new bride changed into a sinuous Stella McCartney halterneck gown, the impact of her pared-down glamour became clear. Both dress choices threw the spotlight on Meghan the woman. She was neither overshadowed nor overwhelmed by her clothes – now that’s chic.
It’s also modern. If old couture elegance demanded total submission to an exaggerated sense of style, 21st-century elegance frames the wearer – it enhances them, it doesn’t eclipse them. Borne of her desire to redefine royal dress codes for the 21st century – the better to suit a modern, feminist duchess with a clear philanthropic mission – Markle moved the concept away from the simply decorative, while still giving people something to look at. Her sleek look has seeped into the culture.
The conversation continued a month later, when Kim Jones made his menswear debut for Dior. Most fashion watchers had expected him to push on with the luxury streetwear look he’d pioneered, the one that was trending everywhere. But instead, Jones delved into Dior’s archive (a place as far from the street as it is possible to get) and came up with a collection that crossed menswear with haute couture, resulting in a daring new refinement (looser tailoring, lace T-shirts, embroidery on painterly shirts). Notably, the collection looked just as good on women as men: Bella Hadid sat in the front row wearing a yellow version of one of Jones’ men’s suits; graceful but dynamic, the American model is the very essence of new elegance.
Since then, a crescendo of catwalk moments has presented polished alternatives to the luxury streetwear and eclectic decoration that have dominated fashion for so long. Each brand is offering elegant solutions for a plethora of modern women. Women who want to weather the storms of the feminist revolution (albeit wearing combat boots from Dior and Prada, or the tough new leather coats from Bottega Veneta); rise above the fray with refinement (see the exquisite craftsmanship of Loewe or the monastic luxury of The Row); invest in clothes that are beautifully crafted and built to last (the perfect proportions of Dior’s Bar jacket, or the precision tailoring of Alexander McQueen); or simply revel in the quiet chic of luxurious understatement (Hermès and Brunello Cucinelli have this covered).
At Givenchy, the lean, defined silhouettes for both men and women come direct from haute couture. In her bid to balance dream clothes with real-world practicalities, Waight Keller used the craftspeople in Givenchy’s couture atelier to build and perfect her sharp-shouldered shapes, before translating them to ready-to-wear. "It was about getting something that felt bold, clean and really strong, but still modern," she explains.
Loewe designer Jonathan Anderson was also obsessed with finding a strong line for his AW19 collection. "It’s quite strict and crafted," he says. Like the 17th-century portrait miniatures that inspired the show, his clothes demand to be seen close up, with their fine pearl embroideries, lacework and eccentric cuts. "Craft under a microscope," he explains. "It became about reducing things."
At Celine, Hedi Slimane’s ode to anti-trendy bourgeois ’70s chic embraces classic feminine dressing, but manages to pulse with desire and urgency at the same time. On the catwalk, his retro-inflected pussy-bow blouses, tweedy culottes, tall boots and boyish blazers were paired with mirrored aviators and a scowl. Slimane’s Celine woman has inherited a taste for luxurious, beautifully made pieces, but wears them with vixen attitude.
Victoria Beckham – who has made everyday practical glamour her calling card – also played with feminine tropes for AW19. "She’s a lady, but she’s not ladylike. She’s proper, but not prim. You can feel a sense of her life through the clothes that she wears," says Beckham of the woman she imagined wearing her tailored skirt suits in heritage fabrics, silk scarf dresses, little argyle sweaters and cape-sleeved coats with spike-heeled scarlet leather boots. With a few considered tweaks of proportion and styling, Beckham has reinvented elegant dressing as something modern women with busy lives can embrace. To the manor born? More like to the boardroom born.
"She’s a lady, but she’s not ladylike. She’s proper, but not prim."Victoria Beckham
Beckham, it should be noted, has long been committed to polished chic. She famously declared that the airport was her catwalk, and she strides through the arrivals hall in her latest versions of a tailored coat, high-heeled pumps and sunglasses, when all around her are in tracksuit bottoms.
Even Rihanna, who unveiled her new Fenty fashion line in May, is focusing on modern, tailored silhouettes. "I love a corset. We put a corset in a suit, a dress, a shirt, a denim jacket and a T-shirt dress," she says. Her mix of refinement and ease goes right to the heart of the new elegance. "It’s sweatpants with pearls, or a masculine denim jacket with a corset." And putting to bed Wallis Simpson’s brittle-boned edict that you can never be too rich or too thin (well, the thin part at least), Rihanna is putting size inclusivity on the agenda. "I’m thick and curvy right now, so if I can’t wear my own stuff, then that’s not gonna work, right? We go up to a 46 [UK size 18]."
Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between the elegance of old and the sleek dressing-up of now – it doesn’t depend on having a stretched-thin Giacometti aesthetic. Nor does it depend on class or race. Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino gave the classic grand proportions of his couture a new attitude by showing it on a diverse cast of models – to make the point that "everybody should be allowed to dream". After the show, he said: "For me, couture is about individuality, about being one of a kind." And so the spotlight falls on the woman, not the clothes.
"Elegance and style are more to do with the way you treat other people than what you wear," says designer Gabriela Hearst. "For us, it’s never been a trend, it’s been about the way you dress – and the woman I have in mind doesn’t want to get dressed as a Christmas tree." Combining craft, care and dignified design, Hearst brings a whole new meaning to being well-dressed.
Line, silhouette, craft, quality and thought: it all adds up to an elegant solution.