Sam and I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon deep in conversations between ourselves and with two master tailors, in preparation for a project we are working on together. While the men talked about the gentleman’s predicament of balancing the flair of looking put together against traditional notions of masculinity, I couldn’t help but meditate on what it means to be a lady in this day and age.
The school I went to for most of my growing years often emphasized grooming and deportment. While other girls our age made beelines for campsites or enrichment programmes the moment the academic semester was over, we had dining etiquette classes, watched classic films and got colour-matched with our ‘seasons’ at least a quarter of the time. However, while we might have always had a teacher breathing down our necks, telling us to pull up our socks (literally) or walk gently (and not ‘stomp up the stairs like elephants!!’), we had more than our fair share of exhortations to become thoughtful women of calibre who lived lives of purpose and grace, and that lesson was not completely lost on me — I hope!
Perhaps it is because of these years at school that I will always associate blue dresses, gold, clean whites and sassy little ponytail holders with learning to be a lady.
Here is a selection of beautiful things for ladies of all sorts — for those who like their finery, but also for those who would very simply like to waltz through each day with a little bit of grace. The accompanying text consists of excerpts from Meg Goes to Vanity Fair, which is a chapter from Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’. It was a much re-read book chapter from childhood that taught me about the perils of vanity that come after the first flush of beauty, as well as the importance of having goodness, happiness and a heart made of a more extraordinary substance.
On the Thursday evening, Belle shut herself up with her maid, and between them they turned Meg into a fine lady. They crimped and curled her hair, they polished her neck and arms with some fragrant powder, touched her lips with coralline salve to make them redder, and Hortense would have added `a soupcon of rouge’, if Meg had not rebelled. They laced her into a sky-blue dress, which was so tight she could hardly breathe and so low in the neck that modest Meg blushed at herself in the mirror…Mademoiselle is chatmante, tres jolie, is she not? cried Hortense, clasping her hands in an affected rapture.
What shall you tell her? asked Meg, full of curiosity to know his opinion of her, yet feeling ill at ease with him for the first time.
I shall say I didn’t know you, for you look so grown-up and unlike yourself, I’m quite afraid of you, he said, fumbling at his glove button.
How absurd of you! The girls dressed me up for fun, and I rather like it. Wouldn’t Jo stare if she saw me? said Meg, bent on making him say whether he thought her improved or not.
Yes, I think she would, returned Laurie gravely.
Don’t you like me so?‘ asked Meg.
No, I don’t, was the blunt reply.
Why not? in an anxious tone.
He glanced at her frizzled head, bare shoulders, and fantastically trimmed dress with an expression that abashed her more than his answer, which had not particle of his usual politeness in it.
I don’t like fuss and feathers.
She leaned her forehead on the cool pane, and stood half hidden by the curtains, never minding that her favorite waltz had begun, till some one touched her, and turning, she saw Laurie, looking penitent, as he said, with his very best bow and his hand out . . .Please forgive my rudeness, and come and dance with me.
I’m afraid it will be to disagreeable to you, said Meg, trying to look offended and failing entirely.
Not a bit of it, I’m dying to do it. Come, I’ll be good. I don’t like your gown, but I do think you are just splendid. And he waved his hands, as if words failed to express his admiration.
“My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.
I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”