Elegance, a refinement of taste to cultivate polite society

Teach us that wealth is not elegance, that profusion is not magnificence, that splendor is not beauty. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) 1st Earl Beaconsfield

So what is elegance?

Oxford Dictionary tells us it is a combination of graceful, stylishness, distinction, and display of good taste in appearance, behaviour and movement. It is about projecting satisfying or admirable neatness as well as ingenious simplicity.

Movements for example are executed, or made, with an important combination of skill, ease and grace so that they appear exceedingly neat, simple and very concise.

It was Paris’s leading fashion designer Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971) who would later point out that ‘elegance does not consist in putting on a new dress…nor is it, the prerogative of those who have just escaped from adolescence, but of those who have already taken possession of their future‘. As indeed she had and her style would become a byword for those seeking modish elegance.

Elegance, as an integral aspect of polite society, began to emerge during the seventeenth century at Paris, when the daughter of the new Roman Ambassador, the Marquise du Rambouillet also took charge of her own destiny establishing a code of acceptable societal behaviour for those who visited her salon. All by herself she quietly brought about a revolution and refinement of manners ensuring those who attended were not only courteous to each other but also considerate of each other’s needs and sensibilities. She banned, spitting, farting, burping, loutish behaviour and drunkenness, refusing entry to those who would not respect her code. Within a short time she had a huge waiting list of people wanting to attend her elegant evenings. Her idea was copied all over Europe in countries eager to cultivate polite society

The age of light and elegance in the decorative arts and mind during the eighteenth century in Europe, was lit by candlelight. Ostentation was not admired. The depth of your character and sincerity was proved by being quietly tasteful, simply attired, polite in all things and by ensuring that elegance was an innate aspect of who you were.

Painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) is renowned for having endowed history with lyric faces. Like his predecessors he was one of the greatest European painters of his time and knew precisely the type of elegance demanded by his sitters. His profound and poetic sensibility meant that he never compromised or produced trivial work.

The Honourable Mrs Graham is a likeness of one of the most beautiful women ever painted by Gainsborough and reveals his technical virtuosity. All the crinkled folds of her dress are like notes of music blending elegantly and harmoniously together.

It is the finest of his full length portraits of a woman who died aged 35 devastating her husband who adored her. The painting was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Scotland by her descendants only on the condition it never leaves that place.

English aristocrats further refined elegance during the period known as Georgian, which encompasses the reign of the first four Kings named George from 1714 to 1830. This was when polite society was striving for aesthetic perfection especially in their houses, which were set in almost perfect landscapes.

They were urged on by an awareness of, and appreciation for the ‘antique’, striving to emulate the ideal – classical perfection.

By the mid eighteenth century promenading in the park or perching in a classical pavilion sited on a small hill adhered to the ideal of “to see and be seen”, an important characteristic of the Palladian style.

Perfection in the landscape included several small temples, which had been originally designed as a refuge from the hot Mediterranean sun.

They became focal points of beauty and places of refuge from the rain in England as it was now considered good for health and wellbeing to enjoy a daily stroll in the park or countryside.

Our view of the Brockman family and their friends were recorded by Edward Hatly at Beachborough Manor, Kent around 1745. He depicted them as being as one with nature, or adhering to the family motto “Esse Quam Videri” “To be, rather than to appear to be.

From the socially competitive atmosphere of London’s elegant drawing rooms to the assembly rooms at Bath, as well as the more robust attractions of the period’s most popular coastal resorts like Brighton, elegance became integral to a display of style in society.

The interior designs of rooms, complete with colour, texture and appointment of furniture described by Jane Austen in her novels, presented an image of sublime world everyone wanted to inhabit.

George Hepplewhite’s ‘Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide appeared in 1788. Its laudable aim was to ‘unite elegance and utility’ and produce furniture that would be serviceable to a gentleman, follow prevailing fashion and yet be without extravagance. No elegant, modern drawing room was complete without stylish sofas and settees the fashionable could read or recline on, such as Sir Walter Elliot’s family in Jane Austen‘s Persuasion.

The so-called promiscuous seating at dinner was at last the norm. While it sounds risque, it meant nothing less than women and men being seated alternately at the table together and in order of rank. The most important person was seated on the right of the host, the next most important to the right of the hostess with the rest in between.

Elegant vases made of glass, sterling silver or the new and very fashionable stoneware from Mr. Wedgwood surmounted simple white starched linen table cloths that were embellished with very fine drawn thread work or couched with raised embroidery. Vases were filled with many different types of flowers, which had been picked fresh from the garden and loosely arranged. These were placed onto great tables made of the rage new stylish timber mahogany, which was so strong elegantly carved fluted legs were now possible.

Their design was inspired by the different styles of columns on a Greek temple and supported the weight of all the dainty dishes of rare and sweet delicacies. Cruets for oil and vinegar were used with salt in glass cruets. Wine glasses were placed to the right of the diner with wine served cold.

Plates were always warmed before serving a practical consideration in a northern clime. Beautiful ‘china’, glassware and silverware displayed the family crest or coat of arms, proving to those who sat down at table with you that your lineage was not only important and could be traced to ancient, the inference being more important, times.

Guests were seated on chairs, whose prototype was to be found on wall paintings at Pompeii, while women’s dresses emulated the ladies of classical Greece and Rome. Although some went too far by wetting their dresses to appear like Goddesses on Greek temples.

Despite wrapping themselves in great warm and wonderfully exotic cashmere shawls, originally designed for Eastern men, many stylish ladies succumbed to cold and pneumonia, which was not really good or an  elegant look at all.

There were many practical considerations of etiquette for those planning an elegant evening in the Age of Elegance.

The invitation was warm and welcoming, handwritten in script format on card inserted into a matching envelope made of classic laid white or ivory paper and lined with coloured or gilded papers. Likewise the acceptance was always hand written.

It was certainly not considered polite to arrive carrying gifts. This was regarded as being very inconsiderate because the hostess would be put in a position of having to abandon greeting her other guests to take care of them.

Any gifts of flowers for the hostess were sent prior to your visit by delivery. This way she would have time to arrange them in a prominent place to greet all her guests as they arrived and have time to thank you properly.

The setting would normally be in a large room of a private residence, preferably built of stone.

The host and hostess would wait at the door in the hall to greet all the guests. After they had all been received they then split into two to search out, and find those who were shy or did not know anyone at all.

They would then take them and introduce them to others while at the same time letting the people they were being introduced to know something about their profession, their family or a hobby so that there was a starting point for polite conversation to follow. Then, and only then would they move on.

A string quartet or trio played before and during dinner and following dinner there would be a singer accompanied on a piano the ‘recital’ held in a room to which everyone had ‘withdrawn’, becoming eventually known as the Withdrawing Room and then shortened to Drawing Room.

Guests always wore plain colours. Men wore black in the evening, as it was always symbolic of being a ‘gentleman’. The ladies wore a simple frock complete with real pearls, never diamonds, unless they were larger than four carats so that you could blind everyone by their brilliance!

The time for dinner varied enormously. It was the principal vehicle for hospitality, as well as the main meal of the day. It crept from 12 noon to 3 o’ clock by 1763 but by 1784 was at 5 o’clock. In the country it was between 2 and 4 but by 1811 was at 7pm. An invitation to dine usually meant most of the afternoon and evening…say from 3 – 10 or 5 until midnight.

Until around 1800 there were no fixed dining tables, the servants bringing in and setting up trellises covered with white damask cloths. The hostess always escorted in the most important male guest, the host the most important female guest and they entered with a ceremony of progress.

In eighteenth century England, consumption of alcohol reached extreme levels, causing some observers to fear for the stability of the social structure. Foreign wines from France were all the go, with Champagne, a new exciting and expensive drink and the most desirable for pre dinner drinks. Beer was for far lesser mortals. Tea was the most popular of all drinks and caused much controversy so it was kept under lock and key. Coffee was expensive with chocolate remaining fashionable for two centuries.

An elegant dinner menu might include Asparagus Soup, Sole in Red Wine with Anchovy, Ragout of Cucumber, Chicken or Rabbit Fricassee, Potato Pudding, Oyster Loaves, Lemon Jelly, Orange Ice Cream, Savoury Cheese Toast. (Note the savoury served last after the sweet). The serious business of eating took at least two hours with the ladies withdrawing for coffee, tea and scandal leaving their ‘heroes’ to their pleasure, to settle the nation’s destiny, toast their mistresses and drink themselves under the table.

The art of dining was revolutionised during the 1860’s when it became the custom to lay the table with complete place settings that had name cards and all the courses were handed around in silver dishes by a retinue of servants serving directly from the sideboard.

Prior to this time you had needed one servant per guest for any elegant repast, but now one for four was the normal rule and much more prudent. Candles surmounted by candle shades were considered the most elegant.

Three damask cloths on top of each other were the norm, one taken away with each course until at dessert the splendour of the timber table underneath was revealed. A folded napkin was set besides each place setting and different wines now meant a new glass for each. Three courses plus dessert was the norm, followed by a drinking interval for the men and coffee.

While much has changed since an evening of traditional elegance, say at the White House or Government House in Australia, would still include: candlelight, a classical setting and courteous consideration; fellowship, fine food and frank discussion; lovely linens, marvellous music, new faces and fresh flowers and wonderful wines, wit, style and above all, wise organisation so that it appears not to be contrived at all.

Carolyn McDowall © The Culture Concept Circle 2011

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