“Would you like to know how to be truly happy?” my mother once asked me, as she dangled a long stalk of celery in one hand and a silver-plated spoon in the other.
I climbed up onto her warm lap and answered, “No mama, but does it have something to do with playing?”
“In a way,” she said in a winsome manner. “Life is like playing happy, and about playing all of your cards in an elegant fashion.”
A very long time ago when “time” neither seemed to start or stop and when I was a dimpled imp of a girl…my only job in the world was to follow elegant women around houses of wood and tiled and carpeted floors, with the tip-tap-tapping of my Mary Jane black patent leather shoes as I tried to copy their every graceful footstep.
My first black and white memory is of my mother’s glowing face as she talked endlessly in the kitchen about why “being elegant and kind” was what being a beautiful woman really was all about.
“Never mind all that talk about wearing expensive shiny lipstick, having a fancy bedazzled purse, or carrying on about that box seat at the opera you didn’t get,” she said, as she swayed from side to side. It is really about how you carry yourself and how you just know you are always important.”
What did she mean?
I wondered this as I stared up at her billowing skirts flowered with colors of lavender and red, layered with soft fitted sweaters that captured her long white neck, stranded by a single string of pearls.
I said, “Yes Mama,” and tried my best to copy her walk, her manner of talk, and even fastened bobby pins to my curly thick hair that would never grow as long and sleek as hers.
She often hummed in a sing-song voice about having a gentle presence, and how I should always hold my head up high, no matter what commentary I received.
“Elegant ladies pay no mind to ignorant or ugly talk,” she said, languishing between one room and another while her feet glided like a dancer’s.
I first fell in love with this notion of supreme elegance during summers spent at our worn, seaside Southern California home. During the coldest and most foggy of mornings, as well as in the passing of sunsets that crisped burning and golden into my eyes, I understood the beauty of an elegant soul.
On some Sundays, my siblings and I would lilt amongst the never-wilted and salted gardens while we read German and English Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, poetry by Yeats, and stories by Rudyard Kipling. We would snack on homemade sandwiches that seemed to magically grow right out of our small refrigerator.
But what we did was never nearly important or as meaningful as how we did it, and that was with a sense of grace mixed with class, confidence and a humble manner.
My mother and grandmothers were my greatest sources of inspiration when it came to possessing these qualities, especially “elegance.”
They were my female heroes, my woman warriors of faith who never failed me, whom I looked up to endlessly for every measure of self-confidence and degree of style and class even when I had not a penny to my name, or felt entirely vulnerable and defeated.
This is why “real life” role models are so imperative and invaluable for us all.
For my own daughters, I have grown to admire their youthful poses and adventurous spirits. But I also cameo the elegant women of my life so as to give them the gifts of a time that have all but vanished from their reality.
At the end of the day, I do not want their role models to be the YouTube star of the moment, makeup tutorial tips by made-over robots, members of Kardashian clan, or the most popular girls at school with the most expensive clothes and fastest of cars.
I have assumed the responsibility that it is my duty to show them through real action just how happy and glorious a truly elegant woman can be.
Here are ten ways to be truly elegant, with advice from my mentors, loved ones… and maybe even one or two from yours truly.
1. Always walk like you know exactly where you are going.
Once a week, my mother could often be seen leaving the house with a hat and billowing coat as she walked into the sun. It turns out that she often had no specific plans, but that she intended to “always” have a fabulous time on her personal outings, which she claims she did.
2. If someone throws an insult your way, reply with it.
Recently, a so-called friend told me that I was too old to worry any more about so-called vain pursuits that may include daily yoga and moisturizers. I answered that while she may be right, I would continue to make an old fool out of myself anyway. Then I swished away with a smile.
3. Dress in a style that says who you are.
In the past, I often followed trends only to find myself feeling “not myself.” But today, I dress for myself and always feel confident when wearing a skirt and heels, even when just going to the market. This is my style, and I have learned to wear it with a “no apologies” attitude.
4. Never allow anyone to make you feel small.
Whenever someone puts you down, they are really just projecting the feelings they feel about themselves. Just look kindly into their eyes with your bright ones and reply, “Thank you, I will take your opinion under advisement. Have a fabulous day!”
5. If a someone compliments you, kindly say “thank you.”
I cannot remember how many hundreds of times I have witnessed women and young hopefuls wince and make ugly faces when complemented in even the nicest and most respectful of ways as if they are somehow being attacked. Simply saying “Thank You” and continuing your day is an elegant gift to yourself and the lovely complimenter.
6. Always take time for yourself.
There is no excuse for “not” taking care of yourself. If you get enough sleep, personal time, ( even 15 minutes extra a day) and individual space to take care of your needs, you’ll feel more confident and elegant. You are also more likely to treat others with more kindness. Practicing care is the most unselfish thing you can do.
7. Stay away from gossip.
Nothing is less attractive than an attractive woman who habitually gossips. It is more lovely to go out of the way to compliment other women, even behind their backs. This is the test of a beautiful and elegant woman, inside and out.
8. Treat everyone with respect and admiration.
When no one is looking, it is how you treat others that truly say who are. For example, I tell my daughters this often and attempt to teach by example. Whether saying hello to a homeless woman, a seasoned policeman, to a window washer or a window company CEO, treat them with civility and compassion. This is elegance at its most apparent.
9. Only apologize if you are sincere.
Not too long ago, I continually apologized automatically when something went wrong or when anyone felt bad. Before they could get any words out, I would say “I am Sorry” before I even heard the story. Not only was this ‘not helpful’ to others, it was demeaning to myself. Today, I only apologize when I truly have something to apologize for. In this way, I can respect myself more as well as gain the respect of others.
10. Speak with more clarity.
I have been guilty of talking nervously without even knowing what I was talking about and then regretting it later. But after studying elegant women in history, real-life woman and women on the silver screen, I have noticed that the most elegant women speak much more carefully than I do, with a certain careful pronunciation, and even with long pauses between sentences.
This list is surely not in order of importance, but all points have been personally tested through my family generations, and now they are being passed on to my three lovely and highly impressionable daughters.
One of the greatest gifts I can give them are the teachings I have gathered from years of being human and from making both small and large mistakes.
And admitting that is a gift in itself.
As they grow up, our daughters watch what we do, much more than what we say.
Test this and see.
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