A Guide to Elegance

Jacqueline Kennedy, 1950's

Jacqueline Kennedy entertaining, c. 1956

Do you have elegance?

Do you take such care with your appearance and manners that people regularly compliment you? Do you have a flair for style and grace that others try to emulate? Do you frequently receive compliments on your children’s manners and appearance?

If so, quit reading. You don’t need me.

But if the answer is “sometimes” or “rarely”, perhaps a little help is in order. For in a society where nice manners and dressing well seem as nostalgic as having a milkman or wearing a hat and gloves to church, those with elegance tend to stand out in a crowd. They also tend to command the biggest salaries, the most visible positions, and incredible influence.

Take, for instance, Carrie Marcus.

Carrie was born into a German immigrant family in Louisville, Kentucky in 1883. She never finished high school, as was typical of women of that time, but her culturally-minded parents collected an excellent home library and encouraged Carrie and her brother Herbert to make good use of it. This early exposure to art, history, literature, and music set the basis for a lifetime of high achievement.

The Marcuses moved to northeast Texas in the mid-1890’s, where Herbert contributed to the family income by selling clothes in a local store. A few years later, he left home and took a job at the Spangler Brothers department store in Dallas. Carrie soon followed and landed a sales position at A. Harris, a women’s specialty shop.

In 1900, Dallas was primarily a cattle town where farmers came to sell their livestock. It smelled bad, looked rough, and housed more bars in its small downtown area than any other type of business. But with its active railhead and strategic location, Dallas was the best place to market cattle in the southwest. Then, with their pockets full of cash after selling their herds, cattle barons would pump money right back into the local economy by loading up on supplies before going home.

Enter: Carrie Marcus.

Carrie Marcus, circa 1900

Carrie Marcus, c. 1900

The pretty seventeen year-old had always loved beautiful clothes and took great pride and pleasure in helping her customers find flattering ensembles. Like a bright light on a dark night, the women of Dallas were drawn to Carrie’s sense of style and grace and sought her out. She was generous with her knowledge and her customers, in turn, were generous with their patronage. By the age of twenty one, Carrie Marcus was one of the highest paid women in Texas, making $100 a month (when the average household income was around $600 per year).

By contrast, Herbert made just $35 a month at Spangler Brothers where, like Carrie, he worked hard, had a loyal clientele, and produced high numbers. When Herbert and his wife Minnie had a baby in 1905, he asked his boss for a raise and was begrudgingly granted an additional five dollars a month. Given his track record and years of service, Herbert got ticked off — and quit.

He was so mad, in fact, that he moved his young family to Atlanta. He even convinced Carrie and her dapper new husband, Al Neiman, to come along and start a Coca Cola distributorship with him. The trio was so successful that within two years, another company offered to buy out their franchise for $25,000 (about $600,000 today). Missing their friends, family, and the retail trade back in Texas, they accepted the offer and returned to Dallas.

They decided to open an exclusive women’s clothing shop selling the highest quality ready-to-wear apparel available outside of New York or Paris. It was an ambitious plan that was laughed at by just about everyone – except the owners of Spangler Brothers and A. Harris, who had reason to fear.

As Herbert and Al oversaw final construction and put together a marketing plan in the summer of 1907, Carrie boarded a train to New York on her first buying trip. She was nervous about the money. Opening the store had cost a lot more than planned, and they’d gone through their $25,000 renting, staffing, and setting up the place. They’d had to borrow additional funds from family and friends for Carrie to purchase inventory, and she wasn’t sure how far it would go. Within hours of hitting the garment district, she was out of money with only a small inventory to show for it.

But Carrie Marcus Neiman was not the average department store buyer, and the hard-boiled New York garmentos recognized this immediately. With her sense of style, her impeccable manners, her business savvy, and a sales ability unlike any they’d seen, several of them took a chance and did something no business man in his right mind would do at the time: they extended credit.

To a woman.

A petite, pretty, 24-year-old woman from a cattle town they’d never heard of at the end of the earth in Texas. She had charmed them so completely that they gave her tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of their best merchandise on credit, on the promise that she would pay for it later.

Neiman Marcus, 1907

Neiman Marcus opened for business on September 10, 1907
This building was destroyed by fire in 1914

The risk paid off. Neiman Marcus opened in September 1907 to a stampede of customers who depleted the exquisite inventory in a matter of days. The store sat empty for nearly a month awaiting new merchandise. It still turned a profit that very first year, as it has ninety nine out of the last one hundred years. The only time they ever posted a loss was during the Great Depression – a few months before someone struck oil in east Texas.

As the fortunes of Dallas changed from cattle to oil and new money poured into town, Carrie did what she’d done before: she taught the oil barons’ wives how to dress. She had weekly fashion shows. She gave demonstrations. She waited on customers herself. For many, an hour of Carrie’s time was worth more than months of therapy. When Carrie died in 1953, the people of Dallas and the fashion industry mourned her loss.

(Source: Neiman Marcus: Last of the Merchant Kings, Biography.com)

So what does all of this have to do with you?

Well, seeing how other people succeed gives you an opportunity to determine how you might incorporate some of their winning elements into your own mix. Most people just try to copy something they like from others – a hairstyle, a handbag, a coat – without understanding why it might or might not work for them.

Carrie Marcus didn’t succeed because she bought a certain brand or wore her hair in a certain way; she succeeded because she understood how to dress people using the tools at her disposal. It’s the difference between following a recipe and creating a cookbook. One requires little thought; the other requires a mastery of skills. In Carrie’s case, she mastered elegance.

Now think about some of the people who were considered elegant: Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Cary Grant. What did they have in common? An unwavering dedication to excellence: simple lines, sumptuous fabrics, graceful walks, and unforgettable voices.

Audrey Hepburn Grace Kelly Jacqueline Kennedy Cary Grant
Audrey Hepburn Grace Kelly Jacquelyn Kennedy Cary Grant


When you stop to consider WHAT makes things so great by digging below the surface and learning about quality, a funny thing happens: you become more discerning. You stop being distracted by trends or cheap imitations and start refining your choices. You become more elegant.

Elegance — refined, tasteful beauty of manner, form, or style — takes dressing well and using nice manners to a level where so few people tread that everyone else can’t help but look and be fascinated. It’s about understanding lines, form, function, and aesthetic to an artistic degree, then combining them thoughtfully and presenting them graciously. While some people seem to have a natural flair for elegance, most who aspire to it require study and practice to get it right.

So how can you “up” your elegance quotient?

Here are some guidelines:

APPEARANCE

1. Assess your body, find the most flattering cuts and styles, and stick with them. Don’t be distracted by trends that don’t flatter; instead, build a wardrobe of inter-connected pieces that look great individually yet work well together.

2. Strive to dress appropriately for every occasion. From ball games to charity balls, work to working out, there’s a dress code for every time and place. Learn it and show your knowledge.

3. Wear undergarments that flatter your figure and disappear under your clothes. No visible straps, panty lines, or strange bulges, please.

4. Wear well-made accessories that flatter you proportionally and that compliment your ensembles. The more you coordinate your wardrobe, the fewer accessories you need.

5. Take time for proper grooming. Update your hairstyle, polish your makeup, keep breath fresh, and nails clean and nicely formed.

BEHAVIOR

1. “Please” and “thank you” are still the magic words and are almost always appropriate for every occasion. Apply generously.

2. Use dining etiquette whenever you sit down to eat. Chew with your mouth closed, keep elbows off the table, and use your napkin, utensils, and other dining implements appropriately.

3. Hone your voice, diction, and vocabulary to speak confidently yet put people at ease. A screeching, grating, or wimpy voice is as unattractive as coarse language and a limited vocabulary; banish them from use.

4. Strive for good posture, a graceful walk, and controlled gestures. Slouching, lumbering, and erratic movements do not an elegant woman make.

5. Expand your mind by learning about art, architecture, cuisine, clothing, literature, music, and more. Turn off the television and visit museums, attend a ballet, take a cooking class, or go to the library. It’s a much better use of your time and brain power.

In short, strive for some artistry and excellence in your manner and style. You may not succeed 24/7, but even a little effort some of the time will meet with startling success. Make thoughtful choices in your clothing and manner and before you know it, you may be attracting the type of people or situations that make you as influential as Carrie Marcus.

“I dreamed all my life of the perfect store for women.
Then I saw Neiman Marcus, and my dream came true.”
Edna Woolman Chase, Editor of Vogue (1957) 

Neiman Marcus weekly fashion show, 1945

Neiman Marcus Weekly In-Store Fashion Show, 1945
From Life Magazine’s Refined Retail:  Look Inside Neiman Marcus, 1945

Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author who has taught tens of thousands of women how to dress and feel good about themselves through her ebooks and ecourses.  If you’re ready to discover what it’s like to be the “it” girl in your circle, grab a copy of Signature Style Blueprint to see how easy dressing well can be.

Be Sociable, Share!

2 Comments

  • Susan Lackey

    Reply Reply February 2, 2013

    Excellent timeless article that is proven every day in the professional world.

  • Lee A

    Reply Reply February 2, 2013

    This is a fun article. I enjoy learning how people got started with their “thing.” And clothes and how they contribute to an individual’s image is fascinating.

Leave A Response To Lee A Cancel reply

* Denotes Required Field

Security Code: