Emily Post on Minimalist Wardrobes



Timeless excerpts from Etiquette, 1922:

THE SHEEP

Frumps are not very typical of America, vulgarians are somewhat more numerous, but the greatest number of all are the quietly dressed, unnoticeable men and women who make up the representative backbone in every city; who buy good clothes but not more than they need, and whose ambition is merely to be well enough dressed to fit in with their background, whatever their background may be. Less numerous, but far more conspicuous, are the dressed-to-the-minute women who, like sheep exactly, follow every turn of latest fashion blindly and without the slightest sense of distance or direction. As each new season’s fashion is defined, all the sheep run and dress themselves each in a replica of the other, their own types and personalities have nothing to do with the case. Comfort, convenience, becomingness, adaptability, beauty are of no importance. Fashion is followed to the letter—therefore they fancy, poor sheep, they are the last word in smartness. Those whom the fashion suits are “smart,” but they are seldom, if ever, distinguished, because—they are all precisely alike.

THE WOMAN WHO IS REALLY CHIC 

The woman who is chic is always a little different. Not different in being behind fashion, but always slightly apart from it. She gets the latest model perhaps, but has it adapted to her own type, so that she has just that distinction of appearance that the sheep lack. She has even clung with slight modifications to previous styles and has continued to look the smartest in spite of all the kaleidoscopic changes of fashion the rest of us have been through.

FASHION HAS LITTLE IN COMMON WITH BEAUTY 

Fashion ought to be likened to a tide or epidemic; sometimes one might define it as a sort of hypnotism, seemingly exerted by the gods as a joke. Fashion has the power to appear temporarily in the guise of beauty, though it is the antithesis of beauty nearly always. Even the woman of beautiful taste succumbs occasionally to the epidemics of fashion, but she is more immune than most. All women who have any clothes sense whatever know more or less the type of things that are their style. 

There is one unchanging principle which must be followed by every woman, man and child that is well dressed—suitability. It means equally that you must not buy clothes out of proportion to your income, or out of keeping with your surroundings.

WHEN IN DOUBT 

There is one rule that is fairly safe to follow: When in doubt, wear the plainer dress. It is always better far to be under-dressed than over-dressed. If you don’t know whether to put on a ball dress or a dinner dress, wear the dinner dress. Or, whether to wear cloth or brocade to a luncheon, wear the cloth. One does not have to be dowdy as an alternative to being too richly dressed.

ON THE STREET 

In walking on the street,—if you care to be taken for a well-bred person—never wear anything that is exaggerated. If skirts are short, don’t wear them two inches shorter than any one else’s; if they are long, don’t go down the street dragging your hem and sweeping the dirt up. Don’t wear too much jewelry; it is in bad taste in the first place, and in the second, is a temptation to a thief. And don’t under any circumstances, distort your figure into a grotesque shape.

WHEN THE INCOME IS LIMITED 

No one can dress well on nothing a year; that must be granted at the outset. But a woman who has talent, taste, and ingenuity can be suitably and charmingly dressed on little a year, especially at present. First of all, to mind wearing a dress many times because it indicates a small bank account, is to exhibit a false notion of the values in life. Any one who thinks well or ill of her, in accordance with her income, can not be too quickly got rid of!

It is tiresome everlastingly to wear black, but a very striking dress can not be worn many times without making others as well as its owner feel bored at the sight of it. “Here comes the Zebra” or “the Cockatoo!” is inevitable if a dress of stripes or flamboyant color is worn often. She who must wear one dress through a season and have it perhaps made over the next, would better choose black or cream color. Or perhaps a certain color suits her, and this fact makes it possible for her habitually to wear it without impressing others with her lack of clothes. But whether her background be black or cerise it should invariably blend with her whole wardrobe, so that all accessories can be made to do double or quadruple service.

DON’T GET TOO MANY CLOTHES 

Choose the clothes which you must have, carefully, and if you must cut down, cut down on elaborate ones. There is scarcely anywhere that you can not fittingly go in plain clothes. Very few, if any, people need fancy things; all people need plain ones. A very beautiful Chicago woman who is always perfectly dressed for every occasion, worked out the cost of her own clothes this way: On a sheet of paper, thumb tacked on the inside of her closet door, she put a complete typewritten list of her dresses and hats, and the cost of each. Every time she put on a dress she made a pencil mark. By and by when a dress was discarded, she divided the cost of it by the number of times it had been worn. In this way she found out accurately which were her cheapest and which her most expensive clothes. When getting new ones she has the advantage of very valuable information, since she avoids the dress that is never put on, which is a bigger handicap for the medium-sized allowance than many women realize.

A FEW GENERAL REMARKS 

The fault of bad taste is usually in over-dressing. Quality not effect, is the standard to seek for. Machine-made passementerie on top of conspicuous but sleazy material is always shoddy. Cut and fit are the two items of greatest importance in women’s clothes, as well as in men’s. Good style in men’s clothes is unchanging. To buy things at sales is very much like buying things at an auction; if you really know what you want and something about values, you can often do marvellously well; but if you are easily bewildered and know little of values, you are apt to spend your good money on trash. A woman of small means must be (or learn to be) discriminatingly careful, or she would better have her clothes made at home.

Read the full text herePhoto, Emily Post.
Paris to Go

23 comments:

  1. How times of changed: "Frumps are not very typical of America"
    An interesting read, thanks for reposting. I really agree about "THE WOMAN WHO IS REALLY CHIC" When we think of someone that is well put together they have a certain look that works for them.

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    1. I thought that was too funny. Do you read Anna Post ever sometimes? She says funny things like, "Summer is full of wonderful distractions, but co-workers' toes shouldn't be one of them." She's a bit more polite than Emily Post- I feel like if Emily Post were to see America today she'd have a conniption fit

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  2. Thanks for sharing! I like this quote: "One does not have to be dowdy as an alternative to being too richly dressed.". When I think about the most stylish people, they are always the ones with the classic, well-cut items that suit their figure and personality. They choose plain, yet good quality (quietly special), items that are current but not necessarily trendy to a T. If you have a small wardrobe of quietly special items, then you will always look good and people won't notice when you wear something frequently.

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    1. Hi Jill, that was so beautifully put. I agree- quietly special things are the ones you fall in love with over and over again because you're always discovering a new, beautiful detail in it, and they're the ones we people keep complimenting even when you've worn them a hundred times!

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  3. How funny, she addresses many thoughts I had on minimalist wardrobes. For instance, that people who dress classically are not behind fashion, but rather, they aren't "sheep." Very strongly worded, but her reasoning makes sense.

    "The woman who is chic is always a little different. Not different in being behind fashion, but always slightly apart from it." Love this. Who knew a book from the 1920s would apply to fashion today? Thanks as always for being a great resource on gems like this.

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    1. I loved that line too, of being slightly apart from fashion. Also I agree on the difference between fashion and beauty. Thanks Sandra!

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  4. This is great! Timeless advice. Thanks.

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  5. Zebra. Sheep. She is almost the Fran Lebowitz of 1922 !

    Have you heard of the book : Cheap Chic ? Its full of wonderful 'ancient' wisdom on building a closet without throwing a fortune. And its superb ! Very unique. I read what feels like a thousand articles on minimalist closets and french chic. But every page had something unique to offer in that book. Do read if you can get your hands on it.

    - Archana.

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    1. Hi Archana! I want to read that book. I've read excerpts online but haven't found it secondhand in the flesh. I should just order it. I love what Fran Lebowitz said in that book too... and the Diana Vreeland and YSL parts of course!

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  6. I loved this Post/post! It's fantastic and I love how so many things haven't changed at all!

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    1. Yea it's crazy how people are still the same and the advice still applies. Glad you liked it!

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  7. What's interesting is that to her, this approach to dressing was not "minimalist" by any means....capsule dressing, self-restraint in purchasing, these were all a normal way of life for people until recently, and still a way of life for people today.

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    1. Good point! I think that's why I kind of don't believe it when people say they could never dress with as few pieces as me. I have a lot compared to people past and present. This is the way people lived for thousands of years; these imaginary needs only cropped up with the advent of marketing and strategic retailers.

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  8. Thoroughly wise and enjoyable. I especially liked the case story of the Chicago woman tracking her wears and cost per wear.

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    1. I think that's the earliest mention of the cost per wear concept I've ever seen in print. Really interesting!

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  9. For a fantastic read try Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners. She was QUITE progressive for her era. I highly recommend it. Also, love the idea of tracking what you wear the most (although I highly doubt I'll implement it!)

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    1. Ooh, thanks for the recommendation! She's hilarious and I agree, very forward thinking.

      I haven't implemented the tracking method yet. For these posts I think about it but otherwise no :O

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  10. Random question but as I took several pair of shoes to be resoled at the cobbler earlier, I wondered if you have a sense of how much you typically spend in a year on upkeep/ repair? Not essential information- just curious. Particularly intrigued by the cost of repairing designer brands. Cole Haan charges $75 for a shoe overhaul (polish/ reheeling) which I can do for far less between myself and my cobbler. But that's not significant repair work. I tend to try to determine whether I'd buy said item again for the price of the repair and if so, I do so. If not, I don't. For ex: the cork on my Birkenstocks (circa 1998) has dried out but it's about $75 to replace (no matter which way you slice it- can't find a deal.) Since I don't think I'd pay that for a new pair, they are currently sitting around.

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  11. Hi Darcy! I spend maybe $20 a year. I spent $20 to add rubber soles and fix the heels on two pairs of shoes before I moved to Paris, and then spent the equivalent of almost $40 to resole the Ferragamos this year. My other shoes haven't needed fixing yet, and I clean and polish them at home.

    Many designer shops will fix your shoes for free, but it takes longer than if you were to just bring them to a cobbler. Why does Cole Haan charge so much?! But it's great that your Birkenstocks lasted so long!

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  12. Wow! Gracious, I spend that like every few months. It's about $15 per pair for me- Maybe it's bc mine are high heels and I stomp around on concrete a lot. The heels just wear out super fast. I polish at home, too, and that really keeps them looking fresh and new so long. It's so easy, I'm always shocked others don't do it or even know about it.
    Anyway, jealous. The Birkenstocks are actually a "live and learn": they haven't been worn *since* 1998 but I didn't know cork could rot so I wasn't moisturizing them (which is apparently a thing. Who knew... ) So that's actually a bit of a fail but hey, now I know. And I just gave away how far from minimalist wardrobe I am insofar as I have shoes that haven't been worn in 16 years but still wasn't parting w/ bc "someday they may be back in style"- which, in fact, did come. The shoes just didn't survive the elements until then.

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  13. I didn't know you had to do that with cork either! In fact, you prompted me to do some research on the subject, because I'm curious if there's a natural or zero-waste way to even moisturize them.

    I know people who pour oil on leather sandals to keep them fresh, but that's about it!

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  14. Well, I'll be curious what you learn. I just picked that up from reading some random FB posts somewhere... but everyone seemed in agreement about it. No idea what product one uses.

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