Editor’s Note: Stokes Schwartz is a writer, educator and podcaster. You can check him out here.
We talk about clothes and a more refined approach to personal presentation here at Ivy Style. A lot. And that’s fine. But the cut of your suit or blazer, preferred necktie, and shoes are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personal elegance. Often, we hold up certain images of the past, along with a few from the present, as doyens of elegance based primarily on attire. Traditional, tasteful clothing that, even in late 2022, remains at home in many if not most situations.
I’ll take a somewhat contrarian view and suggest however that, most of all, personal elegance comes from within. Internal elegance is every bit as vital as the external version thereof. If not more so. Ultimately, what we wear, or how we furnish our dwellings, while a part of personal elegance, is less important than our mindset and interactions with others. What is on the inside, our inner workings if you will, has more bearing on our personal elegance than whether, or not the crests on our neckties are genuine, or appropriated.
Now, before anyone gets his/her/their hackles up and thinks that I am falling back on those old platitudes about not judging books by their covers, or appearances don’t matter, hang on a moment. That’s not what I am saying. The external as well as the internal are two sides of the same coin, and there is a balance to strike between them.
Besides classic attire, elegance in the broadest sense requires that we also cultivate thinking and behaviors that put others at ease, and ensure their comfort. Grace if you will. Too often, people in the 21st century focus on the external at the expense of this internal state. Or, if we take the apparent obsession with social media into consideration, they focus only on themselves at the expense of most else. Grace is largely absent from the equation.
As you will by now gather, though, a navy blazer from J. Press , a pair of Duck’s Head khakis, and Alden penny loafers alone do not necessarily make us elegant or impart grace. We must also be conscious of, and intentionally work on, what is on the inside. All of the time. After all, how many of us would prefer rubbing elbows with a helpful, kind guy in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops if we are forced to shout for help on the street versus a well-dressed, but obnoxious jerk who simply walks by, staring even harder into his iPhone as we lie gasping on the pavement?
Talk is cheap. And while the history, details, and continued march of traditional ivy style clothing forward into the 21st century are interesting, as well as comforting in our increasingly unpleasant world, does waxing poetically about it help others or change anything for the better on a broader scale? Possibly, I’d like to think. But it helps our case more when we actually walk the walk. To channel the young Michael Caine for a moment, know what I mean?
We can natter on about attire and external elegance all we want. I argue that we might more effectively achieve personal elegance not only through how we dress but also by how we live, falling back on the idea of grace once again. At the risk of coming across like a feeble-minded simp, elegance and grace come through greater self-awareness and routine inner reflection in connection to the increased consideration of and compassion for others that I advocate. Let’s do that with a smile rather than grumbling about it through gritted teeth.
It’s all too easy in our quest for greater elegance to get an inflated sense of ourselves (Guilty!). Wouldn’t it be even more elegant and graceful of us, though, to consider how we might do things differently next time to improve our work, behavior, interactions, etc.? Life is a work in progress, and we all make mistakes (Equally guilty!). But let’s try to learn from each faux pas and do our level best not make those same errors in judgement twice as my son’s Tae Kwon Do instructors take pains to remind their students each week.
The pursuit of greater elegance is a personal thing that not everyone will understand or take kindly to. I hope not, but you may occasionally encounter not so secret detractors. Do your best to ignore those downers and their negativity. Don’t let ‘em get to you in other words. Find new friends if necessary. Look for people who will appreciate your efforts to enact positive change in yourself and the world around you. That might sound hardnosed, but hear me out. People develop and change over the years. Hopefully, we are not the same person at 35 that we were at 15. What might have once seemed natural and like a good fit — And I’m not talking about expanding waistlines here. — might not be so any longer. Self-improvement plus personal growth can do that.
So, how might we sail a bit closer up to the side of increased personal elegance and grace? Take the high road in difficult interactions. Be big about challenging situations. Instead of waiting for someone to ask, take the initiative and look actively for things that need doing. Strive to be kinder and gentler toward others. Go through life with a less hardened expression on your face. Use your head more and think before you act, or speak. As a habit, consider the choices you make and their effect on others. What concrete steps might you take to achieve different outcome the next time around in your quest toward increased personal elegance and grace? Even when well dressed, let’s avoid drifting aimlessly through each day.
The work to foster increased personal elegance and grace within ourselves should be part of an ongoing process. Even after the wardrobe and shoe rotation are set. But it also helps to keep a sense of perspective and humor about it. Smile, chuckle, and remember to have some fun with life as we work in a more mindful way to cultivate the refinements I suggest. Goodness knows we need more elegance and grace in the third decade of the 21st century. Much more. And if we aficionados of ivy style can contribute to that while clad in sack suits, navy blazers with gray flannel pants, and repp stripe ties, so much the better.