For the most part, I’m a pretty serious reader (see current “On My Nightstand” entry in sidebar). The fact is, most self-proclaimed “serious readers” have a guilty pleasure when it comes to reading. Some read mystery series, some read science fiction, and some have a weakness for trashy magazines and tabloids. My personal weakness: girly books. No, no, not 1950s porn magazines. Books on, you know, how to be a girl. (Hi. Yes. I am 38 and I still say “girl.”) I simply cannot resist books that give advice on hair and makeup (although it’s generally all the same, no matter how it’s presented), wardrobe (an area where I need serious help), or even charm and etiquette. Some of these books are quaint and some are just downright silly, but I like to grab them when I’ve had a bad day and read a few pages here and there, just to relax and have a little fun. I thought I’d share a few from my current collection with you, plus a few I’ve got my eye on.
From My Collection
The Little Black Book of Style, by Nina Garcia. This stylish little book by Elle fashion director Nina Garcia imparts mostly basic fashion wisdom, such as the essential wardrobe pieces every woman should own. We’ve all seen these lists in magazines and books, with some variation: white shirt, trench coat, great pair of jeans, cashmere sweater, and of course, the ubiquitous LBD. Show of hands: who has all these “essentials” in their closet? The funny thing is, I agree with the list. The sad thing is, I can never get it together enough to have the most basic items in my closet. I do, however, have a pair of apple-green chinos and a sweater with grey (yes, grey) cherries all over it. What woman could live without these? Seriously, though, I feel it’s something I need to hear over and over again, like “Control your portions, eat fewer processed foods, and exercise.” Someday it’s bound to click.
What Would Jackie Do?, by Shelly Branch and Sue Callaway. We all know Jackie is a style icon, but the authors here go a little bit further than just dissecting her look, creating a sort of primer for young women. This book covers all sorts of topics: etiquette, dating, dressing for success, careers, and so on, albeit lightly. They also don’t gloss over Jackie’s faults. For instance, she had a bad habit of starving herself and smoking too much–not the best way to stay thin, and the authors are sure to stress this. Personally, I think this would be a great gift for a young woman. It’s not restrictive and “Rules-y,” but it provides a nice counterpoint to the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans of the world…or to mothers who dress like their teenage daughters. (I do live in Georgia, after all.)
Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl, by Debra Ollivier. See, right there: a woman finding her inner French girl. You all know I can’t resist anything with the word “French” in the title, but I enjoy this book not only for the style tidbits, but for the perspective. The author married a French man and lived in France for many years that included the birth of her daughter, and it’s her perspective as a mother I find the most interesting. For example, here’s a tidbit about children at mealtimes: “…they [children ages four through eight] ate each course separately and with great care…They ate with real cloth napkins and real glasses, and their cutlery was entirely adult…How pious these children seemed in front of their well-prepared plates.” I think of this every time I’m in a restaurant watching some kid play table football with his chicken nuggets while his mother tries to persuade him (in baby talk–LOUD baby talk) to take just one bite. I think sometimes we’ve shed a great deal of civility in the last twenty years or so, so it’s fun to imagine a place where manners still exist (even if maybe in reality, they don’t).
Better than Beauty: A Guide to Charm, by Helen Valentine and Alice Thompson. This book was first published in 1938, but much of the advice still holds true today. With the tone of stern aunts or headmistresses, they dispense opinions and advice on things such as keeping clean: “Miss B. still subscribes to that old wives’ tale that it’s bad for hair to wash it too often. So there is frequently a musty odor when you get too close to her.” Or going to the dentist: “We know one woman whose only claim to beauty is her teeth.” This makes me laugh out loud every time I read it, but not in a derisive way. I like to think we have come a long way from having a standard idea of beauty, but I think it’s still a struggle. Consider the “Zoe” effect: I see women all over Atlanta sporting huge sunglasses, giant “it” bags, fake (I hope) tans, and long stringy hair, and I think this must be less about looking pretty (because it isn’t) than looking the same. And you can pick up magazines today that debate about how often to wash one’s hair. (I think we have a large number of Miss B.s running around out there, but thankfully hair-care technology has come a long way so that we can’t smell her coming.) But the best timeless advice they give: What matters more than expensive clothes and flawless style is grooming. Perhaps someone could send a copy of this to half the women in Hollywood?
On My Wish List
A Guide to Elegance: For Every Woman Who Wants to Be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions, by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux. The funny thing is, with all these books I eye about wardrobes and dressing, you would think I went places other than an office where most people wear jeans. It’s my personal opinion that the DotCom boom did a lot to hurt office etiquette, a large part of which is the office dress code. Believe me, even if I know the person sitting across from me in a meeting is a computer genius, it’s distracting when he’s wearing a hole-y t-shirt, shorts, and flip flops–in January. Why can’t this guy wear a pair of pants? A clean pair of pants? And to the women: put on some make-up and stop wearing flannel to the office, please! And keep your Crocs at home!
How to Be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Way of Life, by Melissa Hellstern. Oh, come on. She’s an icon. The author might be jumping on the WWJD bandwagon, but that’s okay by me. I also wouldn’t mind if this were accompanied by The Audrey Hepburn Treasures, a semi-autobiographical book of photos and stories from Hepburn’s life, and Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, a biography of the woman behind the icon.
Summer at Tiffany, by Marjorie Hart. I picked this up in the book store when it came out, but didn’t buy it. Then I read the Non-Blonde’s review and decided I had to have it, so on my wish list it went, along with another recommendation, Manhattan Memoir by Mary Cantwell.
Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas. This is probably the most “serious” book on my list, and truly also the one that interests me most next to the two memoirs mentioned above. I’m hardly wealthy, so it may sound strange for me to confess that I don’t think the democratization of luxury is such a great thing. The democratization of quality, yes (Martha Stewart at K-Mart, for example, is brilliant), but this chase for luxury goods, for more, more, more, isn’t a great thing. Too many people have stretched their credit chasing “it” bags and Manolos. Why should I care? I’m not sure. But it feels like the erosion of common sense is behind the chase, and that concerns me. Although I love these books about style, one of the things I wish for myself is some coherence in what to own, in how I spend money, in striving for less to be more. Beauty must have meaning, for me. It should represent a hope that things will be better, not just that I can “get mine.”
So it seems I am serious, after all.