How does this dame learn to be classy?
January 30, 2010 9:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm a female in my late twenties, and, well... I'd like to be more elegant. Classier. There isn't anyone I'm trying to impress except myself, I guess. I just realized that most of the women I look up to in my life all seem so graceful in their manners, speech, and the way they treat others. I would love to be like that! So, how can I learn to be? Would you recommend any books or tips?

When I was growing up, my mother seemed to have this weird disdain for anything feminine. I wasn't a tomboy, but I was basically brought up to believe that you had to be abrasive and loud and a bit of a bitch if you wanted people to respect you as a woman. And if I tried to be more graceful in any way, she made fun of me. Like I was trying to be better than everyone else or something completely unfair like that. Anyway, it's taken me years and years to outgrow that line of thinking. I'd like to handle myself better in social situations. In any situation, really. To not babble like a moron when I'm nervous or overcompensate when I feel out of place. To not be so loud. To be more approachable and, on a superficial level, to just look like a more sophisticated person. You know, in the way I carry myself.

I feel like a hopeless oaf sometimes. I'm not trying to be someone I'm not with this request. Actually, I've spent my whole life trying to be someone I'm not, and it has unfortunately stuck. In my head, I'm Audrey Hepburn. But as soon as I step out in public and open my mouth, I'm some combination of Joan Crawford in The Women and Roseanne Barr. :-(
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
There is a way to do this without giving up your intellectual presence or your rights. I have a hard time telling you where to learn it, because if I have any of it, I got it from my mother, who has a MD and a JD and is more gracious than I will ever be. (I am certain, however, since we're discussing mothers, that yours is awesome and did a fine job at what is most important in raising a daughter. What was her mother like, I wonder?)

I would start with reading Miss Manners' books. She has a perfectly democratic ideal of being a lady, and I have always gone to it when in doubt.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:48 AM on January 30, 2010

I think that elegance is all about attitude and confidence, but I don't know what to suggest for that. On a superficial level, you could start with clothing. Maybe take your cues from The Sartorialist.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 9:49 AM on January 30, 2010

It sounds like you are looking for poise, and an ability to be quieter so you can think about your responses more before you talk. Maybe yoga? It will help your balance, posture, and hopefully help you cultivate a quieter mind. On a superficial level, being more in control of your movement (balanced) will be more important than what you are wearing.
posted by ohisee at 9:52 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I should add that Miss Manners has no specific dress advice. Manolo the Shoeblogger always has good advice on how to dress in general, as well as a kindly outlook towards what is truly fabulous in us. Although his specific recommendations are hardly affordable, his taste is informative.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:56 AM on January 30, 2010

I'm far from done with my own self-project, but I'll recommend it again: try out martial arts classes. Or any other group exercise, for that matter. Yoga's not for me, but anything that (as ohisee said) cultivates your balance and posture can help make you more at ease in a variety of situations.

Some specifics: wavering voices and fidgety hands can undermine your image of confidence. I had to be told over and over at my last belt test to stand still, and every few minutes I'm trying to correct my posture. New clothes can help, but past a certain point, you gain less from trying to dress up than you do from looking completely at ease with yourself.
posted by tantivy at 10:00 AM on January 30, 2010

I'd like to be more elegant. Classier.

I'm no authority on this, but I've found that Emily Post is.

To not babble like a moron when I'm nervous or overcompensate when I feel out of place. To not be so loud.

Maybe a public speaking class would help you feel more at ease in social situations?

You could also try taking a yoga class-- it's a great way to become comfortable in your own body, plus it improves your posture!
posted by peachykeen at 10:01 AM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

One thing you could do is to approach this from two different directions and see if you eventually meet in the middle.

One direction would be the external. If they're accessible to you, take up activities like horseback riding, figure skating, or ballroom dancing to develop a muscle memory of an upright posture and graceful self-control in your movements.

A bridge between the internal and external might be the practice of Iyengar yoga.

On the internal side, I would recommend mindfulness meditation. Checking out the books and recordings of people like Jon Kabat-Zinn might be a good first step in that direction. You can also surround yourself with the kinds of people you look up to, dive into that Audrey—and Katherine—Hepburn film library, and read all the Jane Austen novels you can get your mitts on. Even pick up an etiquette book or two.

I used to carry around one of those inspirational quotations they're always putting on herbal tea bags. Montaigne said, "The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself."
FWIW, I can think of no more appealing person than someone who has taken the time and had the guts to find out who she really is. Chances are that in you that's someone who is both graceful and brazen, bold and considered.

Where you are, right now, just as you are, is the perfect place from which to start. It might even turn out to be the perfect place to stay and rest.

Good for you.
posted by pessoa at 10:06 AM on January 30, 2010 [9 favorites]

It's not completely on-topic, but some of the answers in this thread on sprezzatura would be rather elegant.
posted by Hiker at 10:33 AM on January 30, 2010

To literally change the way you carry yourself, take ballet lessons.
posted by yohko at 10:36 AM on January 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Stand up straight, think through what you're going to say before you speak, actively listen to others, and, most important, be calmly confident in yourself. All of these are hard to achieve, but the most elegant women I know have these in common. You've made a great start by realizing your self-consciousness in this area comes from your mother's attitude, and not some innate "lack of elegance" within yourself.

And watching My Fair Lady never hurts.
posted by sallybrown at 10:40 AM on January 30, 2010

Weightlifting is a great help to movement, confidence, and self-esteem. As is yoga. Toastmasters might be good, too.
posted by jgirl at 10:56 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Study someone who you regard as classy. Can you define what you like? Here is my list:


Nice posture
Not fidgety or herky-jerky
Well maintained nails (not long, not obviously fake)
Clothing that fits (which is really about accepting your body "as is")
Nice, well maintained accessories that are suitable for the outfit (no shoes with rundown heels, etc.)

A clear, well modulated speaking voice
Calmness, not prone to overreaction
Kindness and respectfulness to everyone
Manners over etiquette
Self respect which manifests in self care (working out, getting enough sleep, managing stress)

Your list of what defines classy and elegant might be different. Pick one thing and work on it for a few weeks. When you've got it nearly mastered, start the next item.

The nice thing is almost nothing on that list costs money.
posted by 26.2 at 10:58 AM on January 30, 2010 [27 favorites]

2nd ballroom dancing. (Don't know hard it might be to find a good reasonably-priced teacher.)
posted by feelinggood at 11:04 AM on January 30, 2010

Charm schools are still around, as are etiquette classes. In fact, so few people were raised with traditional etiquette rules that my university used to offer such classes for graduating seniors. While I was raised by a classic femme social climber, but she failed to modernize her thinking from passive aggressive guerilla warfare, so the classes proved helpful.

Yay for you deciding you do not need to be your mother. But keep notes on your mom's bag of tricks; she will pull them on you as you progress through your "classification" project.
posted by medea42 at 11:23 AM on January 30, 2010

Focusing on the other part of your question, more about interactions with others and graciousness. I think the single most important thing here is to do triage about what situations matter. A huge amount of graciousness and social "elegance" comes from the ability to get along with people. It's the ability (or choice) to listen to someone say something that you think is wrong, idiotic, or mildly insulting and say. "hmm, how nice." or "fair enough."

It's not appropriate in all situations. But there are many, many social conversations where it doesn't matter whether your companion is correct about patent policy, whether arizona touches the ocean, or the moral implications of single payer health care.

Yes, these may be important topics that you feel strongly about. But you're probably not going to change this person's mind, and they're not trying to make policy, or find the pacific ocean, at this moment.
posted by mercredi at 11:27 AM on January 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you can practice maintaining a sense of grace and power in the face of your mother's disparaging remarks, the outside world grace will follow. Some parents pressure children to be exactly like them for various reasons, as I am sure you are aware. My mother felt diminished by my desire for education, and made remarks accordingly. I used to imagine myself as a pane of transparent glass, allowing the barbs to simply pass right through and not damage me. If you can think of a similar metaphor it might be helpful.
posted by effluvia at 11:34 AM on January 30, 2010

Being able to focus on developing a sense of grace first involves, at the very least, being unflappable. If that's something you struggle with, the suggestions in this thread might help you.
posted by thisjax at 11:41 AM on January 30, 2010

Not specifically for women, but I really enjoyed reading Dale Carnegie's Lifetime Plan for Success which is made up of How to Win Friends and Influence People and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Lots of good stuff about being calm, accepting people, talking through problems, etc.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 12:02 PM on January 30, 2010

You mention women you look up to in your life. Are any of them people you could talk to about this issue? It would probably be very helpful to get an outsider perspective on how people really perceive you, so you know what you really need to work on.

Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior is witty, informative, and dedicated to disproving that being polite is the same thing as being a doormat.
posted by psycheslamp at 1:43 PM on January 30, 2010

Let yourself be serious. Being serious without being angry or intense is a good way to exude calmness. And if, while being serious you are dressed well, then you are half way there.
posted by molecicco at 1:56 PM on January 30, 2010

Miss Manners is a great idea. Her writing is funny and engaging, which makes the book a fun read. The only downside to reading Miss Manners is that actually putting her good advice to work will require you to stifle the urge to mimic her stinging sarcastic wit.

Mireille Guiliano's books French Women Don't Get Fat and French Women for All Seasons focus on food and eating, but I gained much more from them than an appreciation of food. I have no idea of what the author is like in real life, but her persona in the books is charming, kind, welcoming, human, and glamorous. Her writing style is chatty and confidential, so the books give you a window into her world and her worldview, which is helpful when you're looking for a role model. Guiliano's most recent book might be even more of what you're looking for, but I haven't read it yet, so I can't recommend it.

Finally, I think it's probably becoming cliche for folks to recommend therapy on Ask MeFi, but I'm going to do it anyway. The issues that you've mentioned involve your self confidence and your need to break with the traditions and norms of your childhood. Your post makes it clear that you are a bright, sensitive, and insightful woman, not Joan Crawford or Rosanne Barr. A therapist you like and trust can help you to align the person you know yourself to be with the person you believe that others are seeing when they look at you.
posted by TEA at 2:23 PM on January 30, 2010

Although this essay is on glamour I think it probably applies. Changing the way you dress seems superficial, but I think the way you dress has a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle influences on the way you carry yourself, the way you present to people and how they respond to you. I don't mean having an extensive designer wardrobe or anything, I mean having clothes and accessories that are simple, classic pieces that when you see yourself in them you feel like you're really taking care of yourself. That and a haircut so good it almost takes care of itself. The way you appear to yourself changes your outer behavior.
posted by violette at 2:44 PM on January 30, 2010

Definition of class: knowing the right thing to do and doing it. Miss Manner's & Emily Post has everything you need to know. The book Color Me Beautiful or a more up to date equvilent will tell you how to create your own stlye wether it is elegant or sporty or somewhere in between. Good luck
posted by misspat at 2:58 PM on January 30, 2010

Have you ever watched TLC's "What Not To Wear"? If not, do. The hosts, Clinton & Stacy, teach frumpy, dowdy, or just sloppy women how to look properly put together. Watch enough episodes and eventually they'll get around to someone who has issues similar to yours, of one sort or another.

Since you mention Audrey Hepburn and Joan Crawford - do you watch a lot of old movies? If not, watch more. I think a ton of what we consider "classy" today comes from movies like that. There are tons of great role models in those characters. (Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Rosalind Russell...)
posted by dnash at 3:05 PM on January 30, 2010

I kind of love Candace Simpson-Giles for writing this book.
posted by moons in june at 3:21 PM on January 30, 2010

I'm about as inelegant as they come, but I really adore the slightly old-fashioned, but delightful A Guide to Elegance: For Every Woman Who Wants to Be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux
posted by the.carol.baxter.experience at 3:31 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's a book on Audrey Hepburn that seems to be about what you're looking for: How to Be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Way of Life .
posted by girlmightlive at 3:54 PM on January 30, 2010

Books about how and why people interact: "Born to Win" by Muriel James; "You Just Don't Understand" by Deborah Tannen (describes how women typically interact and explains why); various books by Leils Lowndes.

Practice: join a group that holds meetings specifically for the purpose of discussions, such as a book club, and watch how people interact and try out ways of behaving that you think are likable.

Therapy: group therapy is facilitated discussion and could help if you think your lack of manners arises from vestiges of nervousness. (Only go to a group you enjoy.)
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 4:35 PM on January 30, 2010

Seconding Dale Carnegie. How to Win Friends and Influence People will help you immensely to handle yourself with class in social situations.

And kudos for having this as a goal! People with class are a dying breed, but few things are more attractive.
posted by coolguymichael at 4:59 PM on January 30, 2010

Embrace beauty as a way of life, live beautifully. Alexandra Stoddard has a dozen books with charming [and often impractical] suggestions.
posted by ohshenandoah at 6:40 PM on January 30, 2010

I've always admired Julia Sugarbaker's grace and poise under pressure. She was always the epitome of elegance, IMHO.
posted by Oriole Adams at 7:01 PM on January 30, 2010

I love this question. It delights me.

And kudos for having this as a goal! People with class are a dying breed, but few things are more attractive.

Indeed and exactly. Thank you for allowing me to respond without an answer. Best of luck.
posted by Witty at 7:48 PM on January 30, 2010

I second therapy, watching What Not To Wear and ballet. (And not because I do all three, ha. :D )

First of all, therapy: I think you already have it in you to be graceful and elegant. But it sounds like you're carrying all this "stuff" from being raised with your mother's values and I think therapy can help you free yourself from this, letting your own grace and elegance come through.

I like watching What Not To Wear (and other shows where people have makeovers or lose weight - but not "Biggest Loser" cuz I don't like the "game show" aspect of it) because i like watching the transformations that people go through. It is really inspiring. I learned from What Not To Wear that how you dress yourself can really have an impact on your well-being and how you see yourself. Who knew! The show emphasizes not changing who you are, but just polishing yourself a little, or a lot. Watch it, you'll see what I mean.

i started taking ballet classes just over a year ago. I started because I've always liked it but just never had the opportunity to do it (time, money, class offerings). I admire ballet dancers' ability to look so graceful while knowing it takes so much strength to look "delicate." Ballet is the toughest sport, after all! I also like ballet because I like being active and it's the type of activity that brings a lot of awareness to your body. Having to coordinate your body to do steps to music is really good for your brain too.
posted by foxjacket at 9:36 PM on January 30, 2010

From a posture standpoint, often a "posture brace" is a gentle way to retrain your body to hold your back straight and your shoulders back. I'm a large woman, and I have Dolly Parton pre-surgery boobs. I tend to slouch, even though I took ballet for decades. A light, underbra posture brace, for just a few hours around the house, will help my muscle memories, and my posture improves almost immediately without having to wear it all the time.

From a behavior standpoint, if you are considering formal education, there are "finishing" schools for adults.

The Emily Post Institute offers classes and "train the trainer" programs, which has sent instructors out into the rest of the world, should Vermont be out of your reach.

The Protocol School of Washington offers training with a focus more towards professional behavior. The offer both in-person and online training.

The Association of Image Consultants International has training, as well as a directory of graduates whom can be hired to tweak your image.

As well, depending on your location, there are probably etiquette classes that are targeted at children in your area. You can contact any of those schools, and they will often have either an adult class once a quarter, or they can be hired to be a personal trainer of sorts. They're probably delighted to not have to deal with sniffly disease ridden germ monkeys for a change. (I say this having spent a few days dealing with sick children.)

And as someone mentioned up-thread; Julia Sugarbaker is probably the epitome of what how a lady should be.

From a clothes standpoint...seriously, I can't be trusted to dress myself. My default is sweatpants and 20 year old concert t-shirts. When I have to look like a real grown-up, I shop at stores that have experienced personal-shopper type saleswomen. Nordstrom's is my default, but I've also had luck at other high-end retailers. What I need are salespeople that will take a look at my figure type, and then set me in a dressing room while they hunt and gather things for me to try on. Which is fabulous, because if I have to do it, I'd never wear anything but sweatpants and t-shirts. I despise shopping.

However, this is not the most cost efficient way to do things. If you like shopping, or you have an easy to fit figure, then by all means, cut out pictures of things that you love, and hit all the fabulous boutiques and local shops that cater to smaller sized women, and find things that you love.

The trick with clothes is this: It doesn't matter *what* you wear, it's *how* you wear it. If you love something, and you're comfortable in it, you will be outstanding in it. But, if you're not comfortable, or your always fiddling with it, tweaking it, twitching it, playing with it...then no matter how brilliantly designed it is, or how much it cost, it's never going to look good. Only ever buy those things that you love and that you want to wear.

Best of luck with your metamorphosis! May it bring you much happiness and self-love!
posted by dejah420 at 9:40 PM on January 30, 2010

Every event in your life is a little drama in which you are an actor. Dress for the role you play. When you go shopping, you are the costumer for this actor. And study other actors in real life and on the screen. Quietly understudy people you know, as if you were preparing to go on for them when they were sick.

Say you want to be Audrey Hepburn. Get her films and learn why you admire her. Don't be vague about it. Learn to hold yourself the way she does. The angle of her head, the way she holds her hands, the way she walks, the way she sits. Figure out exactly what it is about her. Actually practice being Audrey Hepburn in certain scenes: get off the couch and walk through the scenes. Write Audrey Hepburn into your life -- how would she play you in your role as worker or friend or lover or daughter or mother or shopper or student or whatever it is you do? Practice your Audrey Hepburn moves over and over in front of a mirror until your body just moves that way.
posted by pracowity at 1:55 PM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know you're an adult, but Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children is a fantastic book for teaching you grace under pressure in all sorts of social situations.
posted by timoni at 9:45 PM on January 31, 2010

I read this quote in an interview with British art magnate Charles Saatchi, who's married to celebrity chef Nigella Lawson and thought it was very good advice:

"What advice do you and your wife give your children?

Nigella's mum gave her an invaluable insight into nice behaviour. According to Nigella her advice went something like this: "It is better to be charmed than to charm." By this she meant that what makes people feel good about themselves is feeling as if they have been charming, interesting; in short, have been listened to. For her, the notion that one should oneself be riveting or aim to be quite the most fascinating person in the room was a vulgarity and just sheer, misplaced vanity. Trying to be charming is self-indulgent; allowing oneself to be charmed is simply good manners."
posted by lhall at 4:07 PM on February 1, 2010

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