I have just spent four years writing about a woman of true style and elegance, Millicent Rogers. She was someone who reportedly swept into a room and brought conversation to a halt with her grace, stature and presence. She was noticed and admired. That was the effect she had on people. She had style and composure and she wore them, or so it seemed, effortlessly. How different, I thought, watching Daphne Guinness recently hobble to the stage and podium at Fashion Institute of Technology where she is being honored as a fashion icon. Guinness, in her sky high heels and snug short skirt, moves awkwardly, and speaks in a girlish English whisper with her hands over her mouth. The impression she creates is more like that of a robot waif than an adult woman of integrated style. While the clothes in the museum collection that celebrates her are lovely to peruse, like many of the startling images she has starred in for fashion shoots and magazines, there is the overall feeling that her public persona is one big stunt. This is not fashion to live with or style to magnify a real woman who goes effectively about real life. This is ridiculous. I know, I know, style in this case is, we are told, the life of the woman and what she purportedly is all about. It seems to be all she is about. Guinness is no doubt a lovely person and her contribution to a current "look" (see Tom Ford's most recent New York Times ad, "Tom Ford for Women") is obvious. Even if the model looks more like Cruella Deville in 101 Dalmations. She gets your attention, but so does a flashing police car strobe light, and that doesn't make the fashion any more real, elegant, adult, or admirable. Guinness is a bit like a cross between the Fairie Queen and Evel Knievel. There's spectacle and fun and mischief to her styles, but that's all there is to it. .
During my week at FIT I also heard women and fashion experts alike express women's wishes for enduring quality clothes for a stylish adult look. It's hard to see how that desire can be reckoned with the extremes of Alexander McQueen and Guiness. Their shows make wonderful theater, and they rightly belong in museums. But let's not kid ourselves that they assert a fashion style or standard that beautifies or satisfies sophisticated modern women. I certainly don't want to look like I've got a Dixie Cup buried in my hairdo. I doubt that Kate Moss does either.
Millicent Rogers broke a lot of fashion rules and restrictions in her time, but in looking back over those assertions of herself (not those of some outside stylist, by the way), her guiding principle seems to have been looking, well, beautiful. Her styles were amazingly practical. When she came to Taos, New Mexico, she began dressing like the Indians in cottons and kerchiefs, instead of silks and satins. She wanted to be able to climb in and out of a station wagon when she rode into Indian lands. In Austria she eschewed the fashionable frou frou ski fashions and sported smart yet practical tailored styles, knife-pleated springerhosen and fur-trimmed jackets. Soignee was the word. She always put her own twist into the look, but you feel the clothes worked to her advantage. Maybe Daphne Guinness is slaying dragons in St. James Park with her spiked armored glove, who knows. It just doesn't have much application for the rest of us.
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