The ever debonair Cary Grant personified it. So did actress turned princess Grace Kelly.
Some events still boast of it: Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, Hollywood's Oscars, and Washington's Kennedy Center Honors.
Elegance is defined by Merriam Webster as dignified gracefulness or restrained beauty of style. Yet exactly what it means to be dignified, graceful or restrained clearly has changed over the years.
At the risk of wallowing in nostalgia, these days there's simply a lot less of it in our lives.
Two recent televised events got me thinking about elegance. The first was last night's ABC television premier of "Pan Am," the jet-age period drama depicting a glamorous era of air travel. The second was the 1964 audio interview with Jacqueline Kennedy conducted shortly after the assassination of JFK and aired earlier this month with much fanfare, also on ABC.
Both were reminders of a bygone era during which graciousness and manners were prized above today's values of raw candor and self-absorption.
Looking back at vintage photographs of the era, it's easy to see why Jackie Kennedy's Chanel-knockoff pink suit and pillbox hat became symbols of style and elegance. But it wasn't just her clothing. It also was the way the first lady carried herself; the low and slightly breathless way she spoke. Even the way she pronounced her name. It was Jockleen not Jackie, as America knew her.
Sunday's "Pan Am" drama accurately reflected air travel in the 60s, when a flight between two cities felt akin to boarding the opulent Queen Mary for an Atlantic crossing. Men turned up in coat and tie; women in dresses. Airport lounges seemed luxurious by today's standards and service was gracious.
Much the same held true for fine restaurants of the day. The best had dress codes. Jackets were required of the men. If they showed up without one, they would be supplied by the waiter.
The Oscars was dominated in Hollywood's heyday by simple ball gowns; black tuxedos for the men. A worthy symbol of that period was the aqua silk gown created by Edith Head for Grace Kelly when she accepted her Best Actress statuette in 1955 for "The Country Girl."
One of the most enduring images from that era was J. R. Eyerman's Life Magazine shot of filmgoers wearing 3D glasses for an early stereoscopic movie -- the men in coats and ties, the women in hats and furs.
Even schoolteachers came to class dressed as if their time really mattered.
People spoke publicly in more elegant tones, although not necessarily in private among themselves. If you exclude the disputed image of an infuriated Nakita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on his United Nations delegate desk in 1960, public speaking was mild, even academic-sounding, in contrast to today's raw rhetoric.
Certainly early television never pushed the bounds of taste, not even daring to show married couples sleeping in the same bed. Forget vulgar. You couldn't even find crude. There were no Howard Sterns or Kardashians for that matter.
I'm not one to make a judgment here. After all, one of my closest encounters with elegance came at a grand opening of a mid-level hotel near Los Angeles International Airport, from with I was ejected for wearing an electric-blue sport coat, plaid pants and Cuban-heeled shoes. (Don't laugh, it was 1972.)
For many, the rules of elegance felt more like repression. Living in the 50s and 60s was like wearing a straight jacket. Public image often had little to do with real life that was being played out behind closed doors.
The turbulent period after JFK's assassination challenged all these conventions and created a new society that at least seemed more honest with itself.
But elegance was sacrificed. In its place came cool and hip.
Today's dress codes generally mean shirts with collars and no cutoffs. Ripped jeans, underwear as outerwear, the use of soft porn images on billboards, explicit language on radio, television and in ordinary conversation -- all of it passes for cool. It just isn't elegant.
What sometimes does pass for elegant today is simply glitz. The Oscars maintains its reputation as Hollywood's most elegant night. But for every Grace Kelly these days you're likely to find a Bjork in a feathered swan dress, more suited to the opening night of Ringling Brothers.
I'm sure there are still islands of elegance out there somewhere. So I scoured the Web. I asked my sophisticated friends. I drove through Beverly Hills. I even checked out that hotel near LAX.
I'm still looking.
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