True elegance

This simple, elegant outdoor walkway is part of the Ferguson Center for the Arts. Newport News, Virginia, January 2009

This simple, elegant outdoor walkway is part of the Ferguson Center for the Arts.
Newport News, Virginia, January 2009

“Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” Coco Chanel

I think it’s interesting that an icon of fashion design such as Chanel would be a spokesperson for simplicity.  In my mind, fashion involves the marketing of endless shoe styles, scarves, purses and costume jewelry, to say nothing of more clothes than the average person can fit easily into her closet.  We might fall for a clean, basic dress design dramatically portrayed in an advertisement, but the proliferation of ads themselves sell the idea of more, more, more.  And some of the bizarre looks in today’s footwear could not be described as “simple” by any standard.

The same is true in home design; even the magazine spreads that feature a clean, spare style also are selling the idea of ever-changing paint colors, linens, furnishings and trendy looks that are destined to give way to the next “great new thing.”  While I love looking at colorful home fashions as much as the next woman (OK, almost as much), I do wonder whether the cost and maintenance are worth indulging in the latest fads, especially in hard-to-change items such as light fixtures and tile backsplashes.

Bling is great fun, but it also takes up a lot of storage space.  And my life definitely bears out the old 80/20 rule when it comes to what I actually use and wear most.  In fact, for me it might be closer to 90/10.  Maybe Chanel’s quote would be a good one to keep in mind next time I go into my closet to put together a donation for Goodwill.  Elegance has never been a word I associate with myself, but it’s something to aspire to, especially if it helps me de-clutter.

Do you agree with Chanel that simplicity and elegance go hand-in-hand?

One year ago today:

The ultimate sophistication


  1. Susan

    I think that simplicity and elegance can go hand in hand, or an elegant item can be ornate. However, for something ornate to be elegant, it should be in a simple setting. For example, an ornate item in a museum is usually best displayed alone, in its own case, or on a plain white pedestal, or on its own wall, for maximum impact.
    When you mentioned shoes, I thought of the Sky Mall magazines, and how they start each item’s description with “The” as in “The Strappy Platform Laced Zipper-Back Sandal” as if it were the epitome of simplicity. It cracks me up!

    • Susan, I never noticed that, but that’s SO true about Sky Mall – each thing described as if it’s iconic (as in “the little black dress”) or else as if “there is only one in the world, and it’s for sale right here.” Why don’t they put “The Catalog of Over-priced Stuff for Impulsive Buyers Who Are Bored Stiff” on the cover? 😀

      I agree that the best way to use something ornate is in an otherwise simple setting. My mother used to have an ivory colored princess-style dress, very simple, that she would wear a very ornate brooch with; it kept the dress from looking plain, although it might seemed gaudy with a flashier fabric or cut. But some people know how to make either extreme work. I’ve seen people pull off looks that are dramatically simple OR dramatically elaborate — but I think it takes an artist’s eye to put it together just right.

  2. Ann

    Julia, elegant and simple do go together but not all simple items are elegant. Sometimes my efforts in that regard just look plain. Your photos are always elegant !
    I often experience sensory overload looking through the photos in magazines or going to stores overflowing with must have items. I’m avoiding both at the moment and enjoying the beautiful weather.

    • Ann, thanks so much for your kind compliment about my photos. I agree that simple is not always elegant. I have a lot of t-shirts and worn-out jeans that demonstrate that very fact! 😀 I have saved so many well-worn (comfy) clothes “for working in the yard” that I could probably be a professional landscaper for ten years without running out of old stuff to wear. Maybe the corollary to that is “elegant is not always comfortable.”

      I too have sensory overload when shopping, but I can make it work in a beneficial way. If I see something I want to buy, I tell myself to keep looking and come back for it later “so I won’t have to carry it around.” After I’ve seen more than my mind can handle, I’m usually not to eager to buy anything at all. I get a lot of fun out of just looking at things, and a bit of visual overindulgence can do wonders for my appetite for spending! BUT I think you have hit on the best alternative – “enjoying the beautiful weather.”

  3. These days I find it very hard to choose accessories. I cannot find any meaning or logic (yeah! 🙂 ) in most of the complex modern designs. Even if circumstances tempt me into buy some ultra modern bag or shoes they will be soon destined to collect dust in some dingy corner of my home.:).
    Finally when I come across the one that appeals to my taste it would be others’ turn to exclaim, “What is special about this?” It is comfort, convenience and simplicity that I look for. Simple is elegant!

    • Bindu, I agree, especially about shoes. I just don’t get the appeal of some of the more bizarre styles I’ve seen. The older I get, the more important comfort and convenience become. I just love it when I find something that wins the “triple crown” – comfortable, practical (by which I mean reasonable price and low maintenance) and fashionable. Such pieces are rare, but they are out there.

  4. raynard

    Julia we made it down to NC about Nine last night. I knoe your rule got rid of aloy of stuff. You reminded me of that chanel commercial where the voiceover guy sounds like Lenard Nimoy from Star Trek. be blessed

    • Raynard, glad you guys made it safely and in fairly good time. Hey, maybe Mr. Spock did work for Chanel on the side! I bet things are pretty simple on Vulcan. 😀

  5. I’ll have to think on that a bit. I admire Chanel and I also appreciate both elegance and simplicity. When I think of an elegant dress, the lines are clean and simple, worn with classic jewelry and not a lot of fuss. While I’m a tremendous admirer of fashion (I have an AA in fashion merchandising and a BA in theater arts/costume design), I don’t feel compelled to own a lot of it myself. I have a practical streak, perhaps born of going without for many years. When I’ve needed a special dress for an occasion, I find something simple, beautiful, comfortable and on sale! Unlike most of my friends and clients, I only use one third of a wall closet and three drawers in a bureau.

    That said, my professional clothes are jeans and t-shirts in the cooler months, capri pants and tee’s in the summer. When you get dusty and dirty and even possibly tear your clothes on the job (as an organizer) it makes little sense to wear anything nice. I tend to buy solid colored dark jeans, black shoes and simple tops so that everything can be mixed and matched. If I make a bad purchase (it shrinks and no longer looks good, or the zipper always rubs the wrong way) I donate it. I sort and purge twice a year, usually at the beginning of spring and fall. It keeps life simple.

    Beautiful post, Julia.

    • Thanks Alys, just reading your comment was therapeutic for me! I really, really do need to part with at least half of what is hanging in my closet, and I’m getting more and more able to do it, though I’m still stuck in the “small steps” stage of things. And I still have sentimental attachments to many pieces.

      One thing I love about NOT working outside the home, is that wardrobe issues are nonexistent. By any logic, I should be able to be as compact as you describe; minimal closet and drawer space. The only time I regularly wear my dresses, skirts, jewelry etc. is to church on Sunday, and that’s just because it’s fun to dress up now and then, not because anyone expects it. I think costume design would be such a fun occupation, particularly for theater. Almost like real live paper dolls.

      Sometimes I miss the days when I used to have to wear a dress to fly on airline passes (male employees on passes had to wear nice clothes too; pass riders were considered to be representing the airline, and people used to dress nicely when they flew). I love it when I’m in DC and see men wearing suits and ties, so rare elsewhere nowadays. But on the whole, I love the freedom of not needing to worry about clothing, aside from basic cleanliness and modesty. I’ll always love shoes, though, though about half the pairs I own are a practical black! 😀 Even black flats can be so cute!

      • I love black flats. They’re my favorite.

        Here is a game to play when you sort through your closet. Start with one color. I don’t know if you have a favorite, but let’s say green. On Monday, remove all the green items from your closet, and put them in piles by type: skirts, shorts, pants, t-shirts, dress shirt, sweaters, etc. Now pretend you can only have one green skirt. Which one would it be? It should be the one that fits well, is flattering, and I might add, easy to care for. Then move on to the next category. On Tuesday, choose another color. This helps break it down into smaller chunks, and at the same time forces you to really look at what you have.

        Another approach is to look at article of clothing first: all pants, then all sweaters, and so on.

        • That sounds like a good game. My usual approach is to try the “article of clothing” category, but normally I start with pants and want to try everything on, which usually becomes too depressing as so many of them are more snug than I remembered them being. 😀 I think the color approach might be more fun. Easy to care for is right up at the top of my list when it comes to clothing. I rarely iron anything, and I hate to use dry cleaning, especially given the toxicity of some of the chemicals.

          • I’m not a fan of ironing either. I’m a largely wash and wear gal, and the same applies to my hair. Ha!

            So, pants should go last so you don’t get bogged down. They take more work to get on and off.

            • I never thought of that…but I do think a nice long, flowing skirt is often more comfortable than pants (and cooler too!) Maybe by the time I get to the pants I’ll be ready to get rid of more of them. 😀

  6. PS: Have your heard of Project 333?

    • WOW, I love this! I had not heard of it. When we first got the townhome in Alexandria, my intention was to do basically that, not just with clothes, but pretty much everything. Keep it spare and minimal throughout, just enough to get through five days between every weekend. NOT!!! Jeff loves to tease me – “what happened to the idea of not having any stuff here?” I must sheepishly admit that the things that have most quickly mutated into huge quantities have been BOOKS (because nature abhors an empty shelf as it abhors a vacuum) and craft supplies (because I gave myself a bedroom to use as a craft room, in fulfillment of a longtime fantasy). Of course I have way more of books and supplies than I could use in several years, but I cling to the illusion that someday I’ll have time…I need to seriously consider this 333 thing.

      • Julia, how lovely to have a week-day craft room. If it’s just books and crafting material that have migrated, that doesn’t sound so bad.

        I used to hang on to books as well, but eventually realized that I rarely if ever re-read fiction, because there is always something new I want to read. Most of the books on our shelves now are reference: cooking, gardening, home-improvement, parenting and the like. I have a few sentimental favorites, but I pass on the rest. I try to buy used paperbacks on line or at a bookstore in town.

        Please let me know if you try the 333 thing. I followed a similar idea on my travels through Europe. I had one pair of jeans, one jumper, a few tops, one sweater and two pairs of shoes (walking sandels and aerobic-styled shoes) and a dress. I got bored after two months of the same things, but it all worked well together in blues whites and soft yellows.

        • Alys, I am gradually adopting the packing strategy you described (motivated in part by being too cheap frugal to want to pay bag check fees) and so far I am sold on it. I also got rid of all the fiction books I’d already read (except a few classics) many years ago, but I actually missed being able to refer to one or two of them later. I just like being able to browse through my books sometimes, although that is a luxury that should have limits, I know. I considered having a bookshelf of nothing but library books for that purpose, which I would rotate every few weeks, but so far I’ve not gotten to that point. Just the other day I was looking at my cookbooks, though, and admitting to myself that for the limited cooking I do, I’d probably be much more likely to use or another site to search by ingredients, categories, etc. My attachment to them is mostly sentimental or just loving their vintage look. I have several of my mother’s old 1960’s cookbooks and I just love the vibe. But I would gladly give them to someone who wanted to actually use them. Jeff does look through them occasionally if he’s in a cooking mood.

  7. Sheila

    Julia, basic now doesn’t seem quite as basic as it once was. If one bracelet looks nice, surely 4 or 5 will be magnificent! And logos are really out of control. Ouch! I almost stepped on my own toes. Haha! I really think there is so much to be said for simple elegance, it’s really a style that sets itself apart. I admire it most. 🙂 I hope you’ve had a nice weekend.

    • Sheila, how true – basic is the new opulent, or would that be vice versa? Suffice it to say that “basic” transportation used to mean “two feet!” 😀 And more is never enough. It’s beyond me how retailers ever convinced people to pay THEM to wear advertising for their products! It should be the other way around!! We have had a nice quiet weekend; the weather has been mostly lovely. I look forward to walking later this evening…

      • Sheila

        Julia, I think “Wally” alerted you to our evacuation of 428. The weekend was described by someone as perfect camping weather. It was cool enough that our heat clicked on in the early morning hours. Nice quiet weekend sounds simply perfect! 🙂 Ours was too!

        • Sheila, I’m so glad you had perfect camping weather (even if Walter did play a bit of the martyr over it :D). After the winter we just got through, we all need to bask in such lovely days. I did something a bit different today and took my walk in the morning, since Jeff took today off and was here to stay with Matt. It was lovely. Hope you have a great day today!

  8. Julia, hello. I like simplicity and elegance. Have you notice…Some people can look elegant in jeans and tee? Others look just sloppy?
    I like jewelry but I have a metal allergy, must limit my jewelry. I have two favorite pair of gold hoop earrings. I’ve found that’s all I need…
    I have a weakness for red shoes. But they must be comfortable and the right price. 🙂
    I have a favorite consignment store, where I take my clothes for resale. Keeps my closet in order…I like my clothes stored neatly.
    You always look elegant and your pictures and blogs inspiring.

    • Thanks Merry, I only use the photos that make me look better than I really look! Seriously, I can look quite sloppy at times. Perhaps the elegance has as much to do (or more) with grooming, bearing and attitude. I have lots of pretty earrings but like you, I tend to stick to my gold hoops, so easy and pretty too. I have a pair of red shoes that I hardly ever wear but I can’t bear to get rid of them 😀 — I guess I like the way the color perks up my closet shelf. When the boys were little I used to sell lots of stuff at the base consignment shop, which was perfect for keeping baby clothes and gadgets under control. I have a terrible habit of getting emotionally attached to stuff and I knew I’d be in trouble with baby stuff if I gave myself even an inch. It helps to part with stuff if you think someone else will be able to use it – consignment shops are perfect for that.

  9. Michael

    30 years of accumulating stuff can’t be fixed overnight. As we begin to downsize the task almost seems daunting. Does Born to Organize do house calls? The 33 item rule does make sense and I did live out of a suitcase-literally- for three months last summer in New York.
    But as you say -, “nature abhors an empty shelf.”

    • Michael, that is so true. Downsizing can be daunting. Jeff and I have just realized that even ten years in the same house has resulted in ponderous accumulation of stuff. This morning the two of us were walking our (badly overgrown) York back lawn, garden and wooded lot — I mentioned to Jeff that “even nature seems to accumulate too much stuff if it’s not weeded and maintained regularly!” The past 18 months we have been so preoccupied with Jeff’s condition that our yard has gotten amazingly out of control. The azalea bed is so overgrown that everything is pretty well fused, and the camellias are looking bad (leggy and thinner, and showing signs of disease). So, apparently the human tendency to be surrounded by too much stuff over time has a parallel in nature. Time for some pruning, indoors and out! BTW I don’t know if Alys does house calls but she does have some good tips on her site and also gives me some good advice in these comments!

  10. LB

    First … that photo is simply beautiful!
    I am definitely a simple dresser and unfortunately rarely elegant. 🙂
    I had the same 80 / 20 problem … until my bike wreck. While I was confined to bed my mother and sisters went through all the closets and gave away / recycled a truck load (or two) of clothes, books, and other stuff. I don’t remember half of what happened, but almost 7 months later, I miss only 1 or 2 items of the stuff they gave away.
    It was amazing to have someone come in and force me (not like I could do anything about it!) to clean house.

    • Wow, just reading about that triggers my “that would freak me out” button. BUT, as you say, it’s not like you could do anything about it. I will try to keep this story in mind as I fight with myself over holding on too tightly to things I need to cast away. I hope that I can thereby benefit from the pain you had to endure, and realize that any of us could be similarly “forced” by medical crisis to do what we would be better off having done long ago. I appreciate your sharing this hard-won wisdom here!

  11. I think simplicity is the base for all elegance.

    • I tend to agree, and it seems most people do, based on the comments here.

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