It was the Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah or Debo’s, funeral yesterday. She is one of two titled ladies that I have had personal contact with, who have both had tea with Hitler. The Second World War seems so long ago, especially to the young, that it almost seems impossible to imagine that ladies from this generation have, and some still, turned heads with their elegance and social etiquette. Take a look at the photo of the duchess and notice her posture, grooming and clothing fit. Impeccable. Her age in this photo is around 88 years.
So where did I meet the Duchess? It was outside Old Mill Cottage in High Wycombe. It was the house my husband bought and renovated for 15 years. It was our first home when we married and the house that the children were brought up in. The Duchess had played in the garden and lived in the house with her other sisters, the extra-ordinary Mitford sisters who scandalised and enthralled high society in the early 1900s. The house, between 1911 and 1949, belonged to the Duchess’s mother, Sydney Mitford or Lady Redesdale.
The Duchess was the last of the Mitford children to pass away but alive or not what they have given in our lifetime comes back to touch us from time to time. More recently the term “U” and “Not U” has popped up in the fashion world. This has a much more modern take today than its original use.
Nancy Mitford, the duchess’s elder sister, used these terms, although not hers, as a joke amongst her circle. “U” stood for upper class and their use of the language which was distinct from “Non U” language used by the aspiring middle class e.g. spectacles (U) and glasses (Non U) or dinner jacket (U) and dress suit (Non U). Because she was considered an authority on manner and breeding, those that heard her use the words “U” and “non U” took the meaning seriously. Those in the middle class who wanted to change their station soon learnt the language of the upper class.
Today in a way, our behaviour is much the same if we are the kind of person who wishes to better one’s self. We learn new things that will move us from where we are into something different. The wish to become “U” people is still alive. Some study and become part of the professional “U” club e.g. doctors and lawyers. Others dress for the job they want to move into or meet the right people to connect them, and some just want to be more than they are at that moment. They want to feel good about themselves.
Today we can all look like, and behave like, the celebrities if we choose. Fashion has been democratised and looking good is for us all, especially now with the range of clothing available from affordable prices to expensive clothing. Etiquette classes are also abundantly available for a price.
So why doesn’t everyone we see on the street look amazing? Much of it has got to do with the desire to look good – some just don’t think it’s important. Social shift upwards is also not always as easy as one thinks. In some situations it takes a brave person to move out of one’s social group. Being different and striving for more can have two outcomes – acceptance and non-acceptance. Non-acceptance means leaving the group or retreating back into conformity. Here is a real story about non-conformity: A client came to see me because she wanted to know how to dress. She wanted something more from her life. At the end of the session she looked amazing, quite beautiful in fact. She walked out of the studio upright with her shoulders back. Months later I saw her again. She was round shouldered and she obviously hadn’t taken on any of the advice I had given her. Her excuse, “When I got home my husband asked me – Who do you think you are”. She chose to retreat, as she needed her husband’s financial support. I always hoped that over time she would change her life. She had the potential and know-how to look remarkable.
There is also another reason people don’t look amazing. They just don’t know how to wear clothes. It is either the scale, proportion, fit or grooming (or a combination of the mentioned) that are common problems. But there is more to looking stylish – you have got to feel so comfortable in your clothes that they feel like an extension of you and your personality. Knowing yourself, what colours suit you, what shape of clothing moulds to your body and who you are and how you represent this in your clothing to the world is the key to “U” and your style. It is not really much different to those who lived in the early 1900s. Ask yourself, are your clothes “U” or “Not so U”. Then ask what you need to do to “change your station in life”.
The Mitford Sisters
For those of you with an interest in the Mitford sisters you will know that Nancy Mitford was a famous novelist and wrote many books such as “Love in a Cold Climate” and “The Pursuit of Love”, which are still considered literary pieces to this day. Diana first married Byron Guiness and then later eloped and eventually married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. During the war years she was interned and spent several years in prison. Unity, another daughter was infatuated with Hitler and became a Nazi. She shot herself in the head while in Germany when she heard that Britain had declared war on Germany. Her failed suicide attempt brought her back to Old Mill Cottage where she never really recovered. She etched on the window to her bedroom which was still there until a storm came through the area in the 1980s and shattered the evidence. We often wondered what messages she was trying to express during those days. Jessica, the second youngest daughter, went contrary to her family and became a communist. She eloped and later married Esmond Romilly, a nephew to Clementine Churchill (Winston Churchill’s wife). They moved to America and not many years later Esmond was killed during the Second World War. She then married a civil rights lawyer and was involved in an attack from the Ku Klux Klan. She remained a communist, a civil right follower and used her writing skills to promote both – later in life she became a professor.