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Jul 13, 2011

Are you sophisticated?

Reading blog comments in response to recent posts about summer comfort and contemporary style, I noticed that most of you are relieved to be able to wear what feels comfortable to you.

Many of you, however, aren't pleased with a world where people let it all hang out -- literally -- and think that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of casualness.

This got me thinking about what's been lost since the days when men wore hats outside and ladies squeezed themselves into girdles and garter belts. It isn't so much what people wear that has changed (though that's part of it), as much as the way they wear it.

We've lost a sense of sophistication.

Sophistication is defined as "enlightenment or education; cultivated intellectual worldliness; savoir-faire."

It connotes "having, revealing, or proceeding from a great deal of worldly experience and knowledge of fashion and culture."

What was it that made, say, Marlene Dietrich seem sophisticated -- the knowing glance, the cigarette, or the German accent?

Parenthetically, I watched "Burlesque" last night on DVD, and rarely has a film tried so hard to evoke an air of sophistication and failed so miserably.  That said, I was never bored.

Maybe the problem is Christina Aguilera.  She's about as sophisticated as....well, Christina Aguilera.

Part of what's missing -- and some of you alluded to this in your comments -- is a lack of role models.  We've experienced real cultural losses in the past three or four decades.  There are things most men and women no longer know how to do, and dressing elegantly is only one of them.

Hence the ubiquity of the celebrity stylist.  But even then, the results look effortful rather than effortless.  The clothes are striking, but the result looks only superficially sophisticated to me.

Did the old stars seem sophisticated because we associated them with their on-screen personas (and all that witty dialogue), or is it something else, something on the inside they projected out?

Reader Toby recommended an excellent book to me a few weeks ago, "Elegance: the Seeberger Brothers and the Birth of Fashion Photography," and I recently found it at the library.

It's full of gorgeous photographs taken primarily during the Teens to late Thirties of European high society at leisure.  Of course we're going to expect them to look better than the rest of us, but these photographs really capture something special; it's not just the clothes -- it's an attitude.

Can some wise reader please define why these people look so friggin' sophisticated -- if you think they do?

I think sophistication, and sophisticated style, have to do with intelligence, particularly about oneself.  It's not so much getting it "right" -- which seems to be what so many celebrities today are obsessed with on the red carpet -- as expressing something unique about yourself.  It's knowing who you are and what you're about and expressing it through the language of fashion.

That's why this leaves me utterly cold:

And this evokes delight:

Perhaps actresses today aren't allowed to play fully fleshed-out characters and that's why they seem like paper dolls when they dress up.  We don't really know them -- or just the opposite: we know them too well to really care.

Once America became suburban, people spent more times tending their yards and driving their cars than strolling the streets.  Private space became more valued than public space, the latter sometimes lacking entirely (i.e, no sidewalks).

We're more likely bump into each other in the snack aisle of the 7-Eleven than dressed up to be seen.  We mainly move from one air conditioned space to another with a car trip in between, and there's nowhere to go but the mall.  It doesn't really inspire a person to take pains.



Readers, what do you think?  What is sophisticated style all about and where can you find it today?  Does it still exist in your corner of the world?

Do you consider yourself sophisticated in your style or approach to life?

If you had to blame one thing for the loss of sophistication today, would it be:

1) Reality TV

2) Stretch denim

3) Petticoat Junction

Jump in!


  1. Does sophistication exist in my corner of the world!? I'm in Tennessee! I get looks when I wear one of my utterly simple A-line dresses to Walmart! I don't have the answers to your questions! I would never define myself as sophisticated. Classic, yes.

    Also, so many celebrities today look like they're playing dress up. The silver screen ones look like the old "What? This old thing?" casualness no matter what they're wearing.

  2. Reporting from Miami: lots of lycra, lycra and more lycra. No sophistication in the city nor in this household.

  3. You say: But even then, the results look effortful rather than effortless.

    I wonder if this isn't at least partially because it is effortful, and what's more, we know it. Back in the 40s and 50s, we didn't have the instant, constant access to the stars. We primarily saw pictures of them at events and such. Now-a-days, we forever are seeing pictures of stars going to Walmart, working out, walking the dog, etc... We know they don't dress in that glamorous way all the time. And certainly, the stars of the 40s didn't either, but it was far easier to keep up the illusion that they did.

  4. I don't claim to be sophisticated, in part because I think I may be too young... I relate sophistication with age, knowledge and joi de vivre and I'm SO not there yet.

    In an age where we have 24/7 access to stars and their lives (they wear sweats "just like us"!) it's taken a lot of the mystique out of the equation. There's something to be said for mystery. Also class.

  5. I think "sophistication" in dress emanates from a classic understatement of line and adornment. That along with the projection of a facial expression of (real or not)a highly developed sense of "self" that is both strong and simultaneously vulnerable catches our eye and we think "now there is someone who is aware and really put together well". Otherwise we have Barbie and Ken who are playing dress-up with dirty knees and elbows and gaudy make-up. They look "put on" (bawdy) and not "put together (sophisticated)."

  6. I was tempted to consider Reality TV as a bane that possibly has contributed to our collapse, but in the end I think that over the last few decades informality has been marketed as the antidote to stuffy. Generationally the Boomers sit at the fulcrum here because they would know people on both sides. My Boomer mom remembers well her Lost generation grandmother. When I see vintage photos I am looking at those previous generations, the Lost, the GI's and the Silents who had/have a more formal approach. But maybe that sophistication was becoming codified too rigidly, the young Boomers in the seventies seemed to think so. Informality seemed the natural solution, but that too can become rigid, or went so far that it no longer serves to ease things socially. Instead, now for young people, not knowing the "rules" is itself a barrier or can be in certain situations. Now we have X'ers and Millenials questioning if there is too much informality and looking back to "vintage" clothes and manners. And of course, the Boomers know these younger gen's well but are in a unique position as the Boomer's would have been in relationship to the older generations whereas many young people only know them through books and media. Maybe the stars of the past seem so sophisticated because we don't know as much about them and so they retain their mystery.

  7. I am so not sophisticated...but you have given me food for thought. Do you think women who lived in the countryside also had an air of sophistication? Or were they more aprons and hair in curlers waiting for their man to come home. I like creating personas for myself. My daughter and I enjoy creating a moment where we feel we are in a movie. I don't know if that makes sense to anyone else, but really great music playing in the background (like in the movies) helps. I'm going to give sophistication a try...or maybe it is something inherent in a person and can't be created!

  8. Great post Peter! We have lost our way big time I think. I remember when my daughters would wear a dress occasionally to high school, and the first reaction was, "Were are you going?" or "Why are you so dressed up?" This would make my oldest daughter very angry and more defiant to be different. Both of my daughters dressed vintage and really stood out in high school. I'm glad they never cared to wear Uggs, jeans, and tea shirts every day to school!

    We lived in France for two years, and you could spot an American a mile away. I learned very quickly while living there, that even to go to the local shop around the corner, you put your best self forward, and dressed for the day. You would never see a French person wearing sweats to go out of the house. They buy quality and know how to work it. Of course there are some missteps, but at least they aren't wearing pJ's and tennis shoes out in public.
    I don't know if this made it out to the East Coast, but at my daughter's high school, kids were wearing pajama bottoms, with slippers to school!!!! When I see this, I believe there is no hope for fashion, when so many kids were doing it. That is the next generation that will propel the,"lets be super comfy," and dress like a slob.

    I'm also sick of seeing people go to a fancy restaurant, and dress like slobs. I think it is totally disrespectful.

    What are we going to do?

  9. Oh,'s even worse than I thought!

  10. There's a lot to be said for being comfortable in what you wear.

    The women in all your earlier pictures just look a lot more relaxed and comfortable in their dresses than the modern women, who look like they're praying their tit tape holds.

    Personally, I wear a lot of suits, because that's what I'm most comfortable and happiest in, but I wouldn't advocate suits for everyone, because a man who doesn't want to wear his suit (think bus driver at his sister's wedding) looks worse than a man happy in jeans and a T-shirt.

  11. Are we conflating sophistication with good taste?

  12. I think, that they look sophisticated because they were. They were adults who, shock, dressed like adults. Always. They would never go out less than dressed for the day. You'd hardly consider answering the door in your PJ's let alone going out in them.

    I attended a conservative Christian college, not too long ago. My freshman year was the first year girls were allowed to wear pants to class, and that boys didn't have to wear ties. It was welcome! But when a few years later they began allowing jeans to class, it was also welcome, but at the same time, we lamented. You simply do not look as put together and nice in jeans as you do in dress pants. Now, I love my jeans as much as the next girl, live in them actually, but I do recognize that if I want to look like an adult, or a professional, I need something that is a "step up" in terms of formality.

    Just my 2 cents.

  13. -tweet!- unfair use of Marlene! I think her sense of self flattens any competition. That broad KNEW things. Even Joan Crawford looked tarty and cheap next to her.

    Burlesque was such a "Pussycat Dolls" vehicle, confection rather than substance. But I love any use of Stanley Tucci. (Sophisticated or not: Gimmee!) I think you hit the nail on the head with Christina. Hit her again, please.

    Have you ever noticed that most old Hollywood "casual" snaps are shot from a lower angle and the subject is always looking out of frame and slightly up? Otherwise, it may be the constant perfect lipstick and hair that give it all away. Casual elegance, my Aunt Finoula...

  14. Living through desperately hard times also made those women of yore more grown up. It wasn't just the clothes. They hadn't been raised on sitcoms and Six Flags. They'd shouldered adult responsibilities from a very young age. There was no TV; people read more, were exposed to more of what we would consider "high culture" today. The dialogue in even the most trite film of the Thirties is literate because more people read books. Most action films were for Saturday morning matinees. Today it's All Superheroes, All the Time.

  15. Reality TV has definitely not helped our cultural sophistication...and have you seen People of Walmart ( dot com). Holy heck!!! Unsophistication at its worst and frighteningly representative of what one can find in a random sampling of middle America goes to Wally-world.

    As a teacher, I try to dress professionally, but I notice that I get "Why are you so dressed up?" comments from my 7th graders if I wear a (suit) jacket or a nice dress. I try to explain the concept of dressing to show respect for what one does and one's role. I think that gets lost when I meet with a parent who shows up to a conference in an outfit that violates school dress code standards - eek!

  16. In my mind I'm sophisticated, is that all that really matters?

    If I have to pick one, I'd say Reality TV. Do I really care what Snookie's wearing or if she got drunk and started a bar fight this summer...I don't think so.

    As far as Petticoat Junction goes, Kate Bradley had style and from time to time, Lisa Douglas visited The Shady Rest Hotel and she was full of sophistication, dahling. Wasn't she a member of the Hootersville Hooters? :)

  17. Anyone who references Lisa Douglas is sophisticated in my book!

  18. Personally, I would blame lycra in anything you wear on the bottom half of your body. And all 3 of your suggestions can also be to blame.

    There is NO sophistication anywhere in this corner of the world - nobody I see even tries. The best one can hope for here is someone (an adult over 40) dressed for church on Sunday.

  19. don't be blaming Petticoat Junction!!!

    It's not just geographic. I grew up in Miami--we couldn't wear pants to school unless it was below 45 degrees. Then, in 1969, my junior high bowed to the inevitable--just a little--and we could wear jeans on Fridays.

    Now? Oy! as an earlier commenter said, it's all slobs all the time. And the same is true here in Portland, where I live now.

    I say we do our own little bit for beauty! (Peter, perhaps you saw the interview with the ballerina recently in the NYTimes? She said she dresses up because she feels, as a ballerina, it is her job to represent beauty both on and off the stage. I really liked that.)

  20. Ah, yes, the PJs to class syndrom. Wearing jeans was dressing up by comparison. Actually I have been living in jeans and t-shirts for years. I do think it might be time to grow out of that, and I do think sewing is helping me become more sophisticated. I don't think I am there yet - I haven't been sewing long enough to re-work my entire wardrobe - but I do think that I am moving in an upwards direction.

    Also, for sophistication in general - I think it has to do with presenting the whole package. The clothes are impeccable, the hair is neat and tidy, the accessories are just enough, and the make-up enhances without overtaking their features. They don't look like they are trying to be "edgy" or push the boundaries of fashion.

    And, for the disheartened - I do think there is hope. The world is quite taken with Lady Catherine's style, which could be pushing us back towards a more sophisticated look. However, while I find that she often looks put together, many who try to emulate the style often look like children playing dress-up. Perhaps there is something to be said for body posture and carriage in all of this as well.

    Oh - and in defense of lycra - I feel like some of my more sophisticated garments are my skating costumes (there again, it is that air of wanting to present one's self as well as possible), so I don't think it is necessarily the fiber content, but how you use it. Clearly, I wouldn't wear these out an about, however, I do think of them as more sophisticated than some projects I have made from non-stretch material.

  21. I have completely abandoned t-shirts. I always make an effort to look clean and dressed, if not well-dressed. It's a reaction to working in factories. I got tired of being a line out of a Stones song.
    And, overall, I blame country music. At least the mass market stuff. I suspect there must be something more important to talk about than pick-up trucks and flags.

  22. Hmmm, hold yer horses, I think Angelina (in that dress, too) is quite sophisticated--she never really looks like she's trying. But then again, without makeup she's still unworldly looking and never looks girl next door even in a white t-shirt. Some causes to me are: increase of athleticism, (after the war, smaller families, rise of middle class and time for leisure, "exercise" as a separate activity), and the athletic clothing that followed, mass manufacturing and cheap availability of, um, cheap clothes. Not to mention the influence of hip-hop/dance, L.A.-style culture that is evident in Christina Aguilera--may not be your (or my) thing but most of these clothes--and attitudes--that we are associating with sophistication here are European-influenced. In short, France is no longer the center of the style universe... I wonder what Andy Warhol would say about this ;).

  23. the biggest difference, to me at least, is that when someone today attempts sophistication and fails they also seem to carry an attitude of "LOOK AT ME I DRESSED UP!" as opposed to the more casual attitude of past years which said more calmly "oh, hello, this is what i always wear"

  24. All of those glamor shots of yore were staged to a fare-the-well. The actors all attended classes on how to walk, talk, move and pose. We never saw them in their natural habitats. They never left the house without makeup, clothing and accessories just so. And there is a certain cachet that comes from wearing clothing made to your own measure.

    Sophistication is an attitude made up of many pieces. Today, we eschew too many of them.

    We go to the grocery store in butt-sprung blue jeans and stretched-out, paint-splattered Tees. Not me, personally, but people do, these days. I may wear ratty around the house while doing chores, but if I leave the house, I am adequately covered in clothing that is inoffensive.

    The stars of yesteryear dressed to impress.

  25. I come from Australia, the original land of the Ugg boot and other sartorial horrors but I can tell you where to find sophistication. My mother, even though she is well into her eighties. She has always dressed like a lady with European stylishness. It wasn't manufactured. I am not even sure if it was deliberate but to this day she will not go out without hair sprayed into place, lipstick on, a little jewelery,nice clothes, shoes and hosiery. In the land of the flip flop I never once saw her in a pair or jeans or shorts for that matter. She has an inbuilt sense of style. Thank you Mum.

  26. I think sophistication is when clothes express and enhance the wisdom and/or knowledge of the wearer rather than when they either enhance another characteristic (say athleticism or exuberence) or hide the wearer entirely as in the above picture of the woman with the pink hair. This is why ruffles and bows, while they may be fashionable, are very hard to make sophisticated. It also follows from this that to enhance the wearer, the clothes must be ones that the wearer is comfortable in, they know how they can and cannot move; and are so used to compensating for any restrictions that they do so without thinking about it or being surprised by their clothes (hey, what! why'd that seam split?!). This means that you have to wear these clothes or similar ones on a regular enough basis to be familiar with them; you can't just throw them on for special occasions.

    All that said, I wear jeans and turtlenecks day in and day out. So no, not sophisticated here. Though I like to see it on other people.

  27. In college, I will admit to wearing jeans, but unless I am driving to and from the gym, I do NOT wear sweat pants in public. Am I sophisticated? Hardly. Would I like to be? Yes. And I agree: the more sewing that is done, the closer we come to that. I personally would -never- waste my time sewing sweat pants and t-shirts. Dresses, nice pants, jackets, and skirts...that is what sewing is meant for. Maybe if enough pieces in my wardrobe become self-made, then I will get closer to sophisticated. =P

  28. I saw a woman today who made me do a double take -- is she wearing pajamas? Not a good reason to take a second look. Several have remarked here that they get questioning remarks when they dress more formally for the day. I encounter the same response when I dress what might be called "appropriately" for my job, and it almost feels accusational. As if one should apologize for looking one's best. It seems many feel you've wronged them by dressing with style. You've called them out for their own inattention to appearance. What is that about?

  29. I think the Olsen twins project sophistication because they march to their own drum. They're routinely made fun of - what are they doing dressing like rag ladies when they've got aaall thaaat moneyy?! - but they do what they want. That's pretty badass.

    I think Marlene looks like a floozy in that photo.

    Don't conflate sophistication with nostalgia; the woman (I guess I should know who that is...?) in the tennis net is wearing her era's sportswear. I've seen women in their sportswear show up to my coffee shop and ooze more sophistication than the office manager dressed for work who's scrambling around "desperate" for caffiene.

    Sophistication is being worldly, yes; but it's also a calm assurance in yourself too. Part of which comes from knowing you've got clothes tailored *to you* - whether sewn for you or sewn by you!

    Much <3,

  30. I think a lot of sophistication comes from education, and a certain sense of self. The reason we don't see it much anymore has a lot to do with the fact that education has been devalued, putting one's best self forward is seen as prissy, and women in particular are discouraged from developing a sense of self. It threatens the consumer culture when you KNOW you don't need something.

    The flip side to this is that most clothing has become too uncomfortable again. There was a golden period during the twentieth century when tailored clothes were well-fitted, since you were expected to wear them for active pursuits as well. Thanks to companies cutting corners, finding clothes that fit properly is a major chore. Too often, I see clothes cut from boxy, straight lines using minimal fabric and detailing. None of this is going to fit the average woman, hence all the stretch knits everybody gets stuck wearing. I think it's a conspiracy to keep all women too uncomfortable in their clothes to notice that their personal freedoms are being eroded. I'm particularly horrified by the tight, short bottoms that are marketed to teens and tweens. How the heck are they supposed to concentrate in school like that? Answer: they're not. Girls are only good for looking at, dontcha know.

  31. I think the loss of a wealthy leisure class is a main reason for the loss of sophistication. If you have nothing do all day but shop and dress, of course you're going to look good! The average person likely didn't look much more put together than now. The working poor have always worn poorly fitting, lesser quality, worn out clothes. Who turns a suit nowadays? It was done out of necessity.

    I don't see the Olson sisters as sophisticated because they're too young. A sense of self, experience and self confidence are necessary for true beauty. Sophistication seems to be a veneer that fakes confidence for those who don't have it.

  32. Confession: I've been a slob most of my adult life. For a number of reasons, I developed a highly antagonistic relationship toward clothes, shopping, and social expectations regarding dress as a kid, so from the age of 14 or 15 onward ended up defaulting to (often ratty) jeans and t-shirts. I was grunge long before there was a name for it (besides, of course, "slob").

    Sewing has changed that. Now that I can sew the clothes I want, that actually fit, jeans and t-shirts just don't cut it. Why wear them when I can wear something much more beautiful and interesting?

    But my first big shift toward cleaning up my act came when I looked around one day and realized that everyone was now a slob, and many of them worse than me. I gave up t-shirts with slogans and band logos sometime after age 30, preferred boots to athletic shoes, and even at my slobbiest never wore sweats in public or anything too tight orrevealing--I had standards, damn it! But I was so used to standing out by being poorly-dressed, it came as a shock to realize I was now just another part of the undifferentiated slobbo masses.

    I stopped wearing jeans seven years ago, at the height of the "designer denim" craze. Hearing some obnoxious stylist on TV tell me that denim was a new wardrobe staple that every woman absolutely must have did it. I'd already been switching over to plain-front chinos because I needed to dress better for work, but after that, chinos became my everyday clothes and all the jeans went to Goodwill.

    My wardrobe is still in transition. Some habits are hard to break. Trying new things brings on fits of self-consciousness, and sometimes they just don't work out. On bad days, it seems like too much bother. Plus, I don't really know what the hell I'm doing; I'm figuring it all out as I go.

    But most days, I am determined to at least turn whatever I've put on up another notch--add a scarf or jewelry, wear better shoes, wear a real jacket instead of fleece or a hoodie, change bags, get rid of something I realize no longer fits or is looking seedy. And in the process, I've started to realize that it doesn't take much to make even the most ordinary clothes look much more polished, sophisticated--intentional. I don't want to look like I'm dressing by default anymore, without ever looking in a mirror, and sometimes just one simple decision makes all the difference.

    I half-suspect that these days "sophisticated" means "I think about my clothes before I put them on. I think about whether they are attractive and appropriate, and how others might perceive me while wearing them. And since I want to be seen as the intelligent, interesting, capable adult human being who loves beauty and is worthy of respect that I am, I have dressed accordingly."

  33. I think the arrogance of 'comfort' has a lot to do with the loss of style.
    You mentioned the effortless look of celebs in the past compared to today, I think that's in part because those stars of old were used to the clothing that seems so costume now.

    Dressed has become 'dress up' as in costume, hence the effort that is so garishly noticeable. When you were expected to dress for dinner, dress for a social even, work, etc. true lounging is left at home. You were in the eye of people who you did not know, so that first impression was valuable. Now we have 'see me as I am not what I look like' and in a lot of misguided ways that has been bastardized in today's comfort culture.

  34. I think you're right, Shelley. So many great comments guys.

    Just to be clear: when I speak of sophistication I mean the genuine article (as it is defined), not just a veneer, and not solely as something belonging to the wealthy. It CAN be faked I suppose, but it ends up looking inauthentic.

  35. My dh and I have discussed this quite often. When we were kids in the south in the 1950s, people had more pride in themselves. Even the very poor would clean up themselves and their children and their threadbare clothing and try to be presentable in public as much as possible to go into a store or run errands. Now you see obviously wealthier people in ratty clothing with dirty hair all over the place even the mall. I confess a time or two of having to run in and get an item not being at best but it is a rare thing for me. We wouldn't think of mowing and sweating in a nasty old tee/cut off sweat pants and going to the grocery store to gross people out but that doesn't seem to be norm in the south these days. Even worse are the older women/men with flabby bits hanging out of their tank tops and short shorts fresh out of the tanning bed chunking cigarettes onto the pavement and sporting punked up hair. Right in there are the young men who have their behinds exposed with the pants below their butts-really love that view on the way into the store or in the checkout. This post expresses so much of how we are feeling about sloppy views out in public and how it used to be. mssewcrazy

  36. Wow, another great post!

    I can’t say that I consider myself to be at all sophisticated, but it is something to which I aspire. But how to define? This is the hard part, yet I think most people can recognize “sophistication” when they see it (rarer than hen’s teeth, these days, I think).

    I think it’s far more complicated than the clothing we wear, though that’s a part of it. Still, if you put a skirt on a pig it is still a pig.

    Peter, I agree with your comment, “The dialogue in even the most trite film of the Thirties is literate because more people read books.” I grew up watching old movies on TV (30s and 40s) and there was a way of speaking that seems pretentious these days. I’d rather speak that way than in the manner spoken on reality shows.

    I know people who have no idea where their local library is.

    I don’t know if I can blame reality shows completely for the loss of sophistication today, but if this is what America is watching, then no wonder our society is going down the tubes.

    Look at the train-wreck lives of young pop idols, such as Britney or Paris. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the train wrecks of their day, yet to most they seem to have had far more sophistication than today’s bunch.

    Several people mentioned self-assurance, a way of carrying yourself, being comfortable in your own skin. I couldn’t agree more. Some people call it having strong chi. It’s just something inside that shows confidence.

    There is a certain amount of pride. As others mentioned, my mother would not go to the corner grocery without making sure that she was dressed properly and had her lipstick on. That didn’t mean dressing fussy or old-fashioned. She dressed well and was clean and well-groomed.

    I see people going to church in jeans, tee shirts, sneakers, flip-flops, shorts. Their daughters are without bras and their butts hang out of their jeans. Those are their GOOD clothes! Don’t get me started on how they dress at the deli.

    It’s a matter of self respect.

  37. I blame "casual Fridays". Remember that, in the eighty's? EVIL.

  38. My favourite picture of my mom was taken in 1958 - she's wearing a black and white check dress with white frame cat-eye sunglasses, white gloves and (as she told me later) red patent leather handbag and shoes. My parents were not wealthy - I think my dad was making less than a hundred dollars a week back then, but my mom sewed her own clothes and shopped carefully for accessories. She never left the house without her gloves and a hat. I asked her once if it bothered her having to fuss about such things and she said, no. Leaving the house without putting some thought into her appearance was simply not on the table. She said it would be like leaving the house without wearing a bra.
    Perhaps nowadays there's a more aggressive 'take me as I am' attitude. I don't know. The advent of lycra, spandex and all the stretchies really helped kill fine tailoring. Instead of having fewer garments that fit properly there's tons of one size fits all.
    All that being said, I've been sewing up a storm this summer - the mojo has returned - and it's all dresses all the time. I live in a city where skirts and summer dresses are the norm on women, possibly because our winters are so long and cold. I also like all my tattoos to be visible in the summer - which may put me out of the running in the sophistication sweepstakes. My mother, on the hand, remains my benchmark for sophistication on a budget.

  39. There were so many rules of etiquette still alive and kicking at the start of the 20th century. The man and woman on the street either did not know them and were uncouth or they did know them or they did not grow up with them and handled them woodenly, like badly played marionettes.
    The upper crust, on the other hand spent time and money on learning to internalise all the rules so that they could move through life without ever showing how tightly the social corsetts were woven.
    And while I like people to be generally friendly and reasonably considerate of their fellow creatures, I'd hate to live in times of constricting etiquette. It is the same with dress, and I think the sophistication visible in some of Peter's examples stems from wearing both the clothes and the manner that went with them lightly.
    Sophistication would also be a matter of personality. Think of Elizabeth Taylor vs. Audrey Hepburn. Both beautiful and accomplished actresses, but only one of them was sophisticated.

  40. Sophistication is a lifelong journey. There are no child prodigies (meaning youthful 20 somethings) in today's movie star world that have it, period.

    I also think there is a division about sophistication among the sexes. Men hold a different type of sophistication than women, and in the past era, that was acceptable. Not better/worse, just different.

    For some reason today, difference isn't looked on as equal. Sophistication of the sexes has to be the same type now, which I think is stupid.

    I think a core aspect of genuine Sophistication is knowing that you don't have to advertise yourself as the center of attention to *be* the center of attention. There are a lot of old stars I could name that I don't think were vert Sophisticated. Marilyn Monroe being one of them.

  41. You hit it with two comments - one having to do with a sense of self that is so lacking today. It is so apparent in the stars of yore - in their carriage - does anyone concern themselves with "carriage" today? Are women told to keep their legs together - don't cross legs at knees - how to walk - how to get in and out of a car - etc. Another is about knowing the private lives of the stars. Who cares???? I don't think it enhances anyones image to know what brands they buy, what they are addicted to, you get the idea. I like to think that at times I can still appear to have a certain sophistication - but like the rest of the world, I think I am just too lazy most of the time. oh, and it doesn't mean that being sophisticated is all up to women - young men of today need to learn that butt cracks - oh I could make lots of comments on that one!

  42. These are all amazing comments.

    For myself - in addition to echoing many of the above thoughts - I think we are at the bottom of a bell curve where perhaps the 1930s-1950s were the top.

    Education, as someone mentioned, has been completely devalued. Ethics, genuineness - all devalued and people are really belligerent about not being POSSIBLY seen as any of the above, except when necessary (see: many U.S. Congress members).

    In short, when all the adults are acting like they are in Junior High, it stands to reason the clothing is going to go there as well.

    Sophistication *itself* has been devalued. It is a crime to act in any way - in America at least - that would imply that you are more educated, aspire to be your best, or have possibly had more opportunities than someone else. In fact, it's just bad manners. (I think most would agree that arrogance IS bad manners but I think Americans have become TOO oversensitized to that criticism and are now falling over themselves in casual folksiness in order to not POSSIBLY be seen as one of those snotty elite people!)

    America has become focused on teens. Parents are closer to the friend spectrum than the parents, at least, I grew up with - where there were defined roles (including different outfits - I might borrow something from my Mom but she would have died before she borrowed anything from me!). I think people are allowing themselves to be more in love with their children than our parents were - I don't think this is a bad thing - but it has led folks to want to be more LIKE their kids rather than modeling a way for their kids to grow up to be (I'm talking fashion now). Clothing has become more kid-ish b/c it IS comfortable and once you have a ton of people doing it, it's very easy to just go along with the crowd. As several posters pointed out above, when they dress up more, they are asked 'why?' The only possible reason, others think, is a special occasion.


  43. Unfortunately, I do not have anything profound to add but have found the post and comments fascinating. My one thought, in the Cafe/Sbarro's pictures, are we not comparing two different places? Perhaps a modern cafe in the city versus the picture. I also wonder if the influence of snapshot cameras make us think that we're less sophisticated than the past. How many every-day, unstaged photos are there in the past?

    Let's talk about how to develop one's personal style, I'd love to know what you and your readers think.

  44. Having read the first 20 comments or so, one thing strikes me as missing:

    How can you be sophisticated while showing off cleavage or wearing a skirt slitted up to navel-level?

    To me, a lot of the sophistication has left the public areas being replaced by blatant sexual vibes.

    You simply don't see those sophisticated women of yore arranged across the bonnet of a car or leaning over to allow you to see miles and miles of cleavage.

  45. I can't help but think that our society's turn toward mass consumerism and waste doesn't have a bit to do with the loss of pride in many people's appearance and carriage. Clothing and shoes are for the most part, inexpensive, cheaply made, disposable. Why take care of your clothes and shoes when they wear out in a season and you can buy a replacement for cheap at a discount store?

    When I was a child, we had few clothes, they were expensive for us to buy and my mom made most of my wardrobe. I was taught to take care of my clothes, polish my shoes weekly, and care of my hair and nails. I grew to love to look nice when we went out, to wear well-fitting, well-made clothes and shoes. I was taught how to sit, greet people, write thank you notes.

    Nowadays, I stand out in the crowd which seems kind of silly. A greeter at WalMart told me "You must not be from around here," because I was in a skirt, sweater, scarf, and heels, with my hair piled on my head. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable that I stand out, but I've learned to ignore the stares when I dress for a dinner out with my man.

    So, maybe the problem it isn't just a lack of education, societal expectations, and rampant immaturity, but also a serious lack of quality products on the shelves that are worth buying and caring for.

  46. I think that if you think sophistication lies in people's clothing or appearance then you don't know what sophistication means. I think you mean "chic", not sophistication. There are some very simple people who dress beautifully and some very sophisticated people who wear nothing but jeans.....

  47. Don't try to understand Lady Gaga, she is an artist.

  48. Seriously? "Don't try and understand her she's an artist."? So don't try and understand art?

    If you can't attempt to understand art either the artist isn't doing their job, or you aren't doing yours as the audience.

    There is no way in this world I would call her an artist. A focused grouped multi media venture with a lot of money invested in her, perhaps. If she's an artist, then Hot Topic is as 'indie' as they are focus grouped to me.

  49. Speaking of sophisticated...I thought of you when I saw these --enjoy!


  50. I can't believe I read every article! I grew up in Germany, so I'm looking at this from two different sides. In Germany, one has the language of "high German", which is taught in the schools and is expected from "sophisticated" people. Those speaking the dialects native to where they were born and lived (mostly farmers and the poor), could speak "high German" if they had to, but it didn't feel quite right on the tongue. There was also a difference in their education - as those who were considered "sophisticated" went on to the "Gymnasium", which is college, and the rest lumbered along on the path of a trade school. The folks (mostly northerners) who spoke high German, were well educated, attended college, made more money, and were a higher "class". The others were laborers, dressed in what one wears on a farm, and spoke with thick accents, which didn't evoke classy sophistication. Paris was where the fashion came from before America managed to infiltrate the culture. However, no farmer would EVER have attended church in jeans. No farmer's wife would have gone to church in anything but her best clothes. My mom never left the house without lipstick, the only make up she used. The feeling I get from the U.S. is lazy - too lazy to dress up, wear something special or nice, and like the one poster said, wear freshly polished shoes, a matching handbag, etc... . One took care of their appearance in public because they had pride, the wanted to be respectful (especially in church), and no one ever wor revealing clothes. German children were extremely well behaved and hardworking - like their parents, who used corporal punishment frely. Now Germany' kids and teens look like Americans and have such disrespect for authority. And, I see that in the U.S. kids and teens as well. It cannot be a coincidence that statistics show those schools that have uniforms have higher SAT scores and so forth. It is a combination of pride, respect, education, values, appropriate role models, discipline, patience (remember wanting to wear your first pair of panty hose, which would replace the "childish" knee socks?), modesty, and financial resources. Now there are parents dressing up children in tiaras and sexualizing them at the age of 3. So, I believe everyone spoke a bit of the truth - because I believe it is a little of everything that was mentioned. Children also never used to call adults by their first names. How could we have gone from that to having teens wear thongs and shorts/skirts that are so short, that a teacher I know has to use Lysol on the chairs in between classes!? I'd put a green unhappy face here if I knew how.

  51. sorry - I just spotted gobs of typo's above - sorry.

  52. I am sorry to say I haven't read every comment so forgive me if things are repeated in this one. The thing is I stumbled upon this blog and was sifting through the articles, this one caught my attention so entirely, I could scroll down no further! You are right it is an attitude. I myself am from Belgium, the Dutch speaking region, Flanders. I do nottice that people from older generations like my mother-in-law or grandparents still try to uphold a certain behavior. A very Flemish thought is "What will people think?", so my mother-in-law never goes out without having had her curlers in. I believe that the casualness of dress has a lot to do with what is available in shops today. I am not very skinny but I am not big either. I am women sized with hips and bust. So nothing like what gets advertised today. Many clothes in shops do not fit right or fits and looks crappy. When I do find somthing I like it usually turns out to cost a bomb. That is the main reason I have started teaching myself how to sew. To wear things to my personal taste and have them fit nice. So I won't just grab any old jumper and humdrum pair of trousers, cause matching them isn't to challenging when you are standing in front of the wardrobe in the mornings thinking you have nothing to wear! The result is feeling unconfortable all day lang cause you feel as plain as dirt.
    I enjoyed reading this article cause so many truthes are articulated in it. How could anyone compare a rolemodel like e.g. Jacky Onassis with "Lady Gaga".

  53. I believe sophistication is a package, and i also agree with a pevious comment on age defining sophistication. I think it's about knowloege and experience, and the way to moulds you. I think there are people who are naturally sophisticated as opposed to those who are trying too hard, i.e. GaGa and XTina.

    Would Bette Davis be a clichéd idol? Or a questionable one? She had the whole package, although her attitude did hang in the balance between classy and immature.

  54. No one is perfect after all. I like it you chose Bette Davis cause of the characters she mostly portrayed, which were so diverse and many times unsympathetic. This on itself delivers her a certain grace. The bad guys in a film often has more style than the good ones.
    You are or you aren't sophisticated is I think put a little to black and white. If you haven't been provided from youth with good examples it isn't easy to get it right when you make your way through the world. Two sister I am befriend with are completely opposite of the sophistication scale. One just does her thing and has gotten into a certain aura over the years cause it's not only the clothes its what is feelt or a certain conviction from inside seeping out giving her that finishing touch. The onther one tries sometimes but doesn't seem to be bothered so it isn't heart felt. Both are of course great friends but the difference is there.

  55. In the days of the Hollywood studio system, the same factory that scripted a star's persona could also produce the clothing, hair, makeup and publicity stills to match. The studios could afford to hire only the best people, so the quality was consistently high. It was very top-down but as they say, democracy doesn't work well in the arts.


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