So what is it that makes a woman stand out in a crowded room or stay in the mind of those around her for an evening, a month, a decade? Taste. Acquiring What Money Can’t Buy by Letitia Baldrige attempts to answer this question with a study of style and the influential people that wield it over time. More than a commentary, Taste is an interesting look at art and culture, as well as a peek at the life of the author herself, a woman that made a career on advising others on matters of taste.
Beginning with an attempt to define the title Letitia, also an authority on manners, artfully manages not to offend any specific tastes as she limits her commentary to kind words while evaluating them. Process of elimination seems to be the starting point for the analysis. Letitia gives many examples of what true taste is not,
Assembling wonderful elements doesn't do it. Size, fit, and
appropriateness are all essential to style. We should dress to disguise
one’s imperfections not magnify them.
She stresses the importance of attention to detail, “even the best clothes cannot compensate for negligent grooming.” (p54) And presents many arguments for why injecting taste into your regimen is important:
The conspicuous minority that instinctively dress with taste always stand out in a crowd... an attractive part of the scenery. They are also propelled forward in business and social life. People want to have them around... They are considered sophisticated and knowledgeable.
After much analysis and the process of elimination a conclusion is reached with a simple description of taste as an “understanding of what appropriate means.”
Next Letitia looks at taste through the ages and across cultures. She presents the often omitted observation of the Native American’s sophisticated fashion trade as a precursor for our current love of fur and organic materials. Then weaves the contribution of French fashion and the House of Worth’s practice of creating mannequins to size garments for their clients great distances abroad into the fit. She demonstrates her understanding of fashion today and how it was formed. Expanding the discussion to include social graces, entertaining, and interior design she demonstrates her versatility.
When we were organizing a dinner in honor of a UN official who was
planning a visit to Rome, I suggested that the ambassador...print the guest
of honor’s latest important speech on fine paper and bind it in a
decorative endpaper as a memento for each dinner guest.
The analysis provides a good sense of the many influences that made fashion and taste today a possibility.
Letitia concludes her analysis with ample examples of tastemakers throughout history. These case studies are perhaps the most colorful and endearing portion of the book. Letitia worked for embassies abroad, she spent time as a social representative for the Kennedy White house, and navigated fashion social circles for decades. She provides very personal accounts of each of these. Letitia talks in detail about responding to letters on behalf of Jackie Kennedy. She talks of the first Ladies passion for creating an environment that represented the residence of the United States in a respectable way. Letitia talks of the style support team that helped make Jackie and other admired women as memorable as they continue to be and evidences the strength of the women themselves with examples such as Nan Kemper’s dinner spent pant less in defiance of a dress code keeping women in dresses. This recounting is entertaining and inspiring. Insights into each of these situations also provide a feeling of privilege at being held in confidence. Letitia inspires us with her recounting and many examples while providing insight into humanity of the icon.
Taste: Acquiring What Money Can’t Buy by Letitia Baldrige is not a book to tell you how to dress but rather it is an investigation of the underlying elements that have worked for those deemed iconic in the past. The author offers historical context to design elements and personal observations about common practices of some of the most famous over the ages in an attempt to find a common thread. While some similarities are present, Letitia comes to the conclusion it is really each person’s environment, focus, and individual opinion that matter most.
Baldrige, Letitia. Taste. Acquiring What Money Can’t Buy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.