The Grande Dame Style Archetype


You know her. You do. If only by her strands of pearls. If only by the look on her face. Who knows what she really feels, what she might suffer, what she fears. We know her by her furs, her shoes, her bags. And the haircut.

The Grande Dame. There are those oblivious to her power. I know that. She strikes fear, and sometimes envy, into the rest of our hearts. Oh, sure, we’re evolved. We have confidence now. We have great jobs, loving families, a history and a life we chose. But probably something we are wearing is make do. The Grande Dame Does. Not. Make. Do.

At night, she attends the charity event of choice. She does good in the world. She believes in doing good. But wouldn’t miss Opening Night at the Opera. That would be a statement of failings she does not care to share with the world. She understands she needs to provide drama, but she will not be vulgar. She abhors vulgarity, all the while not minding furs. At all. Her grandmother wore furs, after all, what could be wrong?

By day, she’s at a museum. Probably. Certainly she’s on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Or in Pacific Heights, in San Francisco. She might have a job, or not. She doesn’t need one. Her Belgian loafers are practical, but stylish, and she buys them in as many colors as she feels she needs this year. Speaking of color, she has nothing against it. She has color impunity. She owns purple, if she wants to. The rest of her High WASP family quails in the face of purple.

In real life, does the High WASP Grande Dame exist any more? Under the age of 65, that is? Family fortunes, made in the late 19th century, have dispersed through the generations. The Ivy Leagues are, thank heavens, attended by Chinese students, and Indian, and Latin American, and African-American, and Catholic, and Jewish students. By people with more money than us. By people who made money only last year. By people with no money. But I know what she would look like if she were 30-ish, that Grande Dame.


This is Julie Macklowe. Her clothes? Exactly what the Grande Dame would wear. For a special occasion. Unashamedly speaking to pomp and circumstance. No particular nod to fashion beyond the color of the bag.

Except Julie Macklowe went to the University of Virginia. I might be guessing, but since a rabbi officiated at her wedding, I’m going to imagine she’s Jewish. That the Grande Dame archetype has passed from the halls of High WASPdom and is out there, available, as a style, for anyone with the resources and desire. Thank heavens. That’s how it should be. The American way.

Should I attend the Opening of the Opera, I might dress like this too. In case you wondered.


I love the way she has no visible jewels. Grandes Dames know the measure of enough.

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28 Comments

  • 10/07/09
    6:03 am

    Reply

    class-factotum said...

    1. I want to be a Grande Dame, if for no other reason than I want a fur coat. I am tired of being cold.

    2. But I am not willing to date/marry someone my dad's age (or the age he would be) to do it. I also like that my husband is taller than I am. I know. Pathetic.

  • 10/07/09
    6:39 am

    Reply

    Dani @ Weddings Fresh said...

    i jump to say sign me up, but i think all the gossip and bad write-ups about me and my personal life would get old real fast. maybe i would run away and live on lake como instead of living in new york. :)
    …did you see what tory burch was wearing? that is what i would wear :)
    great post, LPC.

  • 10/07/09
    6:44 am

    Reply

    Elizabeth said...

    Yep, that's what I want to be when I grow up too. Especially the purple bit…

  • 10/07/09
    7:29 am

    Reply

    Princess Freckles said...

    I'm glad to see the Grande Dame evolve too! Its really an attitude afterall! Love those photos! That red dress is really to die for!

  • 10/07/09
    7:33 am

    Reply

    What a Splurge said...

    In my mind's eye, I can picture the Episcopalian women who attended my church when I was growing up. Back then we always wore dresses, skirts and suits … never slacks. I didn't give it a second thought but these gals were out of central casting. Lots of good quality wool and cashmere before it became so reachable. Pearls, of course. Their skin was a little more wrinkled than it should have been for their age but that's what happens when you have a shore house and you play golf on vacation. I don't know if they were true "Grande Dames" but in my eyes they were pillers in pearls.

  • 10/07/09
    8:46 am

    Reply

    Judy said...

    The Grande Dame also makes no excuses for what she has or doesn't. If she has a daily housekeeper and/or cook, then so be it. If she involves herself with a career, she doesn't spend one minute worrying that she's not "raising her children." The confidence is very refreshing. Excellent as always, LPC.

  • 10/07/09
    9:01 am

    Reply

    Jan said...

    My paternal grandmother was a Grande Dame. Impeccably dressed at all times and unwavering in her almost regal bearing (something I learned later in life she had acquired after my grandfather made his money), she had the ability to strike terror in my heart as a small child with one withering look. My maternal grandmother is the epitome of the Proper Southern Lady – a different animal all together, but every bit as intimidating.

    I, alas, shall never be a Grande Dame, or even a Proper Southern Lady. I just dripped whatever it is they squirt all over a Sweet Onion Teriyaki Chicken sandwiche down the front of my Liz Claiborn blouse and spent 3 minutes picking Sun Chip crumbs out of my cleavage.

    I fear I am hopeless.

  • 10/07/09
    9:27 am

    Reply

    Deja Pseu said...

    I could never be a Grande Dame (am far too irreverent) but those are some fabulous Polyvores, LPC!

  • 10/07/09
    9:34 am

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    Sher said...

    I own the red gown, the fur coat and the gold jewelry. BUT I've no where to wear it! So not part of that crowd ;D

  • 10/07/09
    9:45 am

    Reply

    Buckeroomama said...

    I love your portrait of the Grande Dame. I like that you shared glimpses of the workings of her mind beyond just discussing how she might dress.

  • 10/07/09
    10:38 am

    Reply

    Laura said...

    where can I sign up to be one? Because right now I am a Grande Loser!

  • 10/07/09
    10:52 am

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Hahahaha. You guys are making me laugh again. I think confidence is the trick. Impunity. Sher, I know from your blog that you are your own sort of Grande Dame. No question. I am trying to separate the clothes from the person, and still use the clothes to ILLUSTRATE the person. Showing the "workings of the mind" and the red dresses. And purple. If you have the clothes, find somewhere to wear them if you want. You make the crowd by showing up.

  • 10/07/09
    12:34 pm

    Reply

    Meg said...

    Oh, LPC, you didn't spend enough time in New York after all. OF COURSE Grande Dames are Jewish. They have been for several generations. And the Jewish ones make the Episcopalians go shiver in the corner. Terrifying.

    I was a Patron liaison at one of the major New York Theatres. Trust me, I know of whence I speak.

  • 10/07/09
    12:55 pm

    Reply

    materfamilias said...

    If one were born a Grande Dame (are they born, or made, do you think?) would one never then suffer from the Imposter Syndrome. Imagine . . .

  • 10/07/09
    1:08 pm

    Reply

    class-factotum said...

    My grandmother was just a regular Dame. I never once saw her without dark red lipstick except in her coffin and we rectified that. (We were horrified that the funeral home had put her in soft pink — so not her!) She had rings on her manicured fingers, smoked, drank beer and played cards. Crummy cook but great fun.

    If I can't be a Grande Dame, I'll be a plain Dame.

  • 10/07/09
    2:11 pm

    Reply

    LPC said...

    I think they can be born but must also be made. And they can be made without being born. Grande is a state of mind. And yes, I think they are the defined by their lack of Imposter Syndrome. At least, their lack of need to let us know about it…

  • 10/07/09
    2:35 pm

    Reply

    Maureen@IslandRoar said...

    This was really fun.
    I'll never be this definition of a grand dame, but maybe in the future…
    Ah, to dream.

  • 10/07/09
    3:06 pm

    Reply

    Duchesse said...

    Moist edifying, thank you! A born grande dame would never use "the Met" for both the museum as the opera, and knows which is which.

    I love the crunch of taffeta on a ballroom floor.

  • 10/07/09
    8:38 pm

    Reply

    La Belette Rouge said...

    Fantastic style. I was not born a grande dame but I am willing to take the training course to become one. The day look is my favorite.

  • 10/08/09
    4:47 am

    Reply

    Duchesse said...

    Oh that should have been "most" as les grandes would never be moist; they are quite crisp. Loved class-factotum's definition of her grandmother! Dames are so vivid- true bonnes vivantes- and they also appear (to the casual observer) to have better sex lives than grand dames.

  • 10/08/09
    7:28 am

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Hahahaha. Agree, they would not be moist. Pillars in pearls indeed. I'm still considering the role of Teriyaki sauce.

  • 10/08/09
    7:51 am

    Reply

    miss cavendish said...

    I knew a grande dame in Canada. She was a senator and did the groundwork that led to the Council of the Status of Women in Canada. She did not go to her reunion one year at Bryn Mawr College because Kate Hepburn was going too and my friend didn't want to upstage La Hepburn. Grande indeed!

  • 10/08/09
    8:52 am

    Reply

    Grande Dame wannabee said...

    Wow a Grande Dame with her own JOB(not to mention she has a husband and a daughter). The modern Grande Dame has certainly evolved!
    Julie looks gorgeous and those gowns are to die for.

  • 10/08/09
    12:33 pm

    Reply

    the Preppy Princess said...

    Our endearing memory of the maternal Grandmother is one with her standing in the boathouse in a lovely dress, not quite a day dress, but definitely not anywhere near semi-formal, just a nice dress.

    Her handbag is draped over the wrist with the gloves in one hand, her pearls were draped around her neck, and she had a fur draped about her shoulders. (Lots of draping that night apparently.) There's a photo from that evening; while it never occurred to us the ensemble might appear odd, years ago someone asked about it and had to recognize some found it unusual to get to dinner on summer evenings via boat. Gran-mama could qualify as a Grande Dame; she was a hoot too. Sometimes I wish there were more still around.

    Fabulous post Miss LPC. And those gowns? Definitely in the 'Fairy Tale Princess' category. Yeppers.
    tp

  • 10/09/09
    4:25 am

    Reply

    Jill said...

    I love love love making an entrance! Your opera ensem is beautiful. The jewelry spectacular! I wouldn't mind just being called a Dame. I think I curse too much to be Grande!

  • 10/16/09
    12:48 pm

    Reply

    Pink Julep said...

    Minus the money and invitations of the charity event of choice, I quite fancy myself in this fashion… and throw red paint on me… I have fur! hahahah Great post!

  • 01/08/10
    3:58 pm

    Reply

    Anonymous said...

    In the event that men read this blog, I would offer a word of caution. When I first met my future mother-in-law, who was, as UES grande dames go, at the very top of the heap — just as women in her family had been for nearly 200 years (think Bowling Green, Washington Square, and the slow, reluctant move uptown — first on Fifth, then to the 50s, and finally, at the end to 70s) — it NEVER occurred to me that my lusty 20-something girlfriend could wind up a charming, sacred monster.

    Our marriage has survived, against all odds, in large measure because we have avoided NYC as if it were a plague ship. (Which, of course, it is.)

    P.S. As best I can remember, her mother had more than a hundred pairs of Belgian shoes.

  • 01/08/10
    4:40 pm

    Reply

    LPC said...

    But what is the word of caution, exactly?

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