In 1960, my father left the East Coast and moved his very young family to Northern California. This meant that I grew up, despite my High WASP heritage, in a world of furze and tie dye. Our family followed the High WASP code of conduct, but we believed it to be our own private, unvoiced ritual. We lacked cultural context, even as we lived the culture itself.
As a side note, Artsy Cousins and Sturdy Gals flourished in Northern California, c. 1970 but I rarely saw a Grande Dame.
So when, in 1974, I traveled back to Princeton for college, I felt somewhat a fish out of water. The Texas debutantes, New England preppies, Parisians, and Middle Eastern aristocracy, all were equally foreign. Even though some of them would become lifelong friends. Again, the Grande Dame moments were most difficult for me. The Hungarian Ball. The Texas parties. Eating clubs.
I returned to California in 1983, to work in Silicon Valley, at the crest of the area’s second wave of wealth. We’re now on the sixth wave, by the way. But even then, the Northern Californians I had known had retreated, to redwood forests, to beach towns, to Oregon. Carrying away their Indian printed bedspreads in sand-colored VW vans.
And trophy wives had taken their places. A daunting tribe. I did not understand that they were simply aspirational Grandes Dames, probably with secret hearts of their own.
What’s the point of all this? Grandes Dames scare me, just a tad. However, I don’t feel as bad as I might, because they scare everyone. Almost everyone that is, except the writer of the glorious pseudoeponymous blog, Reggie Darling. May I present, using images and ideas direct from from the man himself, Grandes Dames, Reggie Darling Style™. AKA East Coast Grandes Dames For Dummies. Or at least for Artsy Cousins, Sturdy Gals, and the Rest Of World, as corporations used to call far geographies.
We shall start, as one does for any work of art, with the inspiration. Note that these women might not be, in fact, WASPs. Deeda Blair, CZ Guest, Maria Agnelli, Babe Paley. And Jackie. Always and forever Jackie. I have put together some virtual decoupages, in honor.
I understand now that Grandes Dames didn’t scare me, per se. It was their hair. How so perfect, all the time? Do they consort with special Hair Whisperers? Is there a Book of Spells, given at the vesting ceremony? I will never know.
The clothing is a simple but upscale algorithm; sweater sets, pencil skirts, Anne Fontaine blouses, Chanel-equivalent jackets. Short jackets, by the way. None of this approaching-a-coat nonsense. If it’s crisp out, throw on a Barbour to run about town.
We’re talking Roger Vivier, with buckles, and Manolo’s kitten heels. Nothing too girly. And for errands, those faithful Belgians. My aunt Priscilla wore them in navy, with kelly piping.
The Grande Dame likes her spectacles big, and everything else from Hermès. Says Reggie, “The Kelly is so much better than the Birkin.” And jewelry? “Impact stuff.” Look at Carrie Donovan’s and Iris Apfel’s cuff bracelets. Pearls. Big pearls. Loves ‘em! But just don’t call it “Bling.”
In summer, or at resorts, the Grand Dame is very specific in her tunic choices. They must be closely inspired by the Middle Eastern originals. A shift, Lilly or otherwise, is appropriate with Jack Rogers or espadrilles. But when the winds howl, she’s going to wear furs, often from J. Mendel. No one would ever call her PC. In a pinch, or if the furs are still in storage, she’ll pull out her Loden coat.
Direct from Reggie: “When she’s doing her most serious clothes shopping she heads to Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, and Ralph Lauren (she’s finally made peace with him…). Carolina Herrera is not only a favored designer, but also a style icon in her own right. No one wears white shirts better than she does. She has the most marvelous accent imaginable. She is elegance personified.”
Today the Grande Dame lives on. Above you see Aerin Lauder, Eliza Reed Bolen, Marina Rust Conner, and Maureen Footer. Aerin is the heir to Estée Lauder’s fortune. Eliza Bolen is the daughter of the former Annette Reed who is married to Oscar de la Renta. Marina the grand-daughter of Marshall Field 3rd. So many heiresses. That does help in the Grande-ing of one’s life. Note that the fortunes didn’t absent these women from professional impact.
And finally, Maureen is a friend of Reggies’s. With that statement, all baggage I may have borne vis-à-vis the species vanishes into rarefied air.
Any friend of Reggie‘s, whether they like it or not, is a friend of mine.
All images collected by Reggie, except the white and blue shift from Colleen Dinnigan via Matches, the Jack Rogers via Zappos, the Belgians from their store, the Seaman Schepps shell earrings via Beladora, and Marina Rust Conner via Panache Magazine. No affiliate links included. I forgot to ask how Grandes Dames feel about commerce, but I suspect they’ve eased up from my grandmother’s day.