On Being Cool

On Being Cool picBeing a musician is a public activity so I think a lot about my appearance and have been doing so more than I used to. Chico Chica is Latin-influenced, we play smart places and we find ourselves in expensive hotels. Also, people spend money to come and see us so I like to make the effort and dress up a little more than if I were merely going out. I am influenced by my dad – he used to love bespoke clothes and on Sunday evenings, would wear a suit just to be at home. It was his way of relaxing because with a suit he was less likely to do any chores such as feed the dog. Clothing effects behaviour which is why the line between a Dandy and a Gentleman is blurred.

Last year, I went on a Balzac-reading marathon and stumbled across Treatise On Elegant Living. I’d never heard of it – it’s a slim, unfinished volume. Balzac’s stories are set in the age of the dandy and there are a lot of cases of characters being anxious about clothes. Lucien, the young poet in Les Illusions Perdues spends all is money on an outfit so he can go to the opera with his girlfriend. It’s a painful scene – he’s convinced he’ll make a great impression only to find people laughing behind his back for looking like a tailor’s dummy. This elegance thing isn’t easy so we need guidance. First of all, the word elegant isn’t really used much nowadays – people prefer cool. Treatise On Elegant Living is crammed with sayings and I’m going to paraphrase what I think are the most relevant to me, using cool instead of elegant. The book differentiates primary from secondary elegance – primary concerns personal appearance whereas, secondary concerns the home and which I will not touch on here.

Balzac comes up with three categories of adults:

A) Those who work (the busy life)

B) Those who think (the artist’s life)

C) Those who do nothing (the cool life)

It’s the third category that gets people in a lather. In the 1840s, those who did nothing were the aristocracy – nowadays it is those living on welfare. Work is uncool. It is laziness, not necessity, which is the mother of invention because the ‘ultimate goal of the civilised man is repose’. It’s what schoolboys have always known and so many fail to understand: it’s uncool to work hard. Many people become artists as a way of avoiding category A.

So here are some aphorisms from the book I have gleaned and modernised:

Being cool is is the result of instinct and habit.

Businessmen and teachers can never be cool.

The impolite man is the leper of the fashionable world.

Good has but one style, evil a thousand.

The most essential effect in being cool is the concealment of one’s means.

Anything that reveals thrift is uncool.

Harmony between exterior life and fortune results in ease.

Never complain about the excessive price of things.

Being cool is a skilful development of self-respect.

The man of taste must always know how to reduce need to a minimum.

A multiplicity of colours will always be in bad taste.

Clothing is how society expresses itself.

Negligence of clothing is moral suicide.

Clothing must never be a luxury.

Anything that aims at an effect is in bad taste.

To go beyond the limits of fashion is a caricature.

If people look at you too closely, you are too well dressed, too stiff, or too mannered.

Anything that seeks to hide or augment nature is uncool.

A rip is a misfortune, a stain is a vice.

Be clean, simple and harmonious.

And yet, despite reading the book, I still can’t decide whether to  go for a three button jacket or two.


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