In this week’s Sunday Times, a woman wrote in to the wonderfully witty Mrs Mills with the following conundrum:
My boyfriend loves Italian food, so we often eat in restaurants where it’s hard to avoid the pasta course. I am ruining loads of my clothes with little splashes of the ubiquitous tomato-based sauces. How can I stop these splashes?
This letter took me straight back to a sunny piazza in Rome, several years ago. Mr W and I were sitting in a small café, enjoying lunch and soaking up the sunshine on our last day in the city. Seated at the table next to us were two Italian men, who worked in the nearby parliamentary offices, enjoying a leisurely lunch hour (something that seems to have been lost forever in this country). We watched in awe (as surreptitiously as we could) as one of them tucked a pristine white linen napkin into the collar of his equally pristine white shirt, and proceeded to eat an enormous plate of spaghetti pomodoro. And, dear reader, not one splash of tomato soiled the napkin or the shirt. Not one.
Many of us secretly envy the Italians for their effortless style (well, I do). But this gentleman had more than style; he had manners, panache and most of all he had elegance. Elegance that went beyond his clothes – elegance that permeated his manners, his behaviour, his conversation.
I would love the British to reclaim elegance (we had it in years past). It has little to do with income, profession or social status. It is about caring how we present ourselves, how we behave in public, how we treat each other, and yes, it requires a bit of thought and effort. As Coco Chanel once said, ‘elegance comes from being as beautiful inside as outside’.