Susan, be smooth! by Nell Giles, 1940: Chapter II – Keep it Simple with Subtraction

Chapter II

“Start with one idea and stick to it” may sound like Carnegie or Confucius. . . but actually it applies to clothes more specifically than to empire building.

Clothes that have one thought in mind. . . if that thought is YOU. . . express a definite idea: “Susan is romantic”. . . “Susan is Victorian” . . . “Susan likes sports” . . . “Susan is a good scout” . . . “Susan is in love” . . . Susan is Smooth. And this one-ness is the beginning of a definite sense of style.

Now it may well be that you are two or three ideas at once. For example, it is quite possible to be in love and be a good scout at the same time (though perhaps we have chosen the most single-minded emotion in the world to make a point). But your clothes, definitely, must say one thing at a time.

No romantic blouses under sports jackets; no sturdy oxfords with afternoon dresses. Ski clothes must look competent, not Hollywood-ish. . . (and we think a fat red heart hung from the belt of your navy blue ski trousers looks quite competent). What you wear must be all-of-a-piece; it must express one thought, from your hat to the last detail of grooming.

For example, let’s make Susan Victorian. From top to toe, Susan will run something along this line: a bonnet type hat, a simple dress with a high neckline and a touch of white, pale nail polish, white gloves, and pumps. Now take off the bonnet and try a Scotch Highlander cap. . . (Susan has one to wear with her plaid skirt and cashmere cardigan). Now Susan becomes something else again: Queen Victoria doing a Highland Fling or Harry Lauder in pink tights. You see what we mean. If you start with Victoria, don’t branch off on one of her Colonial expeditions.


There is a terrific danger in any fashion inspired by history, as indeed many fashions are. We mean especially clothes heralded by the stores and magazines as “Victorian” . . . “Spanish” . . . “Gay Nineties.” One danger is the one we have just explained: the danger of being 1890 from the neck down and 1940 from the neck up.

But it is just as bad to take the period idea to the extreme, so that you are turned out for a costume ball. Remember, you aren’t supposed to represent Queen Victoria. . . you are only borrowing an idea from her time. And you borrow only if the idea expresses and emphasizes YOU. Susan comes first; lucky Queen Victoria walks behind.

Suppose that you do decide that you are thin and wasp-waisted enough, pale and lady-like enough to wear the fashions known as Victorian. Then be sure, before you put on the finishing touch, that it is not too much. Be sure you won’t look “coy” or “cute.”

In short, SUBTRACT. Take off the garnet velvet hat with the ostrich plumes. . . or the heavy gold bracelet. . . or leave your muff at home.

We have used the Victorian influence as an example of how not to go too far, but there are a great many more illustrations a little harder to see.

Here’s a game to play: Watch girls in a crowd; pick out one or two and study their faces and figures for best points. Is this girl the Tailored Type because her face has a clear, straightforward look. . . her shoulders are square. . . her figure tall and erect? But see what she wears: a green silk crepe dress with gold embroidery; brown oxfords (at least her feet are headed in the right direction); and a velvet turban which she certainly bought for best last year.

How would you change the picture without spending too much money?

Well, suppose she is “stuck” with the dress; it was a bad buy in the first place because it is too dressy for school and it feels too old without feeling sophisticated. It feels like the old-fashioned idea of a school marm. But she still has to wear this dress. Then let’s take the gold embroidery off, cut off the sleeves and put padding in the shoulders.

We have left something right and simple . . . a dress which leaves the emphasis where it belongs. Now let’s make or buy for her a brown velveteen or corduroy sports jacket with a pork pie hat to match.

See what happens. . . she looks “all of a piece.” She can wear these clothes more places and feel better in them because they are her clothes.

What you do to other people, you can do to yourself. Only, it is more difficult to say, Susan, here’s how you look to me.

Once you get the “hang” of this style business, you understand that having style and being “in style” are often two different things. You could pile on feathers and earrings and bustles and be “in style” but of course have no “style” at all if you were not made for these things. And the point to remember is that it is better to be under-dressed than over-dressed.

There’s no better place than this chapter on Subtraction to tell you that it is better to own a few good clothes than many cheap ones. Better from the standpoint of Economy, Appearance and Poise. For the same reason, it is less expensive to buy your clothes in a good store. . . and we believe that you should do the buying, with, of course, the good judgement of your mother or some other older person to O.K. or veto your selections. How else will you learn a sense of style of your own?

None of us starts from scratch on the clothes problem. There are always leftovers that have to be worked in. But getting as near scratch as you can begin with the biggest, most expensive garment you have to buy: a coat. Get the best you can afford, because you wear it three-fourths of the year and for more than one year. Get a coat in the basic color that most becomes you: navy, green, black, brown, beige or grey. Don’t go off on a tangent because you’ll limit the color of the dresses you can wear under it, and also because you’ll tire easily of a color which isn’t a “basic” and which will go out of fashion after a season.

Be sure that this coat is also the basic style you can wear best: fitted or straight, tailored or formal.

From this point, select color in your clothes. If your coat is navy, forget black. Choose navy for your best accessories and one of the russet tones for everyday. With either set of accessories, you can wear beige, certain greens, blues and grey. With the navy alone, consider scarlet.

The same process of subtraction holds in the case of a coat which is black, green or brown. You see, don’t you, that this will save you headaches over trying to get brown shoes and black coats together. . . that it never leaves you, the day before the Junior Prom, with “nothing to wear” for the weekend?

After these basic problems are over, think about your head, hands and feet, which means ACCESSORIES: hats, gloves, bags, shoes and stockings.

Again, keep it simple with subtraction, which doesn’t mean subtract in the quantity of gloves and stockings you own. In fact, have all the gloves and stockings your little fat budget will allow. They give a wonderful feeling of richness and good grooming, and we have yet to equal the emotion of owning half a dozen pairs of white doeskin gloves at one time.

But the simplicity of these accessories is what is important. Buy for quality, simple design, and perfect fit, and your smoothness will reach a new high.

In hats–no, don’t always buy for simplicity. Buy for becomingness and rightness for the clothes you wear with the hat. A hat should be the last accessory you buy: and the most thought-over. Wear your coat when you select it, and judge its becomingness in a full length mirror: you won’t always be seen head-on and sitting at a table.

Classic white doeskin gloves will give your hands definite sophistication against your black coat. Sheer stockings, subtle in color and perfect in fit, are every bit as important as your lipstick. Good shoes add dollars to the appearance of your dress.

About stockings, we wax patriotic. . . and do so if you’ve been in a foreign land and try to buy a decent pair. Give it a thought, then, when you stand at the stocking counter. Buy two pairs at a time of the stockings that fit your feet and the length of your legs; select a color in harmony rather than in contrast with your clothes, and keep in mind that a color with a shadowy tinge of grey will flatter your legs; pick crepe for dullness and long wear.

Aside from the decent simplicity of low heeled shoes, they do much for your posture. And the shoe designers, looking at us all in a piece, from top to toe, are giving us each season the best styles with low heels.

Once you have this clothes problem settled. . . you’ve decided what type of girl Susan is. . . you’ve bought her coat and planned what goes with it. . . you’ve stuck out your chin and sworn to stick to one idea at a time. . . then you’re ready to go back to the first chapter and remember that Smoothness boils down to keeping clean and keeping simple; that it is more concerned with the one-ness and the spic-and-spanness of what you have on than what you paid for it; that only perfect details add up to a perfect whole.

All of which takes us up to the third chapter, which is waiting in the lavatory.


To be continued. . . 

If this is the first time you’ve met Susan, be sure to check out:

Introduction and Table of Contents
Chapter I: Give it a Thought

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