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Thou Shalt Stay Classy


Once upon a time (say, back in the unemancipated sartorial dark ages of the 1950s) women dressed to please their menfolk. Thank goodness we’ve moved on from those days … Instead, we dress to impress our friends and peers; our work colleagues or rivals; our bosses. Sometimes it’s the object of our desire – and, cue dramatic Psycho-style music – our FUTURE MOTHER-IN-LAW.

Much less pressure indeed. Thank goodness.

More importantly, today most women are free to dress to please themselves, and if we do wear something to make ourselves feel sexy, it might be hidden – a whisper of vintage silk lingerie, or a tuxedo worn with just a racy, lacy bra underneath. When you see a girl on the street going the whole shebang – thigh-high skirt with fishnets and stilettos, a tight animal-print skirt with eye-popping cleavage, and makeup slathered on – we all know what we’re thinking: Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman – before the transformation. 

A classy woman … has a good sense of what should be kept private, and what should be made public.

But what is classy anyway? It is certainly not about a cookie-cutter style of elegance in fashion; rather it is an elegance of dress that is defined by elegance of mind. A classy woman has good manners and discretion in all things; she is considerate of others, generous, and she is not mean-spirited. She has a good sense of what should be kept private, and what should be made public. She has confidence and faith in herself, and does not need to ‘prove’ herself to others.

Modern: not a whiff of trashiness around Marion Cotillard; she balances a strapless bustier with the long pencil skirt of her dressVintage: Wow. Thirties actress Jean Harlow is poured into a heart-stopping gown typical of the glamorous early years of Hollywood.

As far as fashion is concerned however, the question is: in this day and age when absolutely anything goes, how does one manage to look sexy, and still stay classy?

It’s as easy as A-B-C …

A is for Artfulness

Be artful in what you choose to wear. Obviously consider the occasion for which you are dressing and dress appropriately. We don’t need to ooze so much sex appeal we’re frightening (or worse, comical) – we are not caveladies, dear readers. Subtlety is more enticing than an overt display of flesh spilling out over every edge of hemline. Too much bare flesh showing leaves nothing to the imagination. What is left to pique someone’s interest if everything is already on view?

Sometimes it’s not only how much flesh you show, but what. An unexpected flash of bare skin is always more erotic, especially when everything else is covered up, and even more so when one removes a wrap to reveal a naked back, or neck, or arms. Not for nothing did Victorian men get all hot and bothered when they glimpsed a bit of bare ankle, or stocking top (they still get excited about that today – stockings I mean, not so much ankles).

A saucy Victorian postcard, from the book, ‘Seduction – A celebration of sensual style’, by Caroline Cox (Mitchell Beazley, 2006) I once saw a very pretty young girl with long blonde tresses walking in the street looking like she had escaped from a Brassaï photograph of 1920s street walkers. She was wearing a very short  white babydoll dress with black thigh high stockings, and little else. My friend Lulue and I looked and gasped at one another: What was she thinking? we asked ourselves. She looked like she was on the prowl for someone to seduce.

Here’s a simple rule to follow: if it’s something you could imagine wearing in the bedroom for a loved one, then it probably doesn’t belong on the street.

Not for nothing did Victorian men get all hot and bothered when they glimpsed a bit of bare ankle …

How to ruin a racerback tank …The correct underwear is important too. There is no use in wearing a dress with a daring open back if it’s ruined by a visible bra. Or a strapless top with a bra. Or even worse, one with see-through straps. Thank goodness the fad for flaunting g-strings over the top of low-rise jeans has just about died out.

Look at this before and after showing a pretty blue racerback silk tank with and without a bra. How much nicer is it without bra straps showing? Quite apart from looking tacky, the straps completely ruin the circular cutouts of the design. It’s essential to own at least one strapless bra in nude, and preferably two, with the additional being black.

Just as bad is not wearing underwear when you should, or the wrong underwear. Some of us need more support than others. One should be especially wary of Visible Panty Lines with tight bottoms – this is the time for a g-string. Ill-fitting bras under tight tops create a very unattractive line too, or even worse (gasp!): no bra at all under a tight white top.

… and how to show it off

B is for Balance

Remember, balance is the key. Coco Chanel is famous for saying ‘before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off’. She was addressing those women with a predilection to over-accessorising of course, and in this situation I would like to paraphrase that to, ‘before you leave the house, look in the mirror and put at least one thing on’.

‘before you leave the house, look in the mirror and put at least one thing on

Follow the same ratio as with clothing silhuoettes, when you pair a tight top with wide-legged trousers for instance. If you’re showing off your legs, then keep your boobs covered. Or if your dress is very tight than err on the side of length rather than brevity. If your dress is see-through, then perhaps a slip might be a good idea. Remember too lighting is important – a garment that looks opaque at home in your bedroom might be far more revealing in bright sunlight.

C is for Confidence

One of the most important ingredients often forgotten by amateur fashionistas is CONFIDENCE! Confidence makes you shine and stand out from the crowd – who can help staring at a woman who lifts her chin and walks confidently with her shoulders back? She will always draw the eye.

But if you dare to bare your back and you look and feel sexy, then you must OWN it. Be proud and stand tall.

Vests are often touted as perfect officewear, worn with shirts and pencil skirts. However, this halterneck version is risky business – best kept for date night, or more casual affairs.By the same token, don’t be forever tugging down a tiny skirt for fear you’re revealing a little too much – it looks idiotic and self-conscious, the opposite of the breezy confidence and sexiness you want to exude. If your skirt is riding up that much, then you probably are wearing the wrong size.

Nor are goosebumps ever sexy. I can’t help pitying those pretty young things that go gallivanting about on freezing Saturday evenings dressed in flimsy dresses. Wear a coat for heaven’s sake, and don’t look like such a silly fool.

Actress Clara Bow; backless dresses were first invented in the 1920s.

Do’s and Dont’s


  • DON’T overexpose – retain some mystery, but DO show off a sliver of skin in an unexpected way, and DO leave room for the imagination
  • DO wear the right size and avoid wardrobe malfunctions such as nipple exposure, muffin tops, underbum, VPLs or similar
  • DO dress appropriately for the occasion – DON’T go to the office dressed like you’re heading for the nightclub
  • If it’s cold out DO wear a coat – goosebumps are not sexy!


  • DO wear the correct underwear for your outfit: DON’T wear bras under backless garments and for goodness sake DON’T wear a bra with see-through straps (click here to read more on this topic), and DON’T go wobbling about bra-less in a tight top (especially a white one)
  • DO wear the right lingerie under sheer garments (click here for more detail)


  • DO wear seamed stockings, but make sure the seams are straight
  • DO try stay-ups or suspenders or over-the-knee socks for a more nonchalant look – but DON’T wear your skirt too short (unless you are at a Cosplay convention)
  • DON’T wear ripped stockings


  • DON’T wear stripper shoes
  • DON’T take painful shoes off and walk barefoot in the city streets – this looks trashy (not to mention dangerous – you could step on something you ill regret): DO carry a pair of fold-up flats in your handbag for emergencies instead
  • DO make sure you know how to walk in heels before you fall and break your ankle

Jewellery & Makeup:

  • DON’T go overboard with jewellery or risk looking like a Christmas tree decked out in holiday decorations
  • DON’T wear hooker makeup
  • DON’T overload on perfume – your nose may be desensitised so you can’t smell it, but everyone else can!


  • DO mind your manners – a classy look loses all its cred if you have a guttermouth or behave in an otherwise vulgar manner (such as removing your undergarments in public, or having a screaming match in the street with your partner)
  • Above all: DO be confident! 

Modern: who can forget Jennifer Lopez and Liz Hurley in their respective Versace dresses? Bordering on the decidedly unclassy, one must admit they both OWNED these looks

A Frenchwoman’s Guide to Elegance

Here are some interesting excerpts from Madame Genevieve Antoine Dariaux’s book A Guide to Elegance (Harper Collins Publishers 2003 – updated since the original version was published in 1964.) A French style guru, Dariaux spent most of her life in Paris. She opened her own fashion house before becoming for many years the directrice to Nina Ricci. She has this to say on the subject of sexy dressing, rather scathingly and amusingly:

‘So-called ‘sexy’ styles are never truly elegant, but only suitable for the vamps of gangster films or comic strips. Besides, the authorities responsible for these exaggerations are neither the fashion designers, who only like the most slender, flat-chested mannequins, nor the garment industry, which has all the trouble in the world trying to lodge a generous bosom in the bodice of a dress that has just arrived from Paris without the slightest sign of a dart in front! No, the promoters of the aggressive poitrine are the brassiere manufacturers, who construct and reinforce their creations as solidly as skyscrapers, with the result that those anatomical features which were intended to be soft, natural cushions, have been transformed into veritable armour plate. The collective adoration for the big bust and the publicity given to the measurements of certain celebrities is a phenomenon perhaps worthy of the attention of a psychiatrist, or the jury at a livestock competition – but it certainly has nothing to do with either fashion or elegance.’

Modern: Christina Hendricks shows off her voluptuous curves but keeps it classy, defying Dariaux's decree that a less than svelte figure should steer clear of form-fitting gowns

But Dariaux does give us hope:

‘On the other hand, don’t believe that in order to be elegant you must dress with austerity and only wear clothes with high round necklines and unrevealing full skirts like the saintly ladies of the Salvation Army. Evening gowns with extremely low necklines are almost always flattering. And dresses that mould the figure – when they merely suggest the forms they cover rather than expose them, and when they are very well made – can cause every head to turn in admiration. Nevertheless, if you are not absolutely sure of the perfection of your figure, and especially if it is a bit on the generous side, instead of emphasising it, veil it. You will have everything to gain and nothing to lose. As for the Wonderbra, they are meant to be worn only in absolutely desperate cases, and even then with discretion.

A kind of mythology seems to have been built up concerning men’s preferences in fashion, with the result that many a young woman who deliberately dresses to attract masculine admiration often inspires only astonishment. To separate once and for all the fact from fiction, this is

What is Really Attractive to Men

  • full skirts, tiny waists, and a long-legged look
  • clothes that are in fashion, but not avant-garde; men follow the fashion trends more than you may realise, and even the Wall Street Journal prints articles about fashion
  • almost any shade of blue; white; very pale and dark grey; certain men hate to see their wives in black; others adore it
  • perfume – but modern men appreciate lighter perfumes than their fathers did, subtle sophisticated blends rather than the simpler scents
  • collars on suits and coats

Vintage: Sophia Loren shows off her figure and tiny waistModern: Jennifer Lawrence sports a similar version of the full skirt and tiny waist; the deep vee of her neckline sexy, but the blouse is demure

What Men Think They Like (but only in the movies)

  • revealingly tight skirts and aggressively pointed bosoms
  • false eyelashes
  • ‘femme fatale’ lingerie
  • musky, oriental scents
  • spike heels
  • yards of black fringe and miles of red chiffon flounces

In short, men enjoy being envied, but they hat feeling conspicuous. And they particularly dislike vulgarity in the women they love.’

Apparently only appealing in the movies … Ava Gardner; animal print is classic sex kitten attire, but be careful how you wear it Some of those rules are a trifle old-fashioned (I almost never wear collared shirts myself for instance), and I cannot think Dariaux speaks for all men, but the list does offer food for thought. Her advice is stern, but it is always better to err on the side of caution, n’est-ce pas?


Come back next week for the Third Fashion Commandment. If you’ve just tuned in, or would like to refresh your memory, click here to review all the Fashion Commandments. 

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