It's a matter of taste

Without the style makers of the past, how do we know good from bad?

August 19, 2007|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun reporter

The 20th century had Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy. We have Paris Hilton and Ivana Trump.

The 20th century had the clean chic of celebrity designer (and Baltimorean) Billy Baldwin. We have the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy crew.

Is the concept of good taste simply irrelevant these days?

Tell Letitia Baldrige, author of the recently published Taste: Acquiring What Money Can't Buy, you're working on a story about good taste, and she'll ask tartly, "Have you found any?"

Yes and no. We may no longer have the elite tastemakers like Mrs. Vanderbilt and her 400; but some current celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon, are admired for their sense of style, taste and adult behavior. Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and his wife, Annette, whose homes appear in influential shelter magazines, are considered modern-day tastemakers.

Suzi Cordish, a Baltimore hostess who is chairwoman of the board of Maryland Art Place and known around town for her sense of style and taste, thinks good taste is a matter of being able to appreciate beautiful things. "It's an understanding of balance and what's appropriate."

Coco Chanel said it quite simply: "Taste is the opposite of vulgarity."

In her book, Baldrige writes that a person's character is the key to his or her taste. Being kind, having good table manners, putting together a warm, welcoming, clean home "appropriate to their station in life" is as important as social status or income level. But the heart of Taste is her eyewitness tales of the great tastemakers of the 20th century, from celebrated beauty Babe Paley to former editor-in-chief of Vogue Diana Vreeland.

Unfortunately, in the past couple of generations, "tasteful" has become synonymous for many with conservative, boring and unhip. (Check out Ikea's current ad campaign: "Be Brave, Not Beige." So much for the beautifully understated living room done in neutrals.)

The very notion of taste has become problematic, says P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. "In the past, if you had good taste it meant you were a member of an elite whose talent was choosing well. ... Can one really speak of taste in the age that has been doing its best to abolish the distinction between high- and low-brow?"

Aimee Bracken, who owns the quietly stylish boutique Form, an oasis of taste in Hampden -- a neighborhood not known for its tastefulness -- believes that good taste still exists, but it has to be weeded out from the abundance of bad.

"Why is there so much bad fashion?" she asks. "Because it is so accessible for people. ... With this type of mass production comes a watered-down style to appeal to the masses, or a feverish need to develop the latest and greatest trend to make fast cash."

For Bracken, good taste is the ability to decipher what will stand the test of time. She recommends buying "chic, streamlined clothes" that you think you will still love five years from now. And, she advises, accessorize but don't overaccessorize.

Although tastes change, there are some constants when you're talking about good taste, and one of them is "streamlined." Weed out excess, Baldrige advises.

Restraint and the ability to edit are hallmarks of good taste, agrees Stiles Colwill, a Lutherville interior designer and chairman of the Baltimore Museum of Art board of trustees. "The great rooms filled with chintz that were so popular in the '80s were fascinating," he says, but you wouldn't call them tasteful.

He would agree with Cordish, who believes that good taste is something more than a beautifully designed room. "It's an accumulation over time of loved objects and experiences that reflect your personality," she says.

Historically, good taste goes with good manners, Colwill believes. "If I hold a door for a lady today, she's stunned." But there's a reason big companies send their employees to etiquette class. "They still have to know which fork to use."

The concept of taste, in other words, isn't quite dead yet. People still seek out people who have taste, he says. "That's part of the reason they seek out interior designers."

So how can you develop taste if it's not something you have innately?

"In my experience," Baldrige writes in her book, "one can develop taste through careful observation of one's environment, travel and study of other cultures and eras."

Good taste is "refinement that comes from years of education and learning and experience," says Darielle Linehan, owner of the Ivy Bookshop in Mount Washington, whom Colwill calls "a lady of great taste and great style."

Read about style. Visit museums. Educate your eye.

"Do not count taste out," urges Forni. "Taste is not dead; it is just in intensive care, lovingly assisted by wonderful nurses such as my good friend Letitia Baldrige. Look for its comeback in a century near you."

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

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