AMONG MY FAVORITE aphorisms--and I am, as
my friend can wearily tell you, a collector and repeater of aphorisms--is "become what you are." The phrase goes back to a classic Greek notion that each man contains a special potential which his life should be spent in realizing. As it happens, this little chunk of antique wisdom contains the essence of all style.
"To be a stylist," Quentin Crisp and Donald Carroll observe, "is to be yourself, but on purpose." The stylist must first know himself, determine what is unique to his personality, and then cultivate that specialness single-mindedly. That which does not add to one's image only detracts from it and ought to be scrupulously avoided. The stylist, they reiterate, must be totally honest with himself; the least bit of insincerity, whether in dress, manner or living quarters, mars the unified impression that should be conveyed to the world.
Although readers who remember Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant might expect camp outrageousness, Doing It With Style is, in fact, sensitive, humane and often wise. It stresses the value of good manners, wide reading, effective speech, and individuality. "Fashion," the authors note characteristically, "is what is followed by people who do not know who they are." Out of the deliberate cultivation of one's essential quiddity, the stylist ultimately achieves a kind of sanctity. He alone can be authentic in a world of sham--because he is himself.
Crisp and Carroll divide their study into chapters dealing with the principal activities of life: dressing, eating and drinking, mating and marrying, performing a job, growing old--all of these being commented upon sensibly and with a dry martini-like wit. To my mind, they also offer a defense of the self that is neither despicable (like that of much assertiveness training) nor smug (like that of neo-conservatism). All in all, Doing It With Style most recalls the playful seriousness of Shaw's "The Revolutionary's Handbook" and Wilde's "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young." All three sparkle with intelligence and keen social observation.