The subtle suavity of Gentlewoman Style

Pared-down styling, interest without eccentricity, crisply cut but not preppy: I have always called this style "strict", but the effect is also known as "Gentlewoman Style", in euponymous reference to the British magazine.

Ten or fifteen years ago, such clothes were uncommon in North America; the busy, hyper-femmy look of InStyle reigned. Upscale North American malls were stuffed with short skirts, "cute" coats, girly pastels, asssertive bright palettes. If a woman didn't want that, well, there was Eileen Fisher, the lone department-store brand devoted to serene clothes.

The Gentlewoman Canon

1. The clothes are not Eileen Fisheresque; there is more tailoring, less waft. EF Gentlewomans up nicely by the addition of something structured in the mix.

2. Colours are neutrals or semi-colours like lichen, brick, or antique pink, never primaries or neons. Gentlewomen murmur. There are no exploded florals (occasionally you will see a classic Liberty print)—but you can find a restrained stripe. Exception: Paul Smith, consistently thrilling for saturated-colour lovers.

3. Pieces have functional details: Trousers and dresses with real pockets; coats with storm cuffs and plackets; flat shoes made to walk across town. Nor will you see a functional detail where it has no purpose, e.g., a clunky exterior metal zipper down the back of a sweater.

The Gentlewoman magazine's site's headline says it all: "Women of style and purpose".

4. Cuts are eased, which does not mean petite women will look swamped; there is a proportion for any shape. A Gentlewoman ensemble references the body, and will not treat leggings as trousers.

5. Finally, the clothes deliberately transcend trends. I resist calling anything "timeless" but a jacket like Me+Em's crop merlot microcheck is pretty close:

When I first admired these clothes while in Europe, I thought they had to be expensive; now, there are mid-priced options in both stores and online, but I avoid fast fashion. A well-set shoulder and precise buttonhole are not at H&M.

Left: Tailoring:
Coat and wool trousers by Joseph; this says it all about tailoring versus flowy, unstructured styles.
Centre: Restraint:
Silk tunic from J. Crew; now unavailable but I wanted to show that you can find Gentlewoman there, often on sale, and for some pieces, in sizes up to XXL/24.
Right: Function:
Rain trousers by Plümo, size XS to XL, £79.

You'll have to search to find Gentlewoman Style at Talbot's (bright colours, preppy attitude), Land's End (corners cut on tailoring and finishing), or LL Bean (colourways can be all wrong), but they can surprise you, and if you pair sage green cord COS wide leg trousers with a Bean Fairisle sweater, and your brogues, you're there:

If you have straight-leg trousers, try rolling them a little or more, and you will completely change the effect. Then you can keep them like that or shorten.

Play with proportion. If you are petite, look for pieces scaled to your figure. The COS wide-legs shown could be replaced by a narrow trouser, like these from Margaret Howell, an expensive exemplar:

Women with curves: pay attention to the fit in the bust and pass by anything baggy. Some women charge that GS is androgynous, however, you can be rather sexy in these clothes: see this Plümo "Colby" wrap dress;  I love the hemline and the sleeves! (Price, £98).

There is a political subtext to Gentlewoman Style, as there is to all personal presentation. The "purpose" the magazine refers to is not seduction by an obvious display. Certainly the time is right; and I have spoken with women of all ages who are speaking for dignity through their clothes.

One of my favourite quotes is from the American fashion designer Vera Maxwell, who said, "Clothes must be beautiful, adaptable, and sound." To get that level in these times takes saving and waiting for sales. So be it, because the clothes are so deeply satisfying.


LauraH said…
I always admire this style on other women, not sure I ever quite get there myself. That said, I whole heartedly agree with functional details (what is it with those little patch pockets on so many cardigans?), eased cuts and transcending trends. It's the subdued colour palette I have trouble with:-) Love the rain trouser look you've shown, so relaxed and easy yet not sloppy.
LauraH said…
Really intrigued by the idea of the rain trousers so I checked them out. Only up to US size 12...sigh. So many sites are like this, very frustrating.
Jean Shaw said…
Yep. So pleasing to the eye.
Love this post! Seems odd to me that at 65 I am struggling with defining, or perhaps redefining, my personal style. Now that I am fully retired and living on a small farmholding (we no longer farm but still live 14 miles from the nearest small city - which is another story) I don't have the need to have a work wardrobe. Quite frankly if I never bought another article of clothing I would have enough to "see me out". This has prompted some thinking on my part! And LOVE the Gentlewoman site and magazine. Thank you so much for posting that!
Gretchen said…
This has been my style mantra since I was a child, where I’d inevitably search in the boy department for my clothes. Along with COS I suggest anothe H&M offshoot, And Other Stories, and Toast from Britain. In the US, some of Vince works, but fit is tricky once age makes certain body parts change. I always hated having to wear those sheath dresses and heels, which were all but mandatory for a huge chunk of my career. So glad I’m in a position where I can where what I want, and an age where I truly don’t need to worry what others might think. These gentlewoman pieces sing my tune. And, if any moderately short women wonder about those COS wide leg cords? They fit like a dream and are exceptionally soft! With a fitted or skimming top or sweater, too, they are more Hepburn than fishmonger!
Unknown said…
Well-done, it is still a challenge to be spot on in (y)our combinations but may be getting easier.
Thank you,
Wendy said…
Thanks for the Paul Smith link. I had a lovely time looking at bright colored things I can’t afford. Oh well.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: This is not the palette for those who like saturated, crisper colour, except for Paul Smith; though sometimes COS will carry a bright orange or citron yellow, or a bold graphic print in for example, red and white. But you have to look.
Gretchen: "Fishmonger"- LOL!
Wendy: Sometimes you can find Paul Smith on eBay or the consignment sights like Vestiare.
JohnInWI said…
My two cents - Love the muted colors. Hate the clunky footwear. -Lily
Susan said…
I do love this style, but find it hard to find--in a style that suits and fits me. And you are right--if the color isn't right--it's just not right.
Dorothy said…
Great post, especially for those of us still working and trying to find the balance somewhere between Eileen Fisher and Talbots!
Unknown said…
How have I not found your blog before, given the excessive amount of time I spend looking online for inspiration and advice! Your explanation of the gentlewoman style is so perfect, right down to the connection to EF, which is usually too "art teacher" on its own.

I'll follow you with interest now!

The posts with the most