Making The Best-Dressed List

Cee Zee Guest and Mme Louis Jacques Balsan (Consuelo Vanderbilt, the former Duchess of Marlborough) talking at a party in Palm Beach, circa 1955. Both women were placed on the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame. Conseulo Vanderbilt was the first person on the Hall Of Fame (1958), followed by Cee Zee Guest in 1959.

“The rumor that it takes vast sums of money to be elected one of the worlds most stylish women is absolutely true. A flat chest and the fashionable slouch posture also help— but being an international socialite is the greatest natural asset of them all.” Eugenia Sheppard

Making the Best-Dressed List
by Eugenia Sheppard
“Saturday Evening Post”
January 5, 1963

The women named to the international best-dressed list, to be published this week, operate like pros. They can and do give as much time and thought to clothes as a baseball pitcher gives to his curves or a painter to his canvases. Thus, thousands of men will be more chivalrous than practical when, as happens every year after the list comes out, they hurl down their newspapers and fire off letters to the editors. The usual tirade says, “This best-dressed list is ridiculous… If there were any justice, my wife would have made it!”

To make the list, a woman must spend at least $20,000 and may spend $100,000 a year on her wardrobe, not including jewelry. It isn’t that she buys so many things, but every-thing is handmade. On the average, the women who get listed purchase six suits a year; several even more expensive matching coat-and-dress costumes; at least nine or 10 daytime dresses; six dinner dresses, and as many floor-length ball gowns. Three
cloth coats, one lavish fur coat, one sports fur and several small furs are also essential by list standards.

Women on the list all own magnificent jewels. Standard equipment is at least two double strands of 11-millimeter pearls (very rare, very dear); an assortment of diamond clips, bracelets of precious jewels, and at least two diamond necklaces.

Then there’s the business of getting around. Women who qualify know exactly where and when to turn up : the right ski resort (Saint Moritz at Christmas; Gstaad and Cortina the rest of the season); the right winter resort (Palm Beach); the right charity balls (which change from year to year), and even the right luncheon spot (where the chatter columnists congregate).

Thus, Mrs. Loel Guinness, whose husband is an international financier and who’s rated the epitome of fashion elegance, constantly moves from one fashion capital to another in her private jet plane or on the Guinness yacht Caliste. Wherever she lands and she has homes in Paris, New York, Palm Beach, near Deauville and near Lausanne she keeps moving. Promptly at eight A.M. every day her Rolls-Royce and driver appear at her door to take her to the day’s appointmetits.

Though hardly a best-dressed woman on a shoestring, Mrs. Guinness buys selectively, fortified by instinctive taste. Because she looks like a fine pen-and-ink drawing (thin face, high cheekbones, beautiful hairline), she makes a feature of wearing black and white. Mrs. Guinness is most devoted to the designs of Cristobal Balenciaga, but she is also a steady customer of Givenchy and Castillo and every designer longs to have her at his openings. Balenciaga, an exceedingly shy man, respects Gloria Guinness enough to talk fashion with her.

About her fashion philosophy Gloria Guinness says, “I don’t follow styles, but adapt styles to my tastes.”

At the lower end of the spending scale, Mrs. John Barry Ryan III of New York, one of the youngest best-dressed women, plans many of her own clothes and her dressmaker produces them. Her somewhat unfair advantage is that she was a fashion editor before marriage.

Jackie Kennedy’s case illustrates most clearly how a woman must get in the limelight before she ean get on the list. As a senator’s wife, she was almost as chic as today. Then came the presidential campaign and Mrs. Kennedy was catapulted to the top of the best-dressed list. The female world went mad for the Jackie Kennedy Look. No other woman in American history has been so widely copied, from her bouffant hair-do to her low-heeled shoes.

Last year she not only repeated her best-dressed triumph but attracted so much attention to her sister Lee (Princess Stanislas Radziwill) and her good friend Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, wife of the oilman, that they won places on the list.

Besides time, riches and publicity, a woman must have a clotheshorse figure to make the list. In fact, having a flat chest, as well as the currently fashionable slouch posture, is almost a requirement. Few women with conspicuously female figures have ever made the grade.

Best-dressed lists had an unpretentious beginning in Paris in 1933. A group of Paris designers, led by Mainbocher, who is responsible for dressing more women on the list than any other designer except Balenciaga, got together and each named his favorite clients to the Paris Dressmakers’ List.

Heading that list was Mrs. Harrison Williams, now Countess von Bismarck, one of the fashion greats of all time. (She contributed the charm bracelet, among other things, to fashion.)

The Paris Dressmakers’ List stirred enough controversy to bear repetition and imitation. By 1934, in fact, rival wire services were publishing rival lists. Almost every woman in the news was included in one. The Associated Press list that year included Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Elsa Maxwell and Amelia Earhart. The Duchess of Windsor made her first appearance on all the best-dressed lists in 1935 as Mrs. Ernest Simpson.

When World War II canceled the Paris Dressmakers’ List, Eleanor Lambert, top woman in fashion public relations, transplanted it to the United States and modernized the selection system. Among the status-conscious, the list has achieved such importance that several women and even some husbands have tried to bribe Miss Lambert (offering up to $50,000 cash).

For the annual vote, the Lambert office each fall mails about 2,500 ballots, each containing 12 write-in spaces and listing about 150 possible candidates. Just to be a nominee thrills many ambitious women. Ballots go to fashion experts, society editors, manufacturers, columnists and other observers of the social scene. About 600 ballots are returned. To supplement the vote, a secret committee of fashion editors tones down “misguided” public enthusiasm and substitutes its own choices.

The Duchess of Windsor once remarked that the weakness of the best-dressed list was that the older women kept their places interminably. The advisory committee remedied this fault when it created a Fashion Hall of Fame, Enshrined in the Hall of Fame as the women who have most influenced other women’s taste in clothes are: the Duchess of Windsor, the Duchess of Kent, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace of Monaco (who started the fad for short white gloves and the briefcase handbag), Mrs. Winston Guest (responsible for the “little nothing” dress trend), Mrs. Henry Ford II, Countess Consuelo Crespi, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst Jr., Mrs. William Paley, Mrs. Norman Winston (who set the style for fur coats with the pelts sewn horizontally), Mme. Jacques Balsan (the former Consuelo Vanderbilt), Madame Arturo Lopez-Willshaw of Paris, and actresses Merle Oberon (now Mrs. Bruno Pagliai), Audrey Hepburn, Mary Martin, Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert.

Mrs. Paley has asked to have her name removed from the list because she gets so many letters asking for old clothes. Fashion-minded women still follow her taste so avidly that her unexpected purchase of a gray-squirrel coat at Maximilian this fall inspired dozens to follow suit.

The last few years have drastically changed the best-dressed selections. Stage and screen stars used to fill the list, but now the international socialite has taken over. Diana Vreeland, editor in chief of Vogue and an international socialite herself, is especially articulate at pinpointing the meaning of “best-dressed.”

“A really well-dressed woman is someone who grips the imagination on sight.” says Mrs. Vreeland. “She has a great sense of her own image and believes in it. She doesn’t necessarily wear the world’s most expensive clothes, but she does wear the most beautiful clothes. And she must be romantic, alert, ‘with-it,’ Part of it is myth and can’t be expressed.”

Such intense dedication to perfection in any field is bound to get recognition somewhere. And the socialite fashion pros of the world get their reward by election to a fashion heaven with an ultra-restricted membership.

Photo: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

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