How do we define a gentlewoman today? The word itself is an interesting one – so quaint in one way, yet so thoroughly contemporary in another. As it's not such a commonly used word (other than in the title of the influential magazine The Gentlewoman), I've infused it with my own meaning, which takes a pinch of inspiration from its male equivalent while adding plenty more spirit, style and individuality.
For me, the essence of The New Garconne lies in a certain duality. A harmonious yin–yang of masculine and feminine influences; the highbrow complemented by the humble. Today's informed aesthete appreciates the finer things that life has to offer, but has an equal appreciation of the imperfect and utilitarian. Artist Polly Morgan hankers after Celine trousers but is equally attached to her late father's inexpensive old wristwatch. Perfumer Lyn Harris readily spends on handmade Astier de Villatte ceramics, but totes a cloth bag day to day. Old and new are the most complementary of bedfellows, falling naturally together, whether an antique Chinese vase on a Marc Newson sideboard or a Dinh Van necklace accessorising a flea-market sweater.
The most memorable gentlewomen of the past had a consistent look that married masculine style influences with feminine wit and whimsy. In many cases this came down to circumstances and practical considerations. The army trousers, nonchalantly worn in the 1940s by Vogue-model-turned-war-correspondent Lee Miller, for example, were adopted out of necessity, and that same wartime austerity spurred a waste-not-want-not mentality that, for many, has stuck. Practical needs aside, there's a soft sensuality beloved of gentlewomen that should not be dismissed. Hence, in the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent's muse Betty Catroux's mannish tuxedos were teamed with the finest of silk blouses, and the on-stage uniform of contemporary performers such as Janelle Monae and Sophie Auster is similarly rooted in a velvet or satin-lapelled trouser suit. Sensuality is the key to the ongoing success of brands such as Margaret Howell and Egg, whose clothes at first sight may seem Amish-like in their asexuality, yet next to the skin feel utterly wonderful. And it's the reason why women such as Sofia Coppola repeat-buy their shirts at Charvet; to the naked eye so simple and unprecious, it's their cut, comfort and quality that sets them apart.
The second decade of this millennium has witnessed a turning point for women. Male and female roles are converging at work and in the home, and the digital revolution has irrevocably accelerated our daily lives. These factors, teamed with globalisation and, arguably, a greater appreciation of spiritual matters, have led to a tipping point. Enough of the multitasking! We'd like a slower pace, a moment to think, a less consumerist lifestyle and a more mindful existence.
The way we live now is edging towards a more sustainable pace in which we aim to buy less, but better. As women of all ages are feted for their style and achievements, it is the right time to applaud the personal and individual, not just the fashionable. Maybe that's why I feel there's a renewed interest in how things are made, as well as in objects that have a personal sentimental value. Suddenly, the old William Morris plea for things to be both beautiful and useful has never felt more relevant. Those pieces that are fit for purpose and made to endure, while retaining their good looks, are worth every penny.
Time, we're realising, is the ultimate luxury, in ever shorter supply, and we can't afford to waste it; the things that are designed to last have gained a special resonance with our time-crunched lifestyles.
The gentlewomen I have chosen to interview for this book embody all these values and dualities. They are accomplished, independent women who manage businesses, families and creative practices with passion, grace and a desire for high standards of execution. Their taste is specific and they enjoy surrounding themselves with meaningful things they love. They're at the vanguard of a movement that's caring, careful, collaborative and empowering, and they lead by example.
And so they inspire, not just by their attitude and achievements, but in their dedication to the cause. They have cultivated their own form of empowered dressing that helps get the job done – without becoming a job in itself. What I hope people take away from the book is the same sense of positive pragmatism, all dressed up in a cherished blazer and strident (but beautiful) shoes, ready to take on the world.
NAVAZ BATLIWALLA is a freelance fashion editor and creative consultant, and the writer and founder of the fashion blog disneyrollergirl.net. Her book, The New Garconne – How to Be a Modern Gentlewoman, is published by Laurence King Publishing, £16.95; navazbatliwalla.com; laurenceking.com