I don’t think there is a woman in the world who didn’t at one point in her childhood hear her mother utter the phrase, “Pretty is as pretty does.” It was usually delivered upon the occasion of an unattractive pout or a full-blown tantrum, as in, “You may have on a pretty dress and Mary Janes, but acting like a brat is pretty much blowing the effect. “ I was reminded of my own mother’s frequent use of the admonishment when I was looking at the clothes in this week’s “Portrait of a Lady” in Fetch. I also realized that the inverse also applies: “Pretty does as pretty is.” In other words, when I dress more like a lady, I tend to act more like one as well.

In the early 1990s, after fashion’s unfortunate but mercifully brief grunge phase, there was an inevitable backlash against all those hiking boots and flannel shirts and ridiculously priced trappers’ hats with flaps. Designers sent a raft of ladylike looks down the runways, much like what we are seeing this fall.  Stephen Meisel photographed Kristen McMenamy (a model who had been a veritable grunge poster girl) for Vogue wearing curvy suits and swanky furs, holding lovely ladylike bags and sporting a neat coiffeur that looked as though Kenneth himself had been resurrected complete with back comb. The pictures, resonant of Avedon and Penn, were beautiful. I wrote the accompanying piece (which was nicknamed “It’s Okay to Look Rich” around the office) and among the many things I said is that during times of stress, it is best to pull yourself together.  This applies to both exterior and interior agita.  If you are polished and well put together on the outside, it’s a whole lot easier to fake it even if you’re a complete mess on the inside.  We would all do better to revert to the era when baring your inner child was considered bad manners (see above) in the first place. My grandmother descended her staircase every morning with perfect hair and full makeup, wearing stockings and a carefully pressed dress, and carrying a handled pocket book containing lipstick, a compact, a handkerchief, and cash—even if she had no plans to leave the house.

People who dress this way tend to behave better than the rest of us. As I write, I am in Madrid where everyone dresses with a sort of understated elegance. The handkerchief store (which also sells gloves and fans) off the Puerta del Sol still does a thriving business. There is a palpable refinement and formality not just to the clothes of Madrileno men and women, but to their actions as well. Even at the bullfights, the men wear jackets and ties, the women suits and heels. There is very little chatter and the cheers consist of a collective and concise “Ole,” or a controlled (and largely silent) handkerchief waving, which signifies that a particularly adept matador should be rewarded with a bull’s ear. Okay, it’s a tad ironic that all this high fashion and good behavior should go along with a ritual that a lot of people consider barbaric. But it’s precisely why it doesn’t seem so when you’re in the middle of it.

Lest I stir up animal rights activists around the globe, let me hasten to say that it is the respectfulness and elegance of the Spanish that I advocate emulating, not necessarily their past times. And looking the part—the inverse of the now sadly underused “Pretty is as pretty does”—is half the battle. I have already stocked up on a pile of handkerchiefs that I plan on placing in my brand new handled bag.  My grandmother would be proud.

About Julia Reed

Julia Reed is a columnist at Garden & Gun magazine and a contributing editor at Elle Décor. She also contributes to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times, and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC. She is the author of five books, including But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria, Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry and One Man’s Folly, The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood.

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