Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me: A Guide to Living with Impeccable Grace and Style is by Lucia van der Post, who is (was?) a columnist for the Times of London. (The book came out last year in the UK, I have the new Americanized edition.) I hadn't been a reader of Ms. van der Post's (and was dismayed to find that she thought the Marc Jacobs "Tribute" bag was "witty"), so I surprised by how much I enjoyed her book.
First off, Ms. van der Post is a woman of a certain age, and that age is old enough to have grandchildren. I have never understood why people would want to read fashion advice from someone younger than they are. (Everything looks good on people who are twenty; getting fashion advice from someone who can sleep in her makeup without consequence is like getting a restaurant recommendation from a fourteen-year-old boy.) Fashion advice should be dispensed, ideally, by elegant silver-haired matriarchs, who know all and have seen all … like Ms. van der Post. Even if you aren't trying to disguise middle-aged spread, or worrying about wrinkle creams, well, forewarned is forearmed, I say.
And although the book is jam-packed with useful information, like where to buy retro sunglasses (Cutler & Gross in the UK) and mothballs (Lakeland) and hats (nyfashionhats.com), the real value is in her insistence that fashion is about happiness ("Completely pragmatically, one observes that those who dress prettily, elegantly, or glamorously have a lot more fun than those who don't.") and that you shouldn't take yourself too seriously ("Only small people take offense," she says, quoting her father).
In addition to the usual topics of style advice books (hair, diet, clothes, accessories, manners, and men) there is an excellent section on home decor, which doesn't assume you will have hot and cold running decorators or a fifteen-room manse to decorate. (My favorite house advice was to buy slowly, one by one, things you really love, so that you don't waste money on temporary solutions … even though I am the queen of the "let's buy this $5 Ikea lamp until we figure out what we really want.")
But the worklife section is a bit … antediluvian. "Usually — but by no means always — it's in the family's interests for the man's career to be given most attention …" Really? C'mon. You get the feeling that the "by no means always" was inserted by the editor in a desperate attempt to ward off the stink of irrelevance. And Ms. van der Post's musing on whether any "… alpha woman (or any woman, come to that)" would want a "meek, docile, beta house husband"? Sheesh. If all "housewives" aren't docile (and we know they're not) why should we assume all "house husbands" are?
Actually, when reading through it, I kept having the feeling — not a bad feeling, but a strong feeling — that this could be one of those advice books from the early 1960s, like Dariaux's Elegance, reprinted. If it weren't for the URLs (and the odd mention of Uggs or Jennifer Aniston) there wouldn't be all that much to set it apart from those earlier books. And even the year's time since publication in the UK makes for some of those "window on an earlier era moments": Ms. van der Post recommends "Pepe jeans" as a good present for a "Young Boy," as well as "iPod socks."
But really, that's as it should be. Some kinds of advice are timeless (iPod socks notwithstanding), and if we have to republish it every decade or so under a different name with different quirks, I'm happy to read it every time. And really, who doesn't need to be periodically reminded of some of Ms. van der Post's maxims, like "clean and tidy less, and read more." Or "Never go out with a man who doesn't make you laugh." Or "Use the things you love every day. It's never worth saving things for a special occasion."