Today’s Classic American Style feature is about C.Z. Guest’s style, as well as the book C.Z. Guest: American Style Icon, written by Susanna Salk, celebrating her elegance and flair. C.Z. Guest was a lady of high society and a woman of great style – but what she’s remembered for is so much more than her lineage and perfect patrician looks. She became an enduring figure of good taste, known for her classic, understated American look. She remained true to her own self, no more or less than who she was, never trying to appear as somebody else, never trying or needing to impress. The book is a beautiful recollection of Guest’s style in all its forms and it explores her continuing influence in the spheres of society, fashion, interiors and gardening, capturing so well a sense of life well lived, not just well displayed.
C.Z. Guest earned respect as a prize-winning horticulturalist, authoring several books on gardening – her impeccable gardens at Templeton, the Long Island family estate, were as renowned as her dressing style. At Templeton, tending her gardens, entertaining her friends and riding almost every day (always suited up perfectly), she was her own best self. An avid sportswoman and horse-rider throughout her life, as an adult she would favour the conservative English tailoring of her childhood, her firm equestrienne posture emphasized by Savile Row hunting jackets.
“I’d rather have one French desk than a fabulous necklace. Or a pair of beautiful porcelain birds. Or a horse.” – Guest was telling Vogue in 1959.
A prominent figure in society, C.Z. Guest (she was born Lucy and she got her nickname when her baby brother called her “Sissy”) kept company with everyone from Diego Rivera, Andy Warhol and Diana Vreeland, to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. She had her portrait painted by Salvador Dalí, was photographed by legendary photographers like Irving Penn and Cecil Beaton, and Ernest Hemingway was best man at her wedding to Winston Frederick Churchill Guest. She was close friends with and one of the fabled swans of Truman Capote, who, in his introduction for Guest’s book, First Garden: An Illustrated Garden Primer, said: “No jewellery, not much make-up; just blanc to blanc perfection. Mr. Beaton introduced me to her, a gesture she acknowledged with ice-cream reserve. Who could have imagined that lurking inside this cool vanilla lady was a madcap, laughing tomboy?”
C.Z. Guest was devoted to just several designers over the years, such as Mainbocher and Givenchy, both masters of simplicity. Unlike many of her set, who gravitated to the latest fashions, Guest eschewed both frills and trends, cultivating instead an almost anti-fashion stance that set her apart from the flock. As it always happens with true style, her polished refinement came from within.
In The Power of Style Bill Blass was telling author Annette Tapert: “I remember seeing C.Z. once in a Paris in the 1950s. She came into the bar of the Ritz wearing a knee-length tweed skirt, a twin set, and moccasins – and in a time when everyone else was tarted up in Dior’s New Look, she stopped traffic.”
In all the photographs I’ve seen of her, one thing has always stricken me: no matter how casual her outfit (short jumpsuit or a simple t-shirt paired with a straight skirt and, most often, flats), Guest donned every attire with the same aplomb as if it were the latest couture, and she made it look so natural. The very effortlessness that qualifies a look as classic American style.
“I have people asking me about my style. I don’t know quite what to tell them. I mean, style is what you are inside.”
above photo left: portrait by Irving Penn for Vogue; right: having just been awarded CFDA’s Fashion Icon Award, with Oscar de la Renta, wearing a de la Renta dress
“Style is about surviving, about having been through a lot and making it look easy.”
Guest, wearing one of her favourite designers, Mainbocher, photographed for Vogue by Lord Snowdon in her Sutton Place apartment, in 1959.
As William Norwich writes in his foreword, “she championed meritocracy, not aristocracy. She responded to excellence.” She embraced the new and exciting, without abandoning the old world. She valued good manners, kindness and “winners” in any fields. Susana Salk’s tome pays a wonderful tribute to C.Z. Guest’s thoroughbred elegance and down-to-earth personality, just the way it should.
“Nothing about her was fake or phony. She was real class, real woman, real mother, real friend, real beauty. There will be only C.Z.Guest… the real classy American Beauty.” Diane von Furstenberg
photos by me from the book C.Z. Guest: American Style Icon | uncredited quotes, by C.Z.Guest