Encyclopedia of the Exquisite

Not everything elegant is expensive; not everything expensive is elegant. Making a list of costly, trashy things is easy: leopard-skin rugs, yachts with bulletproof glass, Jeff Koons's paintings, Monte Carlo. But discovering elegance in modest or everyday sources, especially in the face of a multibillion-dollar luxury industry, takes more doing. That is the subject of Jessica Kerwin Jenkins's Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, a deceptively light survey of "uncommon delicacies, carefully selected." Kerwin Jenkins, formerly an editor at W and now a writer for Vogue, wants us to do away with the "luxe fantasy" (pushed in part by those same magazines, of course) and find wonder in the "obscure, exquisite, and twinkling" pleasures she has compiled, alphabetically.

 

Many of Kerwin Jenkins's favorite things come from Europe, particularly France, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the section entitled "Divan," she looks at "the illicit pleasures of reclining" through the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the paintings of Manet—reclining, she says, is a "suspect" in-between state that suggests decadence or immorality. There is a hilarious entry on the pouf, the hairstyle favored by Marie Antoinette, who incorporated in her towering beehive accessories from sheaves of wheat to a replica of a battleship. (Kerwin Jenkins observes that, while elegant, the pouf was a tough look to master: it made sleeping difficult, and the hair could become infested with vermin, against which women wielded "ivory scratching sticks designed to plunge into the hair-covered hives.") And like any good fashionista, the author demonstrates a complete reverence for Japan and its aesthetics: we get commentary on folding fans, the kimono, the tea ceremony, origami, the art of food arrangement, and even an in-depth look at the 10th-century diarist Sei Shonagon, whose Pillow Book, a compendium of miscellaneous thoughts and lists of beautiful things, might be a model for Kerwin Jenkins's own work.

 

Yet other amusements are found closer to home. Busby Berkeley musicals are one: the author is enraptured by the dozens of chorines who "sprang from a sea of white ostrich feathers wearing wispy feathered bikinis," and relieved that his maximalist vision endures on the soundstages of Bollywood. In a section on "Heels" she reveals how Marilyn Monroe would cut a quarter-inch off one of her shoes to give her walk its signature hip-swaying allure. Some of the most charming sections of the book aren't historical at all, but general takes on small pleasures—pears, crickets, clouds, the color black. Best of all is the section on far niente, the Italian art of idleness; puritans may object, but Kerwin Jenkins is right when she praises "the languorous sweetness of doing nothing at all."

 

It might be easy to dismiss this book as a trifle, and matters aren't helped by rococo illustrations and blurbs on the dust jacket from such literary authorities as Sarah Jessica Parker and the designer Michael Kors. But if the form of Encyclopedia of the Exquisite plays up its author's insouciance, the text itself nevertheless carries a surprising authority. Entries can jump across centuries and disciplines: the section on "Enthusiasm" harvests ideas from Hobbes, Diderot, Shelley, Blake, Wordsworth, and Germaine de Staël. And Kerwin Jenkins provides a 40-page bibliography, set in eye-straining type—this must be the only book to cite both Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Vogue's Diana Vreeland.

 

It's a paradox: the greatest pleasure of this ode to frivolity is the author's own diligence. Encyclopedia of the Exquisite may eulogize the pointless in this era of industry, our noses pressed to grindstones or BlackBerries—and yet idleness, and the elegance that can arise from that state, turn out to be very hard work.


Jason Farago is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, n+1, Dissent, Frieze, and other publications. Trained as an art historian, he has contributed to several exhibition catalogs on art since 1960. He recently returned to his hometown of New York following a long sojourn in London.

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