Since the days of Bertha Palmer and Mable Ringling, Sarasota has been known as a town of elegant, independent and influential women. Accomplished, impeccably dressed and believers in old-fashioned good manners-the kind that spring from true consideration and respect for others-these ladies define a style that is fast vanishing today. With the enduring beauty that comes from character and years of experience, they have made enormous contributions to the lives of their families, friends and this community. And though in ballgowns they might look as if they wouldn't attempt anything that might break a nail, don't be fooled: They are our iron butterflies, and Sarasota is lucky to claim them.
We asked them to tell us what they've learned about beauty, style and what matters most in life, and we photographed them in Sarasota's most gracious and elegant home-the newly restored Cà d'Zan, built by John and Mable Ringling in the late 1920s.
In 1951, Elisabeth Kallay Gonye and her husband Laszlo fled Soviet-dominated Hungary, where he held an important government position and her family's extensive holdings had been confiscated. Elisabeth never looked back to her pampered upbringing or her spot on the 1948 Olympic team (her specialty was balance beam). The Gonyes emigrated to the United States, where Laszlo became a prominent businessman. After a Sarasota visit in the '70s, they bought a home here, and the town became theirs permanently in 1982.
Widowed five years ago, the 73-year-old Elisabeth is a volunteer and generous donor at New College, Sarasota Memorial Hospital, and the Sarasota Opera. She also has a reputation for gracious entertaining-and she can do it in four languages.
How would you define your style?
I've always been a Chanel kind of dresser; in the past few years I've bought Armani because he does such wonderful pants suits. I'm careful about cut, fabric and choosing the right color for myself. But honestly, if you develop a good eye, you can dress elegantly out of Target or Sears. Style is an attitude about how one approaches everything in life. If I scrub the floor, I want to make that floor exquisitely clean. When I set a table, it has to be with the finest things I own. If I curtsey before a king, and I have, I will do it perfectly.
Are there colors and styles you avoid or favor?
Green is for trees, not clothes. I never wear prints because solid colors are more elegant. I choose black, white, gray or beige. Then I accessorize with pearls, a pin, a Hermès scarf or belt. A great handbag and quality shoes will make an outfit.
Favorite places to shop?
In America it has been Saks for 40 years, in New York, Chicago and now Sarasota. In London I go right to the Chanel boutique; it's better than the Paris one. But Paris has the Hermès shop, and it's the city where I have always bought gloves. Perfume I buy by the liter in Monte Carlo.
Is there anything in your closet you'd never get rid of?
Of course-a 35-year-old brown and sky-blue tweed suit with a fur collar, three-quarter-length sleeves and blue lining. I bought it at Saks. It's not couture, but it's perfect-a simple, classic suit with clean lines. It will never go out of style.
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When she's at a party, expect to see half the guests clustered around Helen Rogers. Her energy, sharp intellect, and elegance defy her 95 years, and her social calendar reads like a debutante's.
The only child of wealthy, older parents living in Manhattan luxury, Helen was adored and provided with a governess and a wealth of educational and cultural experiences.
In 1972, friends introduced Helen, who had been recently widowed, to Leo Rogers. They married and moved to Longboat Key, where Leo led the volunteer effort to establish Sarasota Opera's permanent downtown home. Now a widow, Helen serves on the opera board and is a donor to local theaters and a wide range of projects that address human services. "I've had a privileged life," she declares, "but I don't take a thing for granted, and my motivation is the Golden Rule. I came in blessed and will go out owing."
How would you define your fashion style?
I own what becomes and fits me. I would never select a dress or accessory that upstages or overpowers me. I used to tell boyfriends who would bring me a corsage to make it a gardenia, never an orchid. The orchid was too big and showy-you couldn't help but notice it first.
Is there anything in your closet you can't part with?
Boxes full! Most of what I wear for evening is vintage. I came from an era when women had clothes made for them, and my father was in the fabric importing business. My sweaters always came from Europe because the dyes were more colorfast. In New York, a dressmaker made my clothes. I always chose classic lines, nothing trendy or flashy, so today they still look fashionable.
How about colors?
My mother used to despair, "Oh, Helen, black again?" But both my husbands liked me in black, and black shows jewelry well. I'm also partial to all the yellow-greens, as anyone who's been to my apartment can guess. That's a happy range of colors.
Any style advice for younger women?
Part of romance is mystery and imagination. The more you show, the less men have to discover. A little décolletage is smarter than cleavage down to the navel.
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Lelia Windom was born in Sarasota Memorial Hospital when it was a "little cottage in the location where it is now," and she and her husband Bob were classmates at Sarasota High School. They married after Bob's first year of Duke University medical school. After graduation in 1960, they returned to Sarasota, raising three sons who themselves returned after college to build their careers here.
The couple lived in Washington in the late 1980s, when Bob was Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services, but Lelia admits, "I was thrilled to get back to Sarasota." Active in Junior League, New College and the Asolo Theatre, she says that today, at 71, her greatest joy is family gatherings and cheering on the grandchildren at soccer and basketball games.
How do you describe your style?
Conservative, feminine and classic, although I do go a little wild with handbags. I have a lot, and I adore them all. I shop at Jacobson's and when we're vacationing in North Carolina, I buy there. Bright yellow and red are my favorite colors. I avoid pastels and don't wear much black, although I like almost all shades of brown from light tan to the deep, rich shades.
Anything that bothers you about fashion here?
We have to expect that people want to dress casually when they come here to vacation or retire. But I'm annoyed when I see a man in church without a jacket and a tie. And you can count on one hand the number of restaurants that have a dress requirement. When the occasion or the place warrant a little sophistication, I'd like to see more people dress up.
Where does your sense of style come from?
Over the years, I've watched my younger sister Ellen, and I rely on her opinion. Every so often, she comes to visit and she'll go through my closet making me get rid of things and telling me what to have altered. And I've always observed other women to see how they carry off a look that I admire. Sarasota women are pretty conservative and because this is a resort, our style is more casual than formal. Sometimes I wish it weren't so casual.
How do you entertain?
I enjoy cooking for about eight and serve buffet. But frankly, the older I get the easier and more fun it is to take friends out to the Bijou Cafe, Roessler's, The Colony Beach or Michael's On East. This town is rich in good restaurants and Bob and I take advantage of them.
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As a child, Alyce Kalin used to play in two stores owned by her aunts, one a jewelry emporium and the other a clothing boutique. Over the years, play evolved into a career. In 1950, Alyce and her husband Ed founded Kanes Furniture. Today, Alyce is a buyer for the store, and for 22 years she also operated The Gilded Lily on the property, which specialized in unique fashions, bold jewelry and glamorous accessories.
On the couple's first trip to Europe, she was introduced to a young designer in Amsterdam named Edgar Vos. He had just finished his first collection. "Ed had told me he wasn't carrying more luggage, and I should only buy what would fit into my suitcase," she recalls. She emptied her suitcase of half its contents, and bought everything in the designer's atelier. Back in Sarasota, she convinced Vos to bring a trunk show to town. She invited a few friends to The Gilded Lily, and once again the designer sold out. Alyce was subsequently responsible for Edgar Vos's introduction to American style-setters.
What other designers have influenced your style?
Certainly, Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Blass. I enjoy mixing and matching separates into new outfits; and I'm interested in accessories. A belt, pin, or a new blouse can change a whole outfit. People think I have a lot more clothes than I actually do because I'm constantly experimenting with things already in my closet. I organize my closet by color and have a separate closet for evening clothes. Shoe boxes are labeled. I love bright colors, especially red. But I wear most the range of neutrals from cream into the tans and rusts and browns. My favorite style derives from the Art Nouveau period-soft, flowing, graceful garments.
What's your latest fashion escapade?
I've joined the board of a new enterprise founded by Jean Weidner that will benefit the Asolo Theatre and the Arts Council. It's a consignment shop for gala clothes called Retro Chic Boutique. The shop will open in the fall in space on Fruitville Road. I've never gotten rid of a single Edgar Vos piece, but I am parting with one for Retro Chic. This consignment shop is going to fill a need in Sarasota, and I know it's going to be a great success.
Favorite places to shop?
Paris, for sure. I find things in unlikely places and I'm open to new things. In America, I head for Saks and Neiman Marcus.
Any advice for young style-conscious women?
Make your mirror your best friend and most important critic. Be honest. Really look at yourself from all angles. If a trend doesn't flatter you, pass it up. From wearing couture clothes, I've also learned the importance of a perfect fit. Consider having your things altered so that your clothes look like they were designed just for you.
How do you come up with new ideas and combinations?
Sometimes when I'm going out in the evening, I get dressed an hour early-hair, makeup, the whole thing. Then I leisurely try on a few things that I haven't worn in a while. I'll pair this skirt with that blouse and a new scarf and all of a sudden I've got a completely new outfit. Half the time, that's what I end up wearing instead of the dress I laid out originally. Give yourself the freedom to play in your closet and get those creative juices going. Pretty soon you will have develop a style that's all your own.
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In 1972, Beverly Arries, now 73, was the first woman ever elected to the Sarasota County Commission. But politics are just one of her many passions. She was a board chairman of the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Century Club for 15 years and has long been an enthusiastic supporter of New College. Not bad for an Australian-born girl who first came to America in 1955 as a divorced mother with two young sons to support.
She got a job in Washington, D.C., working for a foreign government and, on the side, teamed up with a contractor to rehab houses in Georgetown. Fifteen years later, now a U.S. citizen, she married and moved to Sarasota.
In those days, she says, the town was smaller and elected officials were closer to the electorate. "People would call me up at 7 a.m. to complain that their newspaper hadn't arrived yet," she remembers. "I also got a lot of calls about pot holes. Some nights I came to dread the telephone, but overall I learned what a generous, open-hearted community Sarasota is."
What were the hot political topics during your tenure on the County Commission?
Water and land use, the challenges of growth. And bridges. You know, the Sarasota-Manatee Transportation Systems did a study in 1981 and recommended that a mid-key bridge to Longboat be constructed. We continue to debate the problem. We're still struggling with those same issues, aren't we?
What's your style of dressing these days?
I've slowed up on my shopping and I don't go to as many galas as I used to, although I've never given up the Orchid Ball. So many Sarasotans from the old days always turn up at that event. I'm mostly in casual slacks and comfortable blouses these days. And I like sundresses.
What designers have influenced your style over the years?
Adolfo to be sure. He's a big favorite. I like Oscar de la Renta and I adore anything that has that Chanel look. All these designers create clothes for a classic look, which is how I've always approached dressing.
When you were a working woman what was your wardrobe?
I discovered a St. John knit sale in 1978 on a trip to San Diego and bought a stack. They were conservative, comfortable and always looked nice. I don't think I have a single one anymore, but at the time they were just right. Then and now, I tend toward the neutrals. But I love lime green and seem to collect a lot of black, too.
Anything in your closet you'd never part with?
I recycle my clothes periodically, but there's an Oscar de la Renta evening dress that will be in my closet until it falls apart. I saw it in the Saks Fifth Avenue window on a vacation to Los Angeles in 1969 and fell in love. It cost more than I'd ever paid for a dress in my life, but I just had to have it. And I've enjoyed every minute that I worn it-the colors, the fabric, the cut and the pearls and aqua jewels around the neck. It's everything I wanted in a dress-flattering and pretty.