Adage Provenance: Before You Leave the House, Look in the Mirror and Remove One Piece of Jewelry

Coco Chanel? Gracie Allen? Joan Rivers? The McGuire Sisters? Polly Bergen? Nancy Abraham? Maggie Daly? Helen Hennessy? John Robert Powers? Beatrice Molinsky? George Burns? Anonymous?

Picture of jewelry circa A.D. 250-400
Public domain picture of jewelry circa A.D. 250–400

Question for Quote Investigator: Fashion sense is always subjective, but many agree that wearing too much jewelry looks gaudy and ostentatious. The style maven Coco Chanel supposedly gave the following advice about adornments. Here are two versions

(1) Always remove one piece of jewelry before you go out.

(2) Before you leave the house, look at yourself in the mirror and take one thing off.

Thus, this difficult choice requires second-guessing yourself. This adage has also been attributed to two comedians: Gracie Allen and Joan Rivers. I have been unable to find solid evidence, and I am skeptical of these attributions. Would you please explore this saying’s provenance?

Reply from Quote Investigator: This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest match known to QI appeared in “The American University Eagle” newspaper of Washington D.C. in 1949 which reprinted fashion advice from the “Daily Lass-o” of the Texas State College for Women. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

“Lastly, never wear too much jewelry, no matter how well it all matches. An old policy, but still a very good one, is after you have completely finished dressing, step away from the mirror and get a good full length view of yourself, then remove one piece of jewelry and you will look much smarter.”

The phrase “old policy” signaled that this advice was a preexisting adage. The originator remains anonymous. Several famous people have referenced this saying, but QI has found no substantive support for the ascription to Coco Chanel. Comedian George Burns stated that his wife, Gracie Allen, adhered to the adage. Also, Joan Rivers referred to the saying, but she attributed it to her mother.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The second earliest match appeared in “The Chatham Press” of New Jersey in 1950 within a fashion column without a byline:2

Cocktail gloves may be worn slightly crushed and finished off with a bracelet on each arm. If you want to be particularly daring, add a big fake pearl ring worn over the glove. That’s approved this season, but be careful. After you’re all dressed, a good rule to follow is to go back to your mirror and remove one piece of jewelry. The effect is better now, isn’t it?

In 1953 the “Detroit Free Press” of Michigan printed a piece about the McGuire Sisters, a singing group consisting of three sisters named Christine, Phyllis, and Dorothy. The trio referred to the adage:3

They observe one daily ritual. “Just before we leave home, we take off one piece of jewelry so we’re sure we’re not overdressed.”

In 1956 “The De Kalb Daily Chronicle” of Illinois printed an article about Nancy Abraham who was a local homemaker and a former model. She employed the saying:4

She warns against “cluttering yourself with accessories though. “I usually remove one piece of jewelry just before I walk out the front door,” she says, exemplifying the old axiom of “it’s better to be underdressed than overdressed.”

In 1959 Chicago model Maggie Daly addressed a Woman’s Club in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and she used a variant of the expression:5

When in doubt of one’s appearance, remove one accessory, she said.

In 1967 Helen Hennessy who was the Women’s Editor of the NEA (Newspaper Enterprise Association) syndication service mentioned a version of the adage:6

Fashion experts used to tell us to inspect ourselves in the mirror before we left the house. If we were wearing more than two small pieces of jewelry we were advised to remove one piece.

In 1973 an article in “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Ohio ascribed the saying to John Robert Powers who was the founder of a New York City modeling agency:7

John Robert Powers always said, however, “The really smart woman goes back to the mirror before she goes out . . . takes one last look . . . and removes one piece of jewelry.”

In 1978 actress, singer, and television personality Polly Bergen published “I’d Love To, But What’ll I Wear?: The Complete Women’s Clothing Guide for Anytime, Anywhere”, and she offered the following guidance about jewelry:8

Just remember it should add to whatever else you’re wearing, not be distracting. Excessive jewelry always means overdressing. If that’s your weakness, follow the rule to always remove one piece of jewelry before you go out.

In 1986 stand-up comic and television host Joan Rivers published the memoir “Enter Talking”. She heard the adage from her mother Beatrice Molinsky:9

She gave us rules for dressing: When you are fully dressed, remove one piece of jewelry and you will be correct.

In 1987 “The New Etiquette: Real Manners for Real People in Real Situations: An A-to-Z Guide” presented this guidance:10

I confess that I still attempt to follow a couple of rules my mother set down regarding the wearing of jewelry. The first is to wear no more than three pieces at any one time, and the second is to put on the jewelry for the day and then remove one piece. There are few limits, of course, when it comes to a fancy ball — one can almost never wear too much glitter on such an occasion.

In 1988 comedian and actor George Burns published a book about his long-time partner and wife Gracie Allen titled “Gracie: A Love Story”. Burns remarked that Gracie followed the adage:11

Gracie made some of her own rules, too. The last thing she would do before leaving the house, every time, was look at herself in the mirror and take one thing off. It could have been anything. A necklace, a bracelet, a scarf, it didn’t matter, she had to take one thing off. That way, she believed, she’d never be overdressed.

In 2002 an article from the Knight Ridder Newspapers credited Coco Chanel with the saying:12

Jewelry may be the frosting on the cake, but ice it carefully. Remember Chanel’s dictate: Always remove one thing before you walk out the door.

In 2009 Karen Karbo published “The Gospel According To Coco Chanel: Life Lessons From the World’s Most Elegant Woman”. Karbo expressed uncertainty about the linkage of the adage to Chanel:13

Years before Dorothy Parker was cracking wise from her post at the Algonquin Round Table, Chanel was opining in Paris. As a result she is credited with a lot of sayings that may not belong to her. She may or may not have said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory,” but the point is certainly Chanelian.

In 2011 an article in the “Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts ascribed an instance to Chanel:14

Coco Chanel, inventor of the little black dress and history’s most famous perfume, also originated the idea that a woman, to be perfectly dressed, should at the last moment remove one accessory.

In conclusion, this adage is difficult to trace. It was circulating by 1949. The originator is unknown. The attribution to Coco Chanel is unsupported. The McGuire Sisters and many others used the saying after it was already in circulation.

Image Notes: Picture of jewelry from unknown maker circa A.D. 250–400. Public domain image from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. Image has been resized and cropped.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Noah Brier, Craig Good, and Flip Phillips whose inquiries and comments led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Simon Koppel who located the important 1949 citation and shared it with QI.

Update History: On February 2, 2023 the 1949 citation was added to the article. On March 16, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated. Also, the full article was placed on this website.

  1. 1949 February 16, The American University Eagle, Texas Tips For Ladies, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Washington D.C. (Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections at; accessed February 2, 2023) ↩︎
  2. 1950 October 6, The Chatham Press, Keeping Up: Let’s Accessorize, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Chatham, New Jersey. (Two lines were re-ordered to obtain the text), (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  3. 1953 September 27, Detroit Free Press, Section: TV Prevue, TV Success Took Trio’s Breath Away, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  4. 1956 February 2, The De Kalb Daily Chronicle, Ex-Model, Housewife Shares Fashion Hints, Quote Page 5, Column 1, De Kalb, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1959 May 5, The Morning Call, Bethlehem Club Hears Pointers On Appearance, Quote Page 22, Column 3, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  6. 1967 December 1, Fort Collins Coloradan, This Season’s Trend in Jewelry Is Toward Big, Sparkly Pieces by Helen Hennessy (NEA Women’s Editor), Quote Page 5, Column 7, Fort Collins, Colorado. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  7. 1973 March 28, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Finishing Touches Make Or Break A Costume by Jamie Sue Spurgeon (Enquirer Contributor), Quote Page 16, Column 7, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  8. 1978 (1977 Copyright), I’d Love To, But What’ll I Wear?: The Complete Women’s Clothing Guide for Anytime, Anywhere by Polly Bergen with Kathrin Perutz, Chapter 1: The Joy of Clothing, Section: Dress Wise: Accessorize!, Quote Page 42, Wyden Books: Wideview edition, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  9. 1986, Enter Talking by Joan Rivers with Richard Meryman, Chapter 2, Quote Page 28, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  10. 1987, The New Etiquette: Real Manners for Real People in Real Situations: An A-to-Z Guide by Marjabelle Young Stewart, Topic: Jewelry, Start Page 257, Quote Page 258, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  11. 1988, Gracie: A Love Story by George Burns, Chapter: 1, Quote Page 19, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  12. 2002 December 31, The Lima News, New Year’s Eve: Stay at home or go out (Knight Ridder Newspapers), Quote Page C3, Column 5, Lima, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  13. 2009, The Gospel According To Coco Chanel: Life Lessons From the World’s Most Elegant Woman by Karen Karbo, Chapter 1: On Style, Quote Page 20, Skirt, Guilford, Connecticut. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  14. 2011 August 28, Boston Sunday Globe, Short Takes by Kate Tuttle (Review of Hal Vaughan’s “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War”, Quote Page K6, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
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