Today, September 15, is Felt Hat Day, the day to retire your boater, skimmer, or panama to the hatbox for the season, and the time to brush off your fedora of your homburg to step into autumn. You can read Etiquetteer's history of Straw Hat Day and Felt Hat Day here. Enjoy!
The other day I wrote a thank-you note to a friend and then forgot to mail it. But maybe I didn’t. I have no memory of putting it in the mailbox, and yet I can’t find it on my desk where I wrote it. I don’t know if I should ask my friend if my note was received or not. If I do, would it look like I was fishing for compliments? And if I don’t, and it wasn’t received, I look neglectful. What should I do?
Etiquetteer thinks there might be a bit of overthinking going on here. Overthinking and absentmindedness. You’re speaking of a friend here, and friends love us in spite of all our faults - at least in theory. Etiquetteer sees no harm in being completely candid with your friend and saying “I sent you the loveliest note, and now I can’t find it and still can’t even remember putting in the post. Did you get it?”
But if that’s really too much for you, just write a second Lovely Note and begin it “Still touched by how kind you were to . . . “ to give the gift or do the favor you’re writing about, as though it was so wonderful it deserved a second Lovely Note. Problem solved!
Etiquetteer is always delighted to hear from readers, and recent columns have provoked some correspondence seeking clarity:
I enjoyed you response about the wedding a great deal. I myself had an early afternoon wedding and with all the guests from out of town, we offered a large buffet of lunch items before cutting the cake. Still, I don't feel that your response fully answered the question. My gut says you might have responded to the stand up reception or your disapproval of them. Personally, having a wedding with thirty guests, a buffet worked well and allowed everyone plenty of food. As bride I even got a plate! I feel that stand up receptions don't allow those who need to sit down the option of sitting down. I would have enjoyed hearing your response include an answer to the question.
Etiquetteer responds: Your buffet dinner reception for 30 guests sounds delightful; the smaller a wedding is, the easier it is to look after everyone's comfort, in your case providing a meal format in which people might sit or stand as they choose. To restate from the original column, a stand-up reception of hors d'oeuvres may be interpreted by the guests as insufficient acknowledgment of their own commitment to attend the wedding. Whether Etiquetteer approves or not is somewhat beside the point. Whether the level of bridal hospitality offered has the desired effect of making the wedding guests glad they came is the real issue. If more Happy Couples - brides especially - considered how well they treated their guests, there'd be less back-biting about weddings.
On a Night at the Opera:
Our seats at the [Insert Name of Very Important Opera Company in Prominent American City Here] were in the very, very last row of the upper balcony last season. It is all we could afford. We wore black tie for the Friday night premier of the first opera of the season, and every performance of six thereafter. Hobnobbing in the main lobby with the hoi polloi was fun, and the Champagne was free.
Not Perfectly Proper?
There are few situations in which Champagne is not Perfectly Proper! And Etiquetteer has spent many performances in seats near or similar to the ones you describe.* Your request for clarity on the Perfect Propriety of black tie in an opera balcony led Etiquetteer to seek out some "chapter and verse," starting of course with Etiquetteer's beloved 1950 edition of Emily Post. And even in that postwar period, formal dress for gentlemen was still de rigueur in the orchestra, parterre boxes, and first tier boxes. Black tie was worn in the first balcony only and "above that, clothes are no longer formal." As with so many things in the postwar years, formality kept sliding down the slippery slope, so that when Esquire Etiquette came out in 1953, it made no reference at all to what a gentleman wore to the opera, only that he must on no account sit in the front row of the box.
But for the 21st century, we are best guided by the old saw that it's a greater sin to be overdressed than underdressed. Inconspicuousness remains the best choice. So unless it's a gala night or the opening of the season, it's more Perfectly Proper to wear dark suits. On a more general note, the true test of a gentleman's clothes is how he chooses to stand out by blending in.
*Etiquetteer vividly recalls a recital given by Dame Joan Sutherland in the mid-1980s in a cavernous Boston theatre. Etiquetteer sat next to the ceiling and remembered first a large bit of paint peeling off the ceiling and wondering if Dame Joan would dislodge it with a high note, and then the fierce glare of Dame Joan's passementerie, which even so did not obscure the vast expanse of her black gown.
Earlier this summer Etiquetteer trotted off to the opera, and you might all be expecting Etiquetteer to Sigh for Bygone Days and exclaim "It isn't what it was." But then going to the opera hasn't been "what it was" for such a long time already, there's really no need, is there? It's as useless to pine for the Days of Black Tie*, Wine and Roses as it is to search for Robert Taylor in the orchestra. Besides which, the space per person is so compressed one does not necessarily leave the theatre feeling elegant. Greta Garbo would clearly have been eaten by her hoopskirt trying to negotiate those narrow seats - NOT Perfectly Proper.**
That said, there were so many opportunities to ask (to oneself, of course) "You wore that? Really?" A suit and tie at a minimum for gentlemen, and an equivalent standard for ladies, should not be difficult. There's no need to appear in a theatre a T-shirt or (shudder) shorts. Etiquetteer used to think that Boston audiences were exceptionally dowdy. That illusion was shattered on observing opera audiences in New York, Paris, and Venice. As Etiquetteer has pointed out before, too much of the middle class has Simply Given Up.
Ladies seated in the mezzanine or balcony, however, might be encouraged to wear flats or low heels. Etiquetteer witnessed a lady take a tumble on the steep mezzanine stairway when making way for others. Mercifully she fell up or she might easily have rolled down a good 14 feet of staircase before collaping in the aisle.
Before the curtain rose, Etiquetteer was horrified to discover that he was sitting in the wrong seat. Now of course These Things Happen, and when they do it's important to follow the advice of Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden: "This is a test of breeding. Keep cool." Once apologies were extended, it remained only to hoist one leg after the other into the row above, which required some dexterity. At least it prevented disturbing nine other people, but this approach is not recommended for Those Wearing Skirts.
Supertitles on screens at the opera excite strong opinions. Some of them because only with supertitles can they understand what the singers are singing. Others revile them as a distraction from the stage. Etiquetteer will confess to feeling guilty for finding them helpful, but Etiquetteer vastly prefers hearing an opera in a foreign language with supertitles rather than in English (if English was not the original language of that particular opera.)
Now Etiquetteer is not much for "upgrading" during intermission, moving to (hopefully) unoccupied seats closer to the stage. (Should you find that someone has upgraded themselves in your seats, just alert the usher.) At this particular theatre, though, the mezzanine seats almost required amputating one's legs, and Etiquetteer's friend spotted almost an entire row vacant just a bit down, so the second act allowed for more legroom. The key is to move seats just before the lights go down. (Why on earth did so many people not return after intermission? Could it have been the tightness of the seats? The absence of a plot?)
But how beautiful to witness an audience completely in sympathy with a singer. Some of the ovations . . . remarkable.
Lastly, in theatres with minimal public space, it's even more important to Get Out of the Way. A collection of fellow operagoers clotted the intersections to greet each other for an extended period. A brisk (and possibly brusque) "Excuse me" solved that problem.
Etiquetteer is eager to return to the opera again once the Season resumes, and hopes you are, too.
*Still, Etiquetteer does remember one opera night when Dewy Youthfulness still clung about one's figure and complexion, the night that turned out to be Sarah Caldwell's final performance conducting the Boston Opera Company. The production was Aida, and Etiquetteer and a friend donned black tie and excitement for a very special evening. As it happened, the rest of the audience hadn't dressed, leaving Etiquetteer feeling a shade de trop, until discovering the other six gentlemen in the house who wore black tie. The parties combined, making a jolly octet for the rest of the evening. But remember, this only works in the orchestra and perhaps the mezzanine. Black tie is never Perfectly Proper in the balcony.
**One recalls that, at the premiere of Handel's Messiah, instructions went out early that, due to the crush, ladies were requested not to wear hoopskirts, and gentlemen to leave their swords at home.
Seen recently in a garden in Boston's South End neighborhood:
These signs are a sad reminder that not all dog owners are equally Perfectly Proper. As the saying goes, "There are no bad dogs, only bad dog owners."
I'm somewhat new to working in an office environment so the subtleties of what constitutes public and private behavior may elude me. That said, I have a coworker who once a week straddles his trash container and cuts his nails. I can't stand the sound of this and warily watch for the errant clipping heading my way. I'm dumbfounded on what I could possibly say? I suppose we are all lucky he doesn't clip his toenails. Help!
Etiquetteer's first reaction on reading your query was a piercing "Eeyew!" This sort of public grooming needs to stop. Etiquetteer firmly believes that no one should have to "see the magic happen," or hear it, either.
No one should leave home without being fully dressed and fully groomed.* A nail kit of pair or nail clippers for emergencies should be kept at the office, but taken into the restroom to be used.
Most problems like this don't get resolved without actually having a conversation with the offender. Someone will have to Say Something. The goal, of course, is to stop the behavior, not to shame the offender. As a newcomer, it might be thorny for you to do so; you don't want to get a reputation as a complainer so early in your tenure. Your colleague's supervisor should be informed, discreetly, and asked to address this issue with your Clipping Colleague. An office memo reinforcing Perfectly Proper behavior might work depending on the size of your workplace. You could even send a gift card for a manicure with the heading "It's time to put the man in manicure!" (While it's dangerous to assume, Etiquetteer believes this must be a man.)
If those options aren't open to you, and you don't find it possible to step out for a coffee when your Clipping Colleague is clipping, then take a deep breath and have a quick private conversation. Apologize for raising the issue, be honest about the impact of his behavior, and ask if he could take his clippers into the restroom. Etiquetteer hopes your Clipping Colleague will take this in the spirit intended.
Best wishes for a successful outcome!
*Yes ladies, that means not applying your makeup while behind the wheel or on public transportation.
For National Book Lover's Day, August 9, Etiquetteer wants to share with you a delightful recent find, “King Lehr” and the Gilded Age, Elizabeth Drexel Lehr’s incisive, not-too-bitter tale of Harry Lehr, court jester to Mrs. Astor and the other Queens of New York - and the man with a secret who married her for her money. You will understand Edith Wharton so much more after you read it.
MARRIAGE UNDER FALSE PRETENSES
Elizabeth Drexel Lehr lived the life of a Wharton heroine: balls, parties, Opera nights, magnificent clothes and jewels, Court presentations in Europe, summer frivolities in Newport, and heartache. Her father, who died during her childhood, left her lavishly provided for. Her first husband died early in her marriage, leaving her with a young son. “Our moments of destiny steal upon us so quietly, generally so unperceived, that we are hardly aware of them until they have passed by,” she wrote. “Only in after years can we look back on them and see them from their true perspective, know that they made or marred our whole lives. Such a moment came to me when I met Harry Lehr."
Introduced to “the most amusing man in New York” on the very first night she had left off her mourning, Harry gradually began courting her, and then invited her to meet his four best friends at Sherry’s. (If one was not at Delmonico’s, one was at Sherry’s.) Expecting to be the only lady in a party of gentlemen, Elizabeth was surprised to see that Harry’s four best friends were the Queens of New York: Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. Oliver Belmont (née Alva Vanderbilt), and Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, powerful matrons who could make or break anyone for anything. Elizabeth confirmed that she was up for review, "for as we rose to leave the restaurant I heard Mrs. Oelrichs say ‘I think she is delightful, Harry. We four are going to take her up. We will make her the fashion. You need have no fear . . . ‘“
Harry lost no time, proposing on the way home. And he lost no time after the wedding either, callously explaining that he married her for her money, solely to care for his mother; and that “I can school myself to be polite to you, but that is all.” Elizabeth, devastated, remained in the marriage for the sake of her mother, who, like her idol Queen Victoria, could not countenance divorced people. Thus began Elizabeth’s life at the apex of high society. “I found myself swept into the gay set to which Harry Lehr belonged, or rather of which he was the pivot. We were invited everywhere, parties were given in our honour . . . I flung myself into the gay social whirl that was to be my raison d’être. Vain substitute for the love I had longed for!”
THE QUEENS OF NEW YORK SHAKE UP PERFECT PROPRIETY
Etiquetteer wasn’t initially attracted to this memoir for any marital scandal of the 400, but rather to see how the Gilded Age social leaders used their position to change behavior in Society, and then in America. “Trickle-down manners,” if you will, from the Queens of New York.
From Elizabeth’s widowed mother, whose revered Queen Victoria, to Mamie Fish, who loved best jokes that could sting, Elizabeth witnessed a generational change in acceptable behavior for women, especially the super-wealthy. Then as now, Novelty ruled the day, goaded by Fear of Boredom. While Elizabeth’s mother appears to have been a modest and dignified wife and widow, the wives of Gilded Age tycoons occupied themselves with amusing parties and new ways to wear show-stopping jewels. Mrs. John Drexel wore her famous pearls as a Sam Browne belt. Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt, inspired by the ladies of Venice, hung a big jewel from a rope of pearls at her waist. “So she always progressed to her loge at the Opera kicking a great uncut sapphire or ruby . . . "
These ladies challenged conventions in other ways, too. First, Mrs. Astor, to please Harry Lehr, actually dined in a public restaurant, a development so surprising that it made all the newspapers the next day. Shocking! Elizabeth also tells the story of years later when Mamie Fish and Frances Burke-Roche, “determined to be in the van of modernity," made it acceptable for ladies to appear in public restaurants in evening dresses with exposed necks. “Absurd that the public should be deprived of the sight of a pretty neck just because an obsolete convention decreed that nice women could appear in evening dress only in the shelter of their own and their friends’ houses,’ said Fannie Burke-Roche." And off they went to Sherry's, after many gentlemen declined to escort them (“Men are conservative creatures . . . “), creating more than a sensation. Louis Sherry, the proprietor, “turned pale with indignation, but he retained his poise . . . only from two such celebrated leaders of society could he have tolerated so scandalous an infringement of the rules of etiquette. But his disapproval was evident.” A social historian more adept than Etiquetteer could trace this humble beginning all the way to the Paris Hilton sex tapes.
Etiquetteer rather sympathizes with Mr. Sherry. His lament might be that of the stereotypical landlady of the period, “How do you expect me to run a respectable house?!” Some years later he was vanquished by another matron, Edith Gould, who deliberately took out her vanity case and used powder and lipstick at her luncheon table.* “But when Mrs. Frederick Havemeyer boldly lighted a cigarette at the table one Sunday evening and proceeded to smoke it in a leisurely fashion, she exceeded the bounds of his tolerance, for she was told politely but firmly that she must either extinguish it or leave the restaurant.”
But the most revolutionary change was the growing acceptance of divorce. If Alva Vanderbilt hadn't divorced her philandering husband "Willie K." and then married Oliver H.P. Belmont, the social acceptance of divorce would certainly have taken a lot longer. (In the 21st century it is difficult to imagine a day when divorce truly meant social ostracism. Consult Edith Wharton's short story "Autre Temps, Autre Mouers" on the subject.) Alva once confronted Elizabeth about her unhappy marriage to Harry. "'You ought to leave him. I'll help you. I don't believe in marriage anyway . . . ' It was obvious that I had gone down in her estimation when I declined . . . 'You are the old-fashioned woman, Bessie. I am the woman of the future.'" And indeed, today the stigma of divorce has been all but erased.
But what of Harry? Worthy successor of the late Ward McAllister, Mrs. Astor’s right-hand man and the one responsible for the term “the 400,” Harry Lehr came on the scene just in time to be taken up by Mrs. Astor before her health kept her from participating actively in Society. Harry then became court jester to the four “reigning queens of New York," but especially of Mamie Fish, who clearly shared his love of the irreverent and the absurd. He made the 400 laugh, and that's how he conquered them.
Elizabeth tells of several of their collaborations, but three that stand out are Harry's appearance as the Czar of Russia, the "monkey dinner," and the famous "dogs dinner" that was "denounced from pulpits" across the nation. The first came out of a little feud between Mamie Fish and Mrs. Ogden Goelet, "an enormously rich widow [who] had more suitors than she could count," over a handsome bachelor, James de Wolfe Cutting. Mrs. Fish invited Newport to a ball in honor of the Grand Duke Boris of Russia, a guest of Mrs. Goelet, and invited le tout Newport, but not Jimmy Cutting. Mrs. Goelet, the day before the party, sweetly told Mrs. Fish that no one in her house party could possibly attend the ball if Jimmy was not invited - including the Grand Duke, the guest of honor. Oops! Harry knew that the situation needed to be made laughably funny for Mrs. Fish to survive socially, and she persuaded him (it probably wasn't difficult) to impersonate the Czar at the ball. Elizabeth reports "The ladies nearest the entrance, in varying degrees of hesitancy, sank in a court curtsey, only to recover themselves with shrieks of laughter when they realized they were paying homage to Harry Lehr! The whole room rippled with merriment as . . . he made a solemn circuit on the arm of his hostess . . . in exact imitation of a stately royal progress. Mrs. Fish's party was saved!" And it earned Harry his nickname, "King Lehr."
The "monkey dinner" involved a "prince from Corsica" being invited at the last minute to a dinner at the Lehr's - "I asked him whether he was any relation of the ----------s whom we met in Rome, and he said that he certainly was. They all belong to the same family, only the Prince's is a distant branch." The "prince" turned out to be a small monkey in perfectly fitting evening clothes, who sat in the seat of honor at Elizabeth's right, with Mamie Fish (Harry's co-conspirator) on his right. "The dinner party was a great success, but somehow the story, absurdly exaggerated, got into the hands of the newspaper reporters and the result was a deluge of sarcastic comments." It cost Mrs. Fish absolute sovereignty over the 400.
The famous "dogs' dinner" was held for the dogs of friends, about 100 of them, where served " stewed liver and rice, fricassée of bones, and shredded dog biscuit" at a long table on their verandah. A young reporter managed to get into the garden with a small dog, but Harry, discovering he wasn't a guest, had him leave. The result: " . . scathing columns appeared in the newspapers next day. We were said to have fed our canine guests on wings of chicken and pâté de foie gras . . . and this in a time of trade depression. Harry Lehr was denounced by preachers throughout the States for having 'wasted on dogs food that would have fed hundreds of starving people.'"
Elizabeth illustrates the brilliance of the seasons before World War I with descriptions of rooms, parties, and especially the people who filled them - and sometimes their rudeness. Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer abandoned her escort, Lispinard Stewart - "famed for the perfection of his manners as well as his conceit" - to sit with other friends at a large dinner party at the Belmont's. He never forgave her. James Van Alen, "Newport's most eligible widower" and a man with a fetish for everything Elizabethan, held a musicale and invited le tout Newport . . . except Harry and Mamie Fish. When she confronted him, Mr. Van Alen told her they made too much noise to be invited to a musicale. Mrs. Fish, though, would win out: "Oh, so that's it! Well, let me too you, sweet pet" (her invariable expression when she intended to say something nasty), "that unless we are asked there won't be any party. Harry and I will tell everyone that your cook has developed smallpox, and we will give a rival musicale. You will see they will all come to it!" Vanquished, Mr. Van Alen invited them both to dinner as long as they promised to stay on the terrace during the musicale.
Racism and anti-Semitism are ugly, acknowledged facts of Gilded Age society, more shocking in this century than at the time of this memoir's publication in the 1930s. The author paints so vivid and lavish a picture of Society’s doing that the casual use of a racist slur to describe an orchestra is almost like slapping the reader across the face. You've been warned.
With that, you'd think that Elizabeth would have been more forthright about her husband's true character. But discretion trumps history, and at the end of the book, Elizabeth can only reveal surprise, reading his locked diaries, that ". . . he had known love, had given an emotion of which I had not believed him capable. His diary was a love story, but it was the story of David and Jonathan." The name of Harry's true love is not revealed.
All in all, "King Lehr" and the Gilded Age is an absorbing read about a circle of enormous wealth that set the tone for American social life at least through World War I, if not World War II. We owe a debt to the author for painting the seamy shadows of this period as well as its glitter.
*So we have Edith Gould to blame for this. While making up at the table has been going on for just over a century, Etiquetteer really isn’t comfortable with it. Seeing the magic happen makes it less magical.
My boyfriend and I are getting married next year. We're on a budget, paying for the whole thing ourselves. The tradition seems to be a sit-down dinner, but one person suggested that we do a heavy hors d'oeuvres reception with everyone standing up. I'm not really comfortable with this, but because we do need to be careful I wanted to ask your thoughts. Is it OK to go against tradition like this?
Dear Bride to Be:
There are traditions and traditions. Etiquetteer grew up going to Southern weddings with punch-and-cookies receptions featuring a Gigantic Wedding Cake and no other refreshments (for the most part), regardless of whether the wedding was in the afternoon or evening. In New England the tradition is certainly for a wedding banquet of at least three courses - one of them being the Gigantic Wedding Cake.
The Perfectly Proper answer to your query will involve how many of your guests are traveling from out of state to attend your wedding. It can be ruinously expensive to travel to a wedding: airfare, taxis, accommodations (if not staying at the home of friends), new clothes, and of course a wedding gift. After all that trouble, a Perfectly Proper sit-down banquet is well-deserved. You don't have to feed them steak and lobster, but fobbing them off with a few trays of quiche cups and stuffed mushroom caps may not leave them feeling that their efforts for your happiness are appreciated. Feed your guests well, and they'll always wish you happiness on your anniversaries to come.
Have you considered having a luncheon instead of a dinner for your wedding reception? Consider also substituting something novel for your table centerpieces instead of flowers, often a hefty chunk of any wedding budget. For instance, if a lot of your wedding guests are construction-minded, a large tin of Tinker Toys on each table could lead them all to construct some outrageous concoction. Pyramids of photo cubes featuring photos of the Happy Couple and guests at Pleasant Times Gone By will also entertain.
Best wishes as you and the Gentleman of Your Choice prepare for a Long and Happy Life Together!
Etiquetteer was taken aback by yesterday's news story about the one-million-dollar judgement against a Happy Couple for destroying the professional reputation of their wedding photographer. Neely Moldovan, also known as Neelykins, a beauty blogger, and her husband Andrew initiated a news story in 2015 about photographer Andrea Polito withholding their wedding album and photos because of an additional fee for the album cover. Now that they've destroyed her business, they're going to have to pay for it.
The most charitable thing that could be said about the Moldovans is that they didn't read their photographer's contract well enough to understand what their obligations were. And that's probably the only charitable thing that could be said for them. A Perfectly Proper business dispute is handled in a meeting room, possibly with attorneys if it's Come to That. It is not handled on the evening news. The Moldovans, however, with vengeance in their hearts and publicity on their minds, brought it to the networks. The result then: Polito, her reputation unjustly shattered, had to close her business and has depleted her savings since the story broke. The result now: just look at the hashtag #neelykins to learn the extent of her public shaming. Her website is down, and her Twitter and Instagram accounts have gone private.
This entire situation could have been avoided if the Moldovans had first reviewed their paperwork and recognized that they still had a financial obligation to the photographer. Barring that, they should have tamed their unquenchable, unjust need for vengeful publicity, which is now backfiring on them. Rumors to the contrary, there is such a thing as bad publicity.
Some Perfectly Proper Tips for Working with Vendors
- Recognize that people go into business to make money.
- Understand the terms of the contract before you sign it. If you don't, get a third party to explain them for you.
- Abide by the terms of the contract after you've signed it.
- Be sure the vendor abides by the terms of the contract, too. That document is a two-way street!
- Don't let your temper flare so much that you use language you'd be embarrassed to find in print. (Etiquetteer wishes someone had shared that advice with Mr. Scaramucci . . .)
- Resolving a vendor dispute in a public forum is likely not a great idea. Call your lawyer first, not the local news outlet.
A final question: how beautiful a beauty blogger can you be, really, to behave this way? True Beauty, like Perfect Propriety, starts on the inside and works out.
Etiquetteer celebrates Bastille Day with Tiny Marie Antoinette by enjoying a Kir Royale.
The inconsistently-enforced dress code for the United States Congressmade news last week when several women journalists were banned from the lobby of the Speaker of the House for wearing dresses without sleeves. One woman journalist’s attempt to fashion sleeves out of notebook paper was (appropriately) rejected.
So, what does Etiquetteer have to say about all this? First off, put on a jacket with sleeves over that sleeveless dress and stop complaining! No one cares how you feel or what you want (which Etiquetteer says all the time anyway). Any complaints about summer heat are drowned out by the hum of the air conditioning. It’s also worth noting that women have a lot more leeway than men about what they may and may not wear, e.g . “suit and tie” for men vs. “appropriate attire” for women. Men who forget to wear neckties are offered ties to wear so they can enter. Congress ought to provide appropriate coverups for Sleeveless Women.*
Of course in Situations Like This, it’s expected for Etiquetteer to mourn the passing of the “appropriate attire” of yore, those smart two-piece suits by Hattie Carnegie and Mainbocher, worn with a hat, crisp white gloves and Navy Red or Cherries in the Snow lipstick. And sheer stockings of silk or nylon. It hasn’t escaped Etiquetteer’s attention that over the last ten years or so the wearing of stockings has sharply declined, something that doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the Capitol Hill dress code. In Grandma’s day, ladies without stockings were thought of as slatterns or worse. Then there’s the vulgar custom of the 1920s of rolling stockings down to below the knee. Thank goodness THAT fashion died!
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has taken some heat for creating a gender-based dress code, but that’s not what happened. The Speaker was reminding everyone about the existing dress code that’s been around for 38 years, and appears to have come about thanks to then Speaker Tip O’Neill taking exception to a male Congressman on the floor of Congress without coat and tie.
Probably the most famous coat-and-tie exception in American history was the Scopes Monkey Trial. Due to the excruciating heat, men were allowed to remove their coats and ties. The intense public interest in the case cause the trial to be moved outdoors even, both to accommodate more spectators and possibly for some heat relief. But this was before air conditioning. We shouldn’t have to accommodate that now.
Lastly, it’s probably time for Congress to enforce its dress code consistently, and to publish the “unwritten rules,” though that would be likely to create another firestorm of criticism.
*Restaurants that require jackets and ties for men often provide them for diners who arrive inappropriately dressed.
There’s an old expression, “in the powder,” which means that when guests arrive too early. Last weekend a couple party guests showed up two hours early. My house was not yet ready to receive guests, I was still cooking and cleaning, I hadn’t showered yet, and all of a sudden there were people at the door I must entertain. In my case they could’ve spent time walking around my historic neighborhood. Other people must have had this happen to them and heard the excuses: light traffic, easier than expected parking, bringing perishables to the party, etc. How can I get out of this? I love having people over, but I love having them over when I’m ready more than when I’m getting ready.
No host or hostess wants their guests to see “how the magic happens,” and that’s doubly tough when they show up so very early. Sometimes that happens because guests miss the correct arrival time on the invitation.* The Perfectly Proper solution is, as you suggest, to take a walk until the party is supposed to start. That’s tough to do, though, if it’s raining or viciously cold.
You’ll be relieved to know, though, that there’s no obligation to entertain early arrivals. Just park them in the parlor with a “Don’t mind me, I’m in my prep zone," and get back to your business. Deflect any offers of assistance (if unwelcome) with "Thanks, I really appreciate it, but I have my routine already set and I just need to get things done at my own pace."
If you don't mind some extra help, however, toss them an apron and put 'em to work. This can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth if your guests then question how to do what you've asked them at every step of the process, so they can be sure it's done the way you want it. Much better, in Etiquetteer's view, to leave them in the parlor with a magazine.
You can mitigate this kind of behavior in two ways: confirm the time on the morning of your event, and plan to have everything but the cooking complete one hour before the party starts.
*Etiquetteer has had to lecture That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much about this more than once. Indeed, his ability to appear up to an hour early by mistake at one annual gathering has become almost an eye-rolling tradition.
Etiquetteer has been traveling lately, and has been amused and/or instucted by instructional signs everywhere:
Gender-neutral bathrooms are becoming quite the rage, as can be seen from these two examples:
The world of Fashion has its arbitrary side, which sometimes veers toward the silly. And any time the word "rakish" appears in a book title, you know Humor is going to rear its smiling, unruly head for a bit of fun. Which is exactly what Gonzague Dupleix (author) and Jean-Pierre Delhomme (illustrator) have given us with Suave in Every Situation: A Rakish Guide to Style for Men. This bonbon box of frivolous advice, sprinkled with History and Wisdom throughout, makes a delightful read and reinforces some Central Tenets of Perfect Propriety.
Written in strictly Q-and-A format, Suave in Every Situation gathers seemingly random questions under chapter headings the underscore the author's belief that one needs to know the rules in order to play with them for positive effect: "Ask Yourself the Right Questions," "Make the Ordinary Extraordinary," "Live With Your Own (Bad) Taste," etc. From berets to zentai, opinions are shared, advice offered, and rules overruled (or not) about how to behave and what to wear.
Considering a gentleman's wardrobe, biases are expressed. Briefs, the undergarment of superheroes, are the only possible choice for a suave gentleman. Fur-lined shoes are beneath consideration. Military jackets are not to be trusted. Etiquetteer got a good laugh over the ultimate advice about wearing overalls: "Women and children first." Gingham and turtlenecks are encouraged, but not gingham turtlenecks. The author advises creatively on use of color. For red, "Imagine yourself in charge of paprika in a hotel kitchen: dose it carefully." For white, suggestions of appropriate-impact whiter-than-white, clever white, and dirty white.
The fickle nature of Fashion also gets highlighted. Why should one avoid a steel blue tie with a gray suit? Why are colorful socks OK, but novelty socks not? Why are "faded" jeans back, but "bleached" still out? Why do the authors endorse floral prints in such an ambiguous way: ". . . This picnic spirit à la open house at the University of Manchester's Humanities department . . ."? But coming trends are encouraged. Etiquetteer was delighted to read that capes are making a comeback for gentlemen. Time to dig out that Venetian tabarro!
There's more to suavity than what one wears, and helpful advice is offered on how to DJ a party, how to wipe sand from your feet at the beach, what sort of accent to use when speaking a foreign language, how to get the waiter's attention without getting everyone else's attention, whether or not to take off your glasses when kissing, and even whether or not to use a chaise longue or a just a towel for reclining on the beach. Some of the answers might surprise you.
That said, Etiquetteer has no idea why some of these questions are being asked . . . .Etiquetteer's answer to all of them is CERTAINLY NOT! "Should you wear your blazer inside out?" "Is it OK to leave French cuffs* unbuttoned?" "Is it OK to put your feet up on the glove compartment?" "Can you give the finger in a photo?" Really, these questions might have been added to the book solely to taunt Etiquetteer.
But if you've ever wondered how to be suave at the supermarket or cafeteria, whether or not to button or unbutton your naval sweater, where to put your arms when your photo is taken at the beach, or how to get that nasty odor out of your clothes, this is the place. Gonzague and Delhomme have created a delightful, engaging safe space for gentlemen.
*Teenagers push the limits as far as they dare - of fashion, of style, of good taste, of bad taste - as part of their transformation into (one hopes) Perfectly Proper Ladies and Gentlemen. Teenage Etiquetteer, in the faraway land of 1981, wore to a cast party one of his Dear Father's long-neglected 100% cotton pleated tuxedo shirts, untucked, with jeans, no tie of any kind, and using safety pins for cufflinks and studs and not folding the cuffs. It had not been ironed in perhaps 20 years. The evening remains memorable for the arrival of a Young Lady of the Cast dressed to the nines in flawless white and pink linen, every hair in place, looking absolutely ravishing. Teenage Etiquetteer could only gape self-consciously in uncomfortable astonishment.
Every time we go shopping, my husband buys a carton of [Insert Brand of Thin Mint Cookies Here]. He likes sweets, but not as much as I do.
Inevitably, I'll break open the bag and eat them before he gets around to having one or two.
A week or so after buying them, he'll open the cupboard and ask, "There aren't any [Insert Brand of Thin Mint Cookies Here] left?"
A simple solution would be to buy multiple cartons but I know I'd just end up eating both of them. That would be being piggy.
Should I feel guilty for eating them all - even if I've given him a fair chance to have some? What can we do to resolve this?
Relationship are so important because they teach us about sharing. What you can do to resolve this is to share. A simpler solution than buying two cartons would be for you to offer one or more cookies to your husband the next time you dip into the bag. "Sweetums," you might say, "would you like to have some cookies with me?" Cookie Time could become so popular it evolves into afternoon tea. And even if he declines with an "Oh no, Darling, not right now," you will at least get points for having made the effort.
Etiquetteer must be feeling a bit bossy today. What are the central tenets, really, of what Etiquetteer believes? It could be summed up in this way: consider the impact you have on other people.
- Nobody cares how you feel or what you want, so you might as well behave.
- Look respectable. Tuck in that shirttail and those bra straps. Nobody wants to know about the waistband of your underwear . . . and if they do, you might not want to know them.
- Dress appropriately to the particular situation. Just because you don't feel like putting on black tie is no excuse to go to a ball in a track suit.*
- Get out of the way.
- Be quiet, both in general and especially on your cellphone. No one cares about your "private" conversation.
- Retain your sense of humor. That's usually key to getting out of most etiquette jams.
- When responding in anger, whether in person or through correspondence, ask yourself if you want a successful resolution or just a chance to express anger.
- Travel light.
- When in doubt, send a Lovely Note.
Now that's out of the way, Etiquetteer is going to spend the rest of the day bringing his summer whites out of storage since Memorial Day (observed) is tomorrow.
*Once upon a time, if one didn't have the correct clothes for a particular function, one did not attend said function. (Consider the plight of Judy Garland's beau in Meet Me in St. Louis, who suddenly couldn't take her to a Christmas ball because his father's dress suit was locked up at a tailor's.) Nowadays this sort of Perfect Propriety is considered fussy and exclusive by far too many people - but not Etiquetteer.
The month of May includes several Days of Observance; today, May 14, 2017, there are two, and tomorrow another. In Boston today is Lilac Sunday, so it’s Perfectly Proper to sport a bit of lilac in your buttonhole. But remember, gentlemen, to keep your boutonniere small enough that no one mistakes it for a corsage.
Today is also Mother’s Day, and Etiquetteer encourages you to take a moment to remember those lessons of Perfect Propriety you were taught at your mother’s knee. Etiquetteer’s Dear Mother taught many important things, but the one that’s top of mind today is always having a napkin in one's lap at the dinner table.
Finally, May 15 is Straw Hat Day, so you can retire your fedora or your Homburg or whatever other felt hat that took you through the winter, and sport your boater, your skimmer, or a Perfectly Proper panama hat instead. But don’t get too excited and whip out those white shoes yet! It’s not time for those until Memorial Day.
Sometimes there's nothing like a new bow tie to brighten up one's day, and this spring has been an exceptionally gray one. Etiquetteer is delighted with "Apo Reef" from Beau Ties Ltd., which is bringing some necessary color to a Gray May!
This is really one of Etiquetteer's pet peeves, so pay attention.
Last weekend Etiquetteer was neatly and innocently waiting at the corner for the light to change when a man trundled alongside about five feet away and asked no one in particular where a local hotel was. Except he thought he was asking someone in particular: Etiquetteer! And Etiquetteer had no idea this was the case. This man was not exhibiting any of the characteristics of actually addressing someone, such as standing at a reasonably close (but not too close) distance, facing them, eye contact, unmistakably audible tone of voice, and the Very Important Introduction of "Excuse me, please . . . " How on earth is anyone supposed to know they're being spoken to by a stranger?
Once Etiquetteer fully understood what was happening, directions could be provided ("That way.") But it also brought to mind a much more unpleasant version of this common problem from about 25 years ago.* Intent on reaching a subway entrance, Young Etiquetteer missed hearing a question being hog-called by some Dreadful Woman** standing ten feet away. And missing the question - and why should Etiquetteer even think it was personally directed in the first place? - this Dreadful Woman started shouting about these Rude Bostonians and how horrible Etiquetteer was not instantly to come to her aid. She clearly thought just standing in the middle of a busy corner made her perfectly noticeable and comprehensible!
If you're in a strange city and you need directions, for heaven's sake, make yourself known to the people whose aid you seek by saying "Excuse me please," facing them, and looking them in the eye. Nobody at a busy intersection is thinking about you to begin with. Help them help you by asking for help in a recognizable, unambiguous manner. That's not just Perfect Propriety, it's common sense.
*Do you ever wake up screaming about things in your past? This is the sort of thing that wakes Etiquetteer up screaming.
**No doubt the British etiquette writer would describe her as Not Our Sort. The American writer Paul Fussell would peg her as a prole.
This question popped into my mind at a professional exposition recently: is it polite to bring a drink into and out of a public restroom? It doesn't seem very sanitary somehow.
This certainly seems like the type of question that hasn't already been covered in a book of etiquette. If you ever do find a reference to this, please alert Etiquetteer.
Etiquetteer supposes it's one thing for a "bro" to bring a bottle of beer into a pub men's room, but quite another, at a big professional function like you describe, or a big public charity event, to tote a drink back and forth to the restroom. As a practical matter, where on earth might one put it while inside the restroom? Don't answer that! Etiquetteer doesn't even want to consider the options.
Good heavens, a glass of white wine could become the subject of Vulgar Speculation about a urine sample. A glass of red wine might involve a hazmat team after Vulgar Speculation about a urine sample!
No, Etiquetteer thinks it best to leave glassware and the drinks in them out of the restroom.