Thoughts on Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, Vol. 16, Issue 52

November 28, 1966. Some consider that night Society's Last Stand, for it was the night of Truman Capote's Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, an event for the Jet Set that Truman, rather disingenuously, said was just a private party for his friends. The way he carried on about who he was - and was NOT - going to invite made it the most talked about event of the year. On its 50th anniversary*, let's reflect a moment about what's changed about entertaining, and what's stayed the same.


First, let's consider the invitation, especially the dress code:

Gentlemen: Black Tie; Black Mask
Ladies: Black or White Dress
White Mask; Fan

You know what's so wonderful about that dress code? It doesn't leave you wondering what to wear! There is zero ambiguity about it. Unlike "festive attire" or "creative black tie" or "Happy and Peppy Wear," this dress code supplies all the answers about the style of the event and the expectations of the host. Could we please return to the classic simplicity of dress codes like this?

What's also notable about the dress code is that all the guests obeyed it. There was none of ths "Oh, I don't feel it dressing up but I really want to come to your party" or "Gosh, I don't have a tuxedo" nonsense. Guests honored the host, the occasion, and themselves by honoring the dress code. In this case, it's one of the reasons we're still talking about this party so many years later. Once upon a time if you didn't have the right clothes, you didn't go.** Etiquetteer agrees.

But what's important to acknowledge about wearing masks is that people are going to take them off well before they're supposed to, even when they know they aren't supposed to. They did it at the Black and White Ball (one at least had a medical excuse - the toxic fumes from the glue inside the mask were about to make him faint), and they've certainly done it at every costume party Etiquetteer has ever attended. C'est tant pis. But Etiquetteer will admit to enjoying a Big Unmasking at Midnight. In the words of Zippy the Pinhead, "Frivolity is a stern taskmaster."

You know what else Etiquetteer likes at midnight, especially at a ball or late party? Midnight supper! Truman was excited to serve the Plaza's famous chicken hash at his ball, in keeping with the tradition that a supper should be both simple and good. The late Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, in her wonderful memoir Wait for Me!, recalled her mother departing from tradition at her debutante ball and serving kedgeree (a breakfast casserole) instead of everyone else's chicken a la king. Truman also served spaghetti and meatballs, which is not what Etiquetteer thinks of as user-friendly for ladies in white ballgowns. But even today, the best food at parties is the simplest - as long as it's also the most delicious.

Party of the Century, by Deborah Davis, is perhaps the best and most reliable history of this event, and the author explored Truman's evolution of the guest list around "extra men." Who are "extra men," you ask? They are gentlemen invited by themselves to be sure that the ladies at the party don't lack a dance partner (since their husbands might be stuffy, or simply not dancers). Long before the Black and Whilte Ball, "extra men" were rare and eagerly sought after - candidly, because many gentlemen didn't want the responsibility.

Truman got pushback from some of these gentlemen, who wanted to bring their girlfriends - or at least a Girl of the Moment. It should be noted that the host was not always aware of these relationships before invitations were sent. Truman, for the most part, stood his ground. An "extra man" had to be truly extra, and that meant unencumbered by a date. Most accepted their invitations without further protest.

Nowadays, this sort of thing causes Entitled Outrage among all sorts of single people*** who believe they should be able to bring the same number of guests as people in a relationship do. That's nonsense. Etiquetteer is probably in the minority, but is on record as NOT being a fan of the "plus one" on an invitation. The best excuse is when an elderly guest requires a driver or attendant in order to participate.

Back to the invitation. Very few private people hold balls any longer (as such) - at least they aren't publicized as this one was. You'll notice that the invitation says "dance," not "ball." Neither was Perfectly Proper for private balls. The words "At Home" were used in the invitation, with "Dancing" added at bottom right, and it was understood that this was for the most formal ball possible.

And what's the difference between "ball" and "dance" anyway? According to Emily Post, a dance would be confined to one age group while a ball would welcome guests of all ages. And Truman  was very careful to do at his ball, often inviting the sons and daughters of friends who were already prominent on their own.

Truman and his guest of honor, Katherine Graham, formed a receiving line of two at the beginning of the ball, and they greeted all the guests personally at the ballroom entrance. That's just how it should be - even though it took two hours for the steady arrival of approximately 400 guests. Truman was back at the door to bid farewell to parting guests about 3:00 AM, and that's also how it should be. Hosts make it easy for guests to thank them at the end of a party by stationing themselves near the exit, or at least the coat room.

Most poignantly, in 21st century America, the invitation could have read

Mr. Truman Capote and Mr. Jack Dunphy
request the pleasure of your company . . .

Truman's long-term relationship would not have had to remain in the closet.

The next year the Black and White Ball was swept from the headlines by Woodstock - and that speaks volumes. Certainly there was no dress code there!


*Well, yes, it was 51 years ago! You know, Etiquetteer just adores historical precedent, and as usual, is going to trot out the one-year delay in opening the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was held specifically to commemorate Columbus' discovery of America in 1492.

**This is, of course, one of the central plot elements of Meet Me in St. Louis.

***While "bachelor" is still hanging on in current usage, the terms "unattached ladies" or "unescorted females" have been justly swept into the Dustbin of Language.

Etiquetteer's 2017 Holiday Gift Guide

A few suggestions to stimulate your imagination for Perfect Propriety this holiday season.


For the mid-century enthusiast on your list, our friends at Dapper and Dreamy have devised a stunning 2018 calendar illustrating the homes of Palm Springs. $18.00

One of four beautiful images from Thomas S. Robinson.

One of four beautiful images from Thomas S. Robinson.

Zoomdak, the home of Thomas S. Robinson, Photographer, features a variety of note cards, including a stunning series of photographs of Central Oregon, $14.99 per box of four.

On the deluxe end of the Stationery Spectrum, peacock stationery by Rossi (via Papier Plume of New Orleans) offers something sumptuous for every stationery wardrobe.

There are many beautiful note card choices at Crane's, as one might expect, from Severe to Exuberant. Etiquetteer rather likes these cream cards with tiny gold stars; these Soleil note cards might be appropriate for the Sun King in your life (each $22.00 per box of ten). And for the music lover in your life, these sheet music note cards might be delightful - though sometimes Etiquetteer wonders if professional musicians weary of gifts with musical motifs. ($19.00 per box of ten)

For something completely different, personalize postage for someone by making postage stamps with their photo over at Zazzle.


Etiquetteer has long enjoyed the works of Ann Fadiman, and her latest book, The Wine Lover's Daughter, promises to be a Perfectly Proper treat. With a sentence like "An appreciation of wine--along with a plummy upper-crust accent, expensive suits, and an encyclopedic knowledge of Western literature--was an essential element of Clifton Fadiman’s escape from lower-middle-class Brooklyn to swanky Manhattan," what's not to love? $15.26 in hardcover.


Roger Hutchison is a children's pastor and artist.* His latest book, My Favorite Color Is Blue. Sometimes: A Journey Through Loss With Art and Color, guides the reader through the spectrum of emotions brought on by grief using the spectrum of creating art with color. "A children's picture book by design, but accessible to people of all ages." $12.37 in paperback.

*Full disclosure: And Etiquetteer's cousin.


For the willful child on your list, The Screaming Chef by Peter Ackerman and illustrated Max Dalton, from David R. Godine, Publisher, shows how good behavior wins better results in life. "A silly yet serious picture book for readers of all ages which teaches kids that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, especially when you’re singing." No more important lesson can be taught in the 21st century. $17.95 in hardcover.


Etiquetteer got a look at these tiny chocolate champagne-bottle candies and immediately heard the late Norma Desmond saying "You need them for parties! You need them for New Year's Eve!" $21.95 from the Vermont Country Store.


Now here's part of the 1970s revival that Etiquetteer can support! Pocket & Fold's new SS17 Collection, their line of their dual-purpose pocket squares in far-out paisley-style patterns.

Lastly, a copy of the United States Constitution might not come amiss in someone's stocking this year. In some ways it could be described as the foundation of Perfect Propriety. $8.84 in hardcover.

Thanksgiving Anxieties, Vol. 16, Issue 51

Over on Etiquetteer's Facebook page, some readers have shared anxieties about the coming of Thanksgiving dinner. These anxieties often appear before other holiday functions, too, and it's worth addressing them now. They fall into a few different categories:

What if it's too dry, or ready too soon?

What if it's too dry, or ready too soon?


  • That, yet again, the turkey will be cooked too soon! Truly, cooking is an art as well as a science. This anxiety is solved by having a plan in place in case the turkey is cooked too soon. That could be as simple as maintaining turkey temperature while continuing to baste for moistness, hastening the preparation of other dishes, or just calling in the assembly early from the back yard and TV room. If you find yourself in this situation, call in reinforcements from the assembled diners to assist.
  • Dry turkey. Etiquetteer is no master chef, but shouldn't attentive basting take care of this? Know your oven and its quirks! That will aid you in the cooking. As long as it's not so dry diners can splinter it into toothpicks, you'll be fine. You could also remember the exasperated words of the late Raethel Odum, press secretary to First Lady Bess Truman, responding to a reporter: "At the White House we pour the bourbon down the guests' throats so they'll think the turkey is tender!"
  • Gravy! If you have a foolproof recipe, please share. Most of the time it turns out but I do worry about it. Have confidence, dear reader, and be calm! If your gravy already turns out "most of the time," then you are already better at gravy making than you credit.


  • Not enough silverware. One week before the Great Meal, conduct a thorough inventory of all your entertaining supplies based on your  menu: silver, china, crystal, table linens, ice buckets, paper napkins (for hors d'oeuvres before the Great Meal), candy dishes, salt and pepper shakers, coasters, trivets, etc. Run down your guest list to see who might be able to fill in with what you're missing. Count on having a few extra place settings on hand in case extra people show up, or in case of breakage.
  • Entertaining while cooking! There are lots of cooks (and Etiquetteer is one of them) who have trouble carrying on a conversation while slaving over a hot stove. Anyone not actively engaged in cooking should be ordered gently but firmly to carry the hors d'oeuvres into the parlor and to stay there with them until called to the table. This can be a problem, of course, in open plan houses, for which Etiquetteer blames the architects.
  • That the restaurant will lose our reservation. This is why the Perfectly Proper call one day in advance to confirm the reservation.
  • Is my toilet bowl clean enough for my mother-in-law? Judgmental Relations can make or mar a holiday so easily. This makes the weekend before Thanksgiving such an essential work period for those who are hosting family and friends. Give your housecleaning the Old College Try during that weekend, and on the morning of the Great Meal, make a quick pass through Spaces That Attract Attention with a dust cloth and a toilet brush. If you've done your best and the results still don't satisfy, recognize that it Might Not Be Your Fault. Prepare a special treat for yourselves to enjoy when the guests depart, something you'll really enjoy, like a book, a bubble bath, a foot massage, and/or chocolate.


  • Missing my Mom. It's not the same without her. Holidays are full of memories for the bereaved, and it's important to find a way to recognize those memories and allow them to enhance the present rather than limit us to the past. Etiquetteer is fond of the toast "to absent friends" at the beginning of the Great Meal. If your Great Meal is preceded by a blessing, that is another appropriate time to acknowledge Loved Ones Who Have Gone Before. You are right that it's not the same after someone dies, and Etiquetteer has to tell you from experience that it's better to adjust to the differences sooner rather than later. Cherish the memories of your mother, but recognize the needs and wishes of those at the table with you. 
  • Being at work. Etiquetteer salutes and thanks you for remaining at your post, as well as all the other workers who stay on the job to make a safe and happy holiday for everyone else. Best wishes for a beautiful Great Meal at a time when you can celebrate it with others!
  • Being about to digest all the various food groups in the cauldron of my stomach. This is why Gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pace yourself, and don't be tempted to ingest foodstuffs you know don't agree with you. So often at Great Meals we are exhorted not only to eat to excess, but to sample the special dishes prepared by loved ones. It's all right not to overdo it!
  • Sinking. (Last year and this year I will spend Thanksgiving on [Insert Name of Cruise Line Here].) Etiquetteer wishes you a safe and pleasant voyage without icebergs, U-boats, and uncharted coral reefs.

Table Manners: Double-Handled Cups, Vol. 16, Issue 50

Dear Etiquetteer:

Dining out at a new restaurant recently, we were surprised to be served our cappuccinos in large cups with two handles.


How on earth do you drink your coffee in a cup with two handles? Just use the handle you like, or both, or what?

Dear Handled:

Oh dear. This appears to be yet another attempt to introduce Novelty to the jaded palates of the cognoscenti by misusing the china. Etiquetteer's first thought was the trend in Manhattan to serve cocktails in Mason jars, the antithesis of New York Sophistication. Here it appears the restaurant is serving its cappuccino in bouillon cups. One drinks bouillon from a bouillon cup using both handles, but if you're served coffee in one, it might be more Perfectly Proper to use only one handle. It might also be Perfectly Proper to request a regular coffee cup, but that would only delay the service; Etiquetteer does not really recommend that.

Now all that said, Etiquetteer was quite surprised to find lots and lots of double-handled mugs for sale. Far from being a novelty, they appear to be of great use to those with medical issues that affect their grip, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis. This seems like a more enduring trend than the moustache cup of yore, which had a china bridge across the top to protect Monsieur's moustache from the coffee.


Wedding Wear, Vol. 16, Issue 48

Dear Etiquetteer:

Went to a wedding this afternoon at 3 PM. Had asked family what dress code was - they said whatever you want. I arrived in a pretty flowered frock, pearls - afternoon tea type attire. My husband wore tie, navy blazer, etc. We were astounded to see a guy in dirty jeans and shirt with ripped-off sleeves, accompanied by a young lady in a chiffon dress.

More to the point, though - more than half the women in the group were wearing black, and many of them were in evening clothes. Is it me? Did things change somewhere along the way? I thought black was supposed to send an unhappy message to the couple in question . . . remember hearing never to wear black to a wedding. (So I bought a new dress, even!) I look forward to your advice, dear Etiquetteer, for future occasions!

Dear Dressed:

First, Etquetteer has a message for anyone giving a Party of Some Ceremony like a wedding: don't be surprised when you tell people "Just wear whatever you want" when they actually do show up in whatever they want. It will be quite an education in some cases, to discover who does and doesn't have a Sense of Occasion! People really do want to be told what to wear; please provide appropriate, easy to understand instructions about what to wear. "Festive attire," for instance, is far too vague. It could mean anything from a Hawaiian shirt to a tuxedo with a colorful vest.

But to return to your original questions, no, it isn't you, and yes, things did change somewhere along the way. Along about 25 years ago, brides wanted bridal parties that looked more like what they considered sophisticated and less, well, bridal. Their unimaginative solution was black, conveniently forgetting (if they ever knew or cared in the first place) that black's traditional meaning in the West is that of mourning - or evil, you choose. Back in the day, wearing mourning was so ingrained in Society that etiquette writers had to specify that the one and only exception to it was to attend a wedding. Because to wear black to a wedding would indicate disapproval of the marriage it Simply Wasn't Done. Now, ladies don't care about symbolism; they just want to look sophisticated - or slim - and don't even hear Etiquetteer's plaintive cry to Consider Navy Blue instead.

Evening clothes before 5 PM have never been Perfectly Proper, but there's more than one wedding party that chooses to breeze right by this if the reception is going to begin after 5 PM.

And Etiquetteer is mighty tired of hearing from Compassionate Souls "Oh, it doesn't matter what people wear as long as everyone is treated with respect." What one wears is how to treat other people with respect.

In conclusion:

  • A dress code should be on the invitation.
  • If they tell you "Wear whatever you want," ask what they are wearing and be guided by that.
  • Consider Navy Blue instead of black.
  • Remain confident in your own choices even when you see others dressed differently.

Gift Cards in the Workplace, Vol. 16, Issue 47

Dear Etiquetteer:

You helped me so much with my [Insert Name of Popular Cookie Here] problem, a couple months back that I feel bad having to ask for your assistance once again but I am at a loss as to what to do.

Five weeks ago, I began a new job. It's the first 9-5 job I've had in over a decade so it took awhile to get acclimated to the workplace environment. But, my co-workers are nice.

Last week, my boss and her boss brought me into their office to tell me they thought I was doing a great job. As a reward for my hard work, they gave me a gift card to [Insert Name of Unavoidable Global Retailer Here]. It had $25 printed on it.

This past weekend, I tried to use the gift card to make a purchase on the company's website. To my surprise, the gift card wouldn't go through and an error message popped up on my screen: "This card has already been redeemed." I'm not sure what happened. My first guess was that my boss must have made a mistake when buying the card. Then, I thought maybe she was "re-gifting" me a card she, herself, had received.

Perhaps you can guess my dilemma. I'm thinking, "It's the thought that counts" and would never mention this to my boss, but friends and family think I should tell her because she may have spent the $25 to buy the card but somehow not completed the transaction.

To be honest, I'm not always the most confident person, so now I'm even wondering, did my boss do this on purpose? Am I NOT doing a great job?

Dear Gift-Carded:

Reading the end of your query, Etiquetteer immediately remembered the words of Cher in Moonstruck:

Of course you are doing a good job, and your boss and her boss think so, too! This is not some convoluted scheme to undermine your self-confidence and drive you, weak and quivering, over the Brink of Despair. Snap out of it!

And then (Etiquetteer is just full of diva quotes today) one must remember what Lena Horne said when being photographed for the Blackglama mink ads back in the 1970s: "A lady can never get enough mink off a gentleman." In this case, Etiquetteer interprets this Received Wisdom as being sure you receive all possible employee benefits in the workplace. While recognizing your interest in Not Making Trouble, it's better to mention this now so that your employers can address any possible issues with their source - and for all you know they got it directly from [Insert Name of Unavoidable Global Retailer Here]. But when you bring it up, do with with an air of Not Wanting to Make Trouble, which will inspire them to take care of the problem.

Etiquetteer wishes you joy in your new career. And who knows, as your employers get to know you and your work better, they may acknowledge you in future with a $25 package of [Insert Name of Popular Cookie Here]!

Doughnuts and Tipping, Vol. 16, Issue 42

Dear Etiquetteer:

Recently I told someone I was looking to share doughnuts made by [Insert Purveyor of Doughnuts Made with Bacon Here] with someone else and was yelled at - "Why are you planning eating that crap?!" - in a very condemning tone.  The person who spoke to me this way is very stressed and later explained about struggling to make healthy choices.  My question is how to supportively talk to this person about how being yelled at like that made me feel and to come up with a way for us to avoid this person's hot buttons.

Dear Doughnutted:

Everyone has their hot-button topics, and it's not always easy to know what they are until the hot button gets pressed. Reading your query, Etiquetteer was suddenly reminded of that line from the play Sexual Perversity in Chicago: "Men! They only want one thing . . . but it's never the same thing."

It sounds as though your friend at least attempted to apologize for that Sudden Outburst, but Etiquetteer doesn't really consider it enough under the circumstances. You could reopen the discussion by acknowledging how embarrassing it was to upset this person, since that wasn't your intention, and that it's probably best for you not to raise the issue of food in future conversations. This gives your friend another opening to apologize, after which you can say that you felt belittled and judged for making the choices you choose to make in your own life about Doughnuts Made with Bacon.

Etiquetteer must admit it was rather refreshing to read your query. Most differences between friends these days seem to be political rather than culinary.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I am clear that I do not need to tip my hairdresser annually because I tip her every time she cuts my hair.  I am also clear that I tip the cleaning crew 10% of my annual expense in cash to the leader of the crew on an annual basis.  The gray area for me is the people I see frequently, the swimming instructor, the personal trainer, the yoga teachers, the postmistress, whom I do not tip on a regular basis.  Because tipping professionals such as doctors, therapists, or dietitians may be considered an insult, I do not tip them.  Back to the trainers etc. what I am doing now is giving gift cards of moderate amounts.  What is your advice?

Dear Tipping:

You are correct that medical professionals are not tipped. But service personnel, like personal trainers who you employ regularly, are tipped annually (usually at Christmas or New Year's) in the same way that your domestic staff is. (Etiquetteer assumes that you are not tipping them after every training session.) Gift cards may be Perfectly Proper if they are to a business you already know they use regularly. But in professional relationships such as these, you can never go wrong with cash. Just be sure to put it in a nice envelope first.

Etiquetteer was surprised to see your inclusion of the postmistress in your list of service professionals. Etiquetteer was never aware that it was Perfectly Proper to tip the staff of the United States Postal Service. Read the Postal Service's official policy on their website.

Now let's get back to your hairdresser. You may not like hearing this, but it is, in fact, customary to tip one's hairdresser at Christmas or New Year's in the amount of one appointment. Yes, this is in addition to the $2-5 you tip at each appointment.


DBYO Refreshments, Vol. 16, Issue 38

Dear Etiquetteer:

My husband and I went to [Insert Name of Popular Seaside Resort Restaurant Here] for breakfast. Several groups of diners brought in coffee in paper cups. Isn't it rude to bring food from one establishment into another? I saw it a couple other times this summer. When did this start? I felt bad for the wait staff who had to clean up the paper cups. If the customer left them, I might say "Excuse, you left this cup. You brought it in. So I assume you want to take it home?"

Dear Breakfasting:

Etiquetteer does understand how important that first cup of coffee is every morning, especially at Popular Seaside Resorts. Nevertheless, it's never been Perfectly Proper to bring your own refreshments into a public establishment*. After all, restaurants are in business to make money by selling food and drink. Why on earth should they tolerate Interloping Caffeine?! Coffee Cup Capers like this need to stop at the restaurant entrance. Toss that cup in the trash, or at least refrain from going inside until you've savored every last drop.

Etiquetteer must restrain you from engaging in Disingenuous Banter with these scofflaws. It's already clear that they are Beyond Embarrassment, and you don't want to Cause a Scene. But it is tempting to contemplate lobbing that cup at them with a "Oh here, you forgot this!" That is why Rose Sayre said, in The African Queen, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this Earth to rise above."

*It's truly rude to do this in a private home unless the invitation has specified "pot luck" or "BYO."** It casts aspersions on the hospitality being offered. Etiquetteer's coffee-brewing prowess has been insulted this way more than once - but then Etiquetteer also recognizes that one of the beauties of Friendship is Mutual Forgiveness. And Etiquetteer's friends have so much for which to forgive That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much. . .

**Vegetarians follow the example of the late Gloria Swanson, who would slip her vegetarian sandwich (or whatever it was) to the butler on arrival, whispering "Please serve me this when everyone gets the entrée." Observe that she didn't go announcing it to All and Sundry, including the hostess, but handled it discreetly. You'll observe how helpful it is to have staff on occasions like this.


Wedding Invitations, Vol. 16, Issue 37

Dear Etiquetteer:

We received a wedding invitation last year that asked that no children under age 18 be brought to the wedding "to avoid frightening the groom!!" We did not attend but thought it a silly request OR a real fear on the bride's parents' part that the groom might bolt at the last moment! We have not received any traditional wedding invitations in such a long time that I've almost forgotten what one looks like!  One of the horrors of growing old . . . too many changes in too many ways and some of them so unbelievable!

Dear Invited:

At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, Etiquetteer really regrets the passing of the traditional, formal wedding invitation, written in third person from the parents of the bride and engraved (not printed!) by top-notch stationers like Tiffany & Co. and Crane's. A wedding is not Just Another Party. It's what Shakespeare used to refer to as a "solemnity," "a formal, dignified rite or ceremony," as in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "And then the Moon, like to a silver bow new bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities." The chain - uh, joining - of two souls for the remainder of their lives is not to be treated lightly.

Of course the formal forms have been necessarily adapted to today's blended families, and also to the reality of the Happy Couple being old enough to manage their own wedding all by themselves, thank you very much. Etiquetteer has become quite fond of the invitation that begins:

Together with their families,
Miss Dewy Freshness
Mr. Manley Firmness
request the honour of your presence, etc. etc.

Regarding the invitation you quoted, Etiquetteer has to wonder how much confusion it created with wedding guests who possessed children under the age of 18.

Joshing about one's Readiness for Marriage might be all right for the reception, but not for the invitation, and certainly not for a religious ceremony. But alas, Tradition is often seen as either Dull or Unoriginal or Both. Everyone is so busy being so Ostentatiously Different that we're forgetting That From Which We Wish to Differ.


READER RESPONSE, Vol. 16, Issue 34

Etiquetteer is always delighted to hear from readers, and recent columns have provoked some correspondence seeking clarity:

On Wedding Refreshments:

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? 

Etiquetteer responds:

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.

A Night at the Opera with Etiquetteer, Vol. 16, Issue 24

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.

Signs of the Times, Vol. 16, Issue 33

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."

Personal Grooming, or the Case of the Clipping Colleague, Vol. 16, Issue 32

Dear Etiquetteer:

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!

Dear Newbie:

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.