In Which Etiquetteer Splits His Pants, Vol. 15, Issue 5

The true test of etiquette is how well one reacts to the unexpected. When Life throws a curve ball, one must think both of the motto of the Boy Scouts, "Be prepared," and the words of Etiquetteer's beloved Congressional wife, Ellen Maury Slayden: "This is a test of breeding; keep cool." The other day Etiquetteer boarded the train home and took a vacant seat. First Etiquetteer heard a soft sound, rather difficult to describe, and then felt the train seat become a shade more comfortable. It was then that Etiquetteer came to the awful realization that that soft sound was really Etiquetteer's khakis giving way where they would create the most comic disadvantage: the seat.

The horror of the situation gave way to a rapid succession of thoughts: first, that Etiquetteer's stop on the train was not for some time, providing an opportunity for quiet contemplation of a solution; then, that Etiquetteer's short winter jacket would not conceal the damage done; gratitude for the daily habit of clean undergarments; and last, vain regret at not having begun a Post-Holiday Diet Regime.

Etiquetteer did at least Keep Calm and a Stiff Upper Lip, which helped provide enough clarity to, at last, identify a solution. Happily, Etiquetteer had some shopping in a paper shopping bag with some handles and, by holding it with both hands at the small of the back, could walk forward briskly and still conceal the Inappropriate Ventilation. While not unknown, that's still a Rare Posture, and Etiquetteer hoped to get home without exciting Unwelcome Attention. And nearly did, except for practically being tailed by a trolley of tourists for half a block, and the presence of neighbors in the foyer. But at least no one saw Anything They Oughtn't.

While the movies aren't a reliable source of etiquette advice, Etiquetteer must conclude this instructive story with the words of Igor in Young Frankenstein. When trouble comes, "Say nothing. Act casual."

smalletiquetteer

How Not to Celebrate National Underwear Day, Vol. 14, Issue 28

Good underwear, like good housekeeping, is what you don't notice . . . at least not out in the streets, where it could frighten the horses. Etiquetteer only just learned that August 5 is National Underwear Day, yet another of the Hallmark Holidays brought to us by Retail and the Internet. Through an unhappy coincidence, today Etiquetteer also witnessed two examples of How Not to Celebrate National Underwear Day (should you choose to do so):

EXHIBIT A: In the morning Etiquetteer observed a young woman wearing a red-and-white print shirtwaist dress walking through a train station. As it happened, the dress was less than opaque. An unnaturally wide dark line spoiled the print of her dress. On closer observation, Etiquetteer was horrified to discover that the wide dark line was, in fact, the waistband of a pair of thong underwear, and that this young woman's buttocks were clearly visible through her dress. The one point Etiquetteer could award her for Perfect Propriety was that at least it appeared her brassiere was the same color!

But first, a thong is always wrong, and even more important, underwear should not be visible through one's outer clothing. Otherwise one might be branded a slattern or worse. (Etiquetteer is frantic with frustration at not being able to find an illustrative clip from the Jean Harlow film Red-Headed Woman, in which she tries on a dress. JH: "Can you see through this?" Saleslady: "I'm afraid you can." JH: "Then I'll wear it!" She proceeds to break up a marriage.) Clearly it's time for the slip, once an essential undergarment for ladies, to make a comeback.

EXHIBIT B: Later in the day Etiquetteer saw a Young Man greet his Lady Fair on the public street. He wore a pair of white athletic shorts over a quite obvious pair of briefs with a bold black and white print shining through. They reminded Etiquetteer of hotel curtains, and for a while Etiquetteer wondered if Fraulein Maria had made them for him. White is always Perfectly Proper for summer, as the world knows. But if you're going to wear white, wear it on the inside and the outside.

Let's recap, then, some Rules for Wearing Underwear:

  • No one should know if you are, or are not, wearing underwear. It's no one's business. Don't make it their business.
  • Underwear should not be visible through outer clothing. If you're wearing white outside, wear plain white underneath.
  • Underwear should not be visible around outer clothing. Waistbands should be concealed by tucked-in shirts at the very least. Bra straps should not protrude from necklines.
  • If you're wearing more than one piece of underwear, such as a bra and panties, they should be the same color.
  • A thong is always wrong.

Really, the best way to celebrate National Underwear Day is probably just to buy, without fanfare, one or more pairs of underwear. Etiquetteer feels sure that's why Retail and the Internet gave us this holiday in the first place.

no-nogloves

Sheer Impropriety, Vol. 12, Issue 11

Etiquetteer really hadn't given Gwyneth Paltrow a thought since Shakespeare in Love, but she has now been forced on Etiquetteer's attention due to an Unfortunate Fashion Choice. For the premiere of Iron Man III, La Paltrow chose an Antonio Berardi gown distinguished - if that is the word - by neck to floor panels of sheer black on each side. The gown was designed in such a way that she could not wear underwear under it, and it need hardly be said that a Lady does not call attention to her lingerie, or lack of it. As if that weren't Lacking in Taste enough, La Paltrow's stylist leapt into the fray with the usual fluffy public relations denials along the lines of "It's daring in a no-daring way," "It's spirit without being vulgar," "You don't see a whole lot of false fakeness going on there like some other people," etc. To which Etiquetteer can only suggest that they must be showing us the real fakeness. The late Oscar Levant once said "Scratch the fake tinsel of Hollywood and you'll find the real tinsel underneath." Etiquetteer can only agree.

But the real coup de grace for Etiquetteer was later in the article, recounting La Paltrow talking about this dress with Ellen DeGeneres on the latter's talk show - and the unexpected grooming required to wear a sheer dress with no underwear. As Miss Sweet Brown taught us, "Ain't nobody got time f'that!" Is this what we've come to, America, frank discussion of pubic grooming on national television? You may be sure that Etiquetteer had to go lie down after reading that.

Please, ladies - please! Etiquetteer certainly doesn't want to prevent you from making the best advantage of your physiques if you wish to do so, but good tailoring and fitting will go much further than the overuse of sheer fabric. Perhaps it is time for satin to make a comeback; Etiquetteer remembers the late Anais Nin writing about the skill of French tailors making black satin flow like liquid over a woman's body. Or something like that.

A couple other examples of sheer fashion in history also didn't end well. At the 1969 Academy Awards, Barbra Streisand was persuaded by designer Arnold Scaasi to wear a sheer black pantsuit to the ceremony. The triple layer of tulle did too little to conceal La Streisand's undergarments. Indeed, her pantyline was made even more prominent when she tripped going up the steps to the stage. The late Mr. Blackwell accused her of mooning the audience. You be the judge by viewing the film clip here. The conventional wisdom, "You can never go wrong with a classic," is still Sound Advice.

A much more scandalous occasion took place much further back in time when Elizabeth Chudleigh, a lady-in-waiting in the court of George II, showed up dressed as Iphigenia at a court masquerade with at least her breasts bared, and nothing else left to the imagination. A couple different interpretations of what she wore may be found here. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was said to have remarked that her tunic was so disengaged "the sacrificial priest would have no trouble finding her entrails." (Etiquetteer is gnashing his teeth in rage at not being able to cite the source.) Her Sauciness attracted the attention of the king, who asked if he could touch her exposed breast. She replied, "Your Majesty, I can put it in a far softer place," and brought his hand to his own head. Etiquetteer marvels that this is actually history and not from an episode of "Tales of Ribaldry" with Jon Lovitz.

Etiquetteer can only conclude that those beautiful sheer fabrics are best left in the bedroom.

Kindly send your own style-related questions to Etiquetteer at queries_at_etiquetteer.com.

Random Issues and Commentary, Vol. 12, Issue 5

Dear Etiquetteer: When someone sees a bit of food on your face, or a smudge or something else that shouldn't be there, should they tell you about it? Even if it's small?

Dear Smudged:

The question isn't the size of the apparent Impediment to Perfection, but the ability to do something about it. For instance, Etiquetteer has on more than one occasion come home from a party with a dark green bit of spanikopita on his teeth, which would have been easy to remove had someone quietly said, "Etiquetteer, you have a bit of spinach in your teeth." On the other hand, Etiquetteer, like many men, occasionally cuts himself shaving. When the answer to "You have something on your chin" is "It's a scab; I cut myself shaving," you've overstepped.

Etiquetteer should hasten to add that it's impertinent of a gentleman to inform a lady who is a stranger to him of anything out of place about her. These days such "helpfulness" is too easily misconstrued as harrassment.

Unfortunately, the threat of being expelled from Best Society no longer deters people from behaving badly in public. Several instances have appeared in the news today:

  • Students at Tufts University were reprimanded for excessive drunkenness and public urination at the Tufts Winter Bash at a Boston hotel. Do you know why Emily Post, Lillian Eichler, Amy Vanderbilt, and other 20th-century etiquette writers never had to specify that ladies and gentlemen never urinated in plain view? BECAUSE PEOPLE KNEW BETTER. Etiquetteer blames Woodstock. If it were up to Etiquetteer, these students would be expelled. In the meantime, Etiquetteer hopes that Tufts will choose a less violent name for their winter dance than "bash."
  • Some good clean fraternity fun veered into Imperfect Propriety when a University of Michigan fraternity was suspended indefinitely for using a semi-nude photo in a party invitation. The photo features a row of ten Pi Kappa Alpha brothers wearing only a very thin American flag. While Etiquetteer chooses not to doubt the intentions of these young men - although one of them does appear to be enjoying himself a bit too much - Etiquetteer does have to disapprove. You see, the photo was used in a party invitation to a sorority, and this Image of Implied Nudity can easily be construed as Forcing One's Attention on a Lady, which as we know is Simply Not Done. A photograph of the brothers fully dressed would not have been offensive. Etiquetteer hopes this Error in Judgment will be rectified soon.
  • The Black Mental Health Alliance has launched an ad campaign emphasizing the legal penalties of sagging. For those who might be unaware, sagging is the practice of wearing one's pants below the waist, often to such a degree that they are completely below the buttocks - exposing undergarments, and often more. Etiquetteer agrees with rapper Tamara Bubble, quoted as saying "Sagging should stop now. Girls don’t like it and people don’t take you seriously in general. You can’t get job with it. If you go to court with it, you’re probably going to lose your case. In all aspects of life, it’s not healthy." But even Etiquetteer questions the penalties mentioned: a $300 fine and up to three years in jail. Etiquetteer can only imagine the hue and cry there would be if such a campaign was put into place for those who wear pajamas in public* - a practice that is carried out by too many people of all races.
  • Then there's the report of Judy H. Viger, the 33-year-old mother who hired strippers for her son's sixteenth birthday party. CAUTION: The linked article includes what most people would call a "Not Safe For Work image" and what Etiquetteer calls Most Indelicate. From the article: "The dancers stripped to thong underwear and bras and gave lap dances to some of the teenagers." The article also mentions that this party was held at a bowling alley, and it isn't clear that it was in a private lane. Ms. Viger has been arrested, and Etiquetteer would like to see her sentenced to public service working with victims of sexual abuse.

And that should be Quite Enough from Etiquetteer tonight! Now go forward and sin no more.

*Of course Etiquetteer exempts those going to or from a pajama brunch, but it is advisable not to run errands along the way.

Seven Actions for Perfect Propriety in Public Life in the New Year, Vol. 12, Issue 2

Here we are, embarked on a New Year, and Etiquetteer is working hard to maintain a Feeling of Hope for increasing Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer has identified seven areas -- some simple, some quixotic -- where action should be taken. At once. 1. Homeowner associations (HOAs) need to write exceptions into their governing documents allowing homeowners to display the American flag on or from their properties without being fined or censured. Every year an HOA makes the news when it sues or fines a homeowner who displays an American flag on his or her property against the HOA rules about decorations and displays. These stories are even more poignant when the flag is tattered or in otherwise less-than-perfect condition, usually because of its association with a family member who died in service to this nation. If you live in an HOA, take the initiative now to modify your bylaws to permit display of the American flag on one's property.

2. Anyone who has charge of an escalator, whether it's in a shopping mall, transportation hub, government or office building, or any other public place, needs to be sure that every rider knows that standing is on the right, and passing is on the left. This can be achieved with signage or a painted line down the center.

3. Retailers need to stop colonizing private life and pandering to our baser instincts by scheduling outrageous sales events on holidays - and we need to stop letting them do it by buying into this manufactured "excitement." Etiquetteer was outraged that some retailers actually scheduled some sales to begin on Thanksgiving Day Itself, and appalled viewing some of the video footage of the Black Friday mélee. Etiquetteer has extreme difficulty reconciling this with the True Spirit of Christmas. If it was up to Etiquetteer -- which, of course, it ought to be -- Black Friday sales would not be allowed to begin until 10:00 AM on Friday. Even if the retailers don't, Etiquetteer wants you to make the commitment to refrain from shopping on holidays.

4. Unfortunately, Western civilization has reached such a low level of sloth, selfishness, or contempt that more and more people don't care about being properly dressed in public. Indeed, many don't even know what proper dress is. With great reluctance, Etiquetteer must endorse the use of instructional signage, such as "No Visible Undergarments" and "No Sleepwear" so that standards can be reinforced.

5. Theatres and concert halls need to enforce more vigorously the rule not to use recording devices of any kind (cameras, recorders, smartphones, etc.) during concerts. Anyone who has ever had their view of a performance blocked by rows of upraised arms with iPhones will appreciate this. Etiquetteer believes that violators should be evicted, which means that ushers will need to be more vigilant and prowl the aisles during performances more often. (It is interesting to muse on how differently Woodstock might have affected Western culture if everyone there had had a smartphone or videocamera. Etiquetteer is mighty relieved they didn't.)

6. The battle between drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians must stop. To quote Stu Ackerman, "There is only 'we.' 'Them' is a hallucination born of fear." Everyone has the same goal: to get wherever they're going as quickly as possible. Etiquetteer would like them to get there as safely as possible, too. And this means being aware of one's own situation and of other travelers around one. For pedestrians, it means looking left, right, and left again before walking across the street -- and only at intersections. For drivers, it means knowing where one is going before getting in the car and relying on an often-faulty GPS. For cyclists, it means awareness that both pedestrians and drivers, through no fault of their own, will have to cross the bike lane. For all it means putting away one's electronic devices so that one can travel with full concentration and without distraction! Etiquetteer's heart has leapt into his mouth more than once seeing a pedestrian blithely walk into an intersection while staring intently at a smartphone screen, or a driver making a sharp left turn with one hand on the wheel and cellphone held to the ear. In summary, no one group of travelers is evil, as many would like to think. Rather, there are impatient and inattentive travelers in each group. Etiquetteer urges you to represent the best aspects of your particular Mode of Travel.

7. If parents are not going to enforce Perfect Propriety in their children when dining out, restaurants are going to start having to do it for them by either asking them to leave, being sure they know not to come back until the children can behave, or banning children altogether. While hastily acknowledging the very many good and attentive parents who understand and train their children well, Etiquetteer must note that the legions of oblivious and ineffective parents make dining out difficult for everyone.* The stories from waiters and waitresses (one need only search the Web) can curl one's hair.

And that, as they say, is that. Etiquetteer welcomes your Perfectly Proper queries resulting from these recommendations at queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.

*It's worth noting, too, that every time Etiquetteer sees a news story about Chuck E. Cheese, it's because grownups started a brawl there.

George Washington 2.0, Vol. 11, Issue 5

In honor of Presidents Day, and the Father of our Country's birthday on February 22, Etiquetteer is going to update parts of George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Etiquetteer bets you didn't even know George Washington wrote an etiquette book! He copied 110 maxims when he was only 14. Several of these have to do with precedence and are, shall we say, overly exaggerated for the 21st century. But others remain classic at the core, and need to be restated. For instance:

GW 1.0: "7th, Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half-dressed.

GW 2.0: The idea is, you show respect for others by looking put together in public. Don't leave the house until you're completely dressed; for ladies this means completely made up, too. No one should have to see these things in action: mascara wands, buttons, belts, and especially underwear. Say no to the fashion of sagging! Say no to gaposis! And, as Etiquetteer mentioned earlier this year, don't wear your pajamas in public!

GW 1.0: "18th, Read no letters, books, or papers in company; but when there is necessity for the doing of it, you must ask leave."

GW 2.0: George's essential truth is still sound, that the person with you in person is more important than the person with you through another medium. Do not text or take or make phone calls in the presence of others, especially at the table, unless you ask permission first. This is especially difficult at table, or in a car, when your prisoners - um, Etiquetteer means companions - might be unable to continue talking themselves while waiting on you.

GW 1.0: "22nd, Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy" and "23rd, When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased, but always show pity to the suffering offender."

GW 2.0: Refrain from flaming on online comment boards, especially anonymously. It's no surprise that people give in to their baser instincts when their identities are concealed. Such behavior does, however, brand one a coward.This is only one reason you'll never see a comment board here at etiquetteer.com (not that readers of Etiquetteer behave that way, of course.)

GW 1.0: "48th, Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precept."

GW 2.0: Simply put, "Practice what you preach." It is very bad form, for instance, to advocate for the sanctity of marriage when one has been divorced, and certainly when one has been divorced more than once.

GW 1.0: "50th, Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any" and "79th, Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof."

GW 2.0: Don't trust what you read on the Internet and do your own research. Sad to say, partisans on every side of the political spectrum, in their eagerness to paint as dark a picture as possible of their opponents, do not adhere as zealously to Truth as they ought. Inflammatory email that gets circulated and recirculated, charts and graphs that appear on social media such as Facebook, more often than not contain errors of fact, bald or nuanced. All this has led Etiquetteer to take refuge in the pages of The Economist.

GW 1.0: "110th, Labour to keep alive in your breast the little celestial fire called conscience."

GW 2.0: No change needed for GW 2.0. This little phrase still summarizes the entire book perfectly.

Mother’s Day, Vol. 5, Issue 18

Baby Etiquetteer with Dear Mother, 1964

 Etiquetteer came to a much better understanding of his own dear mother when chancing upon Miss Behavior: Popularity, Poise and Personality for the Teenage Girl. This peppy little volume, alternating between wisdom and naivete while attempting to sound "hep," was published right around the time Etiquetteer’s dear mother graduated from high school. Let’s just say it was after the war . . . and no, Etiquetteer does not mean the War of Northern Aggression!Miss Behavior takes us back to a time when teenage girls made their own clothes and wore suits to school, when fathers worked outside the home and mothers kept it, and when people of all ages still listened to the same music. This was a time before Elvis Presley and rock music, and LONG before fashions like extreme body piercings, tattoos, and "grunge" would ever have been permitted in the middle class. This was a time, in other words, when teenagers were expected to behave like adults.Indeed, the idea of being "respectable" was even more important thanappearing respectable, but both clearly went hand in hand. Wholesomeness was seen not only as desirable in itself, but also as attractive to boys . . . and of course nothing could be more important than that! Today’s role models like Lady Guy Ritchie and Mrs. Kevin Federline just don’t project wholesomeness. And indeed, with slang like "ho" and "beeyatch" making their way into white middle-class culture, one can only wonder when being respectable will again be fashionable.Hilarious anecdotes illustrate these points. One teenage femme fatale from the Big City visits rural relatives complete with off-the-shoulder lounge pajamas and foot-long cigarette holder. All that put-on sophistication loses her a date with the star quarterback from her own high school, visiting her cousin’s boyfriend that same weekend! Another girl, a forward flirt, gets saved from date rape by the "warden of the woods" after her date drives her into a local forest. Of course the situation is all her own fault for not behaving herself in the first place . . .Girls were exhorted to bypass bottled shampoos with harmful chemicals in favor of grated Castile soap melted over the stove in a saucepan, or warm olive oil to get rid of dandruff. Girls were to spend every Saturday morning going over their wardrobes and mending underwear, darning stockings, and replacing buttons. Spending time every night in a quiet space for homework was essential. And of course one must save time for eight hours of restful sleep! Now that teenage girls are getting their tongues pierced and having babies out of wedlock, wouldn’t you agree this seems quaint?Into this atmosphere Etiquetteer’s dear mother came of age, and she exemplifies all its best qualities. Mother is a mistress of the bread-and-butter letter, a talented seamstress, and superior cook, and a welcoming hostess. Throughout her history – Vietnam, Watergate, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, September 11, and the rise of hoydens like Courtney Love – Mother has retained her wholesomeness, her integrity, her belief that the world is and can continue to be a good place. What better qualities could a mother need today?

Etiquetteer and Dear Mother, Mother's Day, 2006

 And speaking of the kind of advice only a mother can give: Dear Etiquetteer: My most recent etiquette challenge was sitting outside on the benches in front of a college student center and noticing a young lady who was wearing wide-legged shorts. Her knees were folded up towards her chest and she was giving more of a view than she realized. I did not want to know that she was not wearing underwear and since my companion was male I did not mention it to anyone at the time. In what circumstances and how could I have told her what was happening? Dear Viewing:This is the first time Etiquetteer has ever heard about this particular problem with a female; Etiquetteer thought only men "went commando!" Now do you all know why your mothers told you not to leave the house without clean underwear on?Once upon a time, before ladies wore shorts at all, if a lady saw another lady's slip showing she'd discreetly whisper to her "It's snowing down south." Etiquetteer can only imagine what the equivalent could be in THIS situation; reader suggestions are welcome! You were discreet and wise not to mention anything to this unwitting exhibitionist in front of your male friend, especially since she was a total stranger to you. Had you been on your own, however, you might have approached her quietly and said "Excuse me, you'd probably better put your knees down. You don't realize how much people can see." Etiquetteer thinks these sorts of things are best left between ladies.

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