A Brief Meditation on How Etiquette Has Changed, Vol. 15, Issue 3

In Baby Face, one of the greatest films of her career, Barbara Stanwyck plays a beautiful blonde from the wrong side of the tracks who uses her Frankly Feminine Charms to Get to the Top of the Ladder, engorging male passions and breaking male hearts with every rung. About halfway up, she is shown reading a copy of Emily Post's Etiquette and quoting a bit to the mail boy about how butlers are supposed to hold out the chairs of ladies at a formal dinner.


Once upon a time, to Get to the Top meant behaving the way the Upper Half did, which is why etiquette books of the period focused so heavily on exactly how the Upper Half did what they did: communicate, entertain, travel, attend church, wear clothes, court, engage, marry, bear and raise children, and, yes, divorce. Emulating Perfect Propriety was seen as the path to Upward Mobility. Etiquette books - especially those by Mrs. Post and Lilian Eichler, but also Amy Vanderbilt and Millicent Fenwick - showed the way, Gospel and road map to success.

In the intervening 80 or so years since Baby Face, what has changed? Well, Etiquetteer certainly thinks that far fewer people care about Perfect Propriety any longer, or at least about how the Upper Half Lives. (Indeed, even the Upper Half don't care to live they way they traditionally did; one has only to look at Paris Hilton to know.) Though it pains Etiquetteer to admit this, sometimes the weight of etiquette grows so great that a generation will cast it off. Louis XIV set up such rigid codes of dress and behavior at Versailles that a revolution was necessary, so everyone could start over. The custom of calling cards and weekly "at home days" grew so elaborate that, starting after World War I, people slowly stopped bothering with it. So to did the custom of delivering a calling card in person the day after a party. As early as 1948 Millicent Fenwick noted in The Vogue Book of Etiquette that the custom of the formal dinner, or "dinner of ceremony," was fading out, too.

So has, in Etiquetteer's opinion, the upper class. In its place we have the celebrity class, and with very few exceptions, celebrities are not good exemplars of Perfect Propriety. Benedict Cumberbatch is without question the Celebrity Gentleman of the 21st century. Would that others would follow suit.


Photo of Etiquetteer by JWLenswerk.

But if Society at Large isn't taking its etiquette cues from the Upper Half, what kind of guidance is being sought? Etiquetteer thinks it's less about Form and Style, and more about Respect, Sincerity, and, alas, how to deal respectfully with Those Who Have No Manners. Instead of worrying about how many forks belong on the table for a multi-course dinner, we want to know how many smartphones can be kept off it without turning off the guests. One may be sure that Mrs. Post never had to write about how to get someone to turn down their iTunes on the subway!

Etiquetteer supposes this is all more helpful and refreshing, but it's decidedly less beautiful. It's so difficult to dress for dinner when one must cook it and clean up after it, too. On the other hand, extending a warm welcome to guests remains just as important as it did years before, whether you're in the drawing room in "full canonicals" or the kitchen in a novelty apron. And expressing thanks is just as important as it was before, though you'll still hear Etiquetteer sounding the call for Lovely Note over a Lovely Email or Text.*

*It should be noted that That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much hasn't even sent out his Christmas Lovely Notes of Thanks yet . . .