Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fundamental Principles of Victorian Etiquette

"Courtesy is the beautiful part of morality, justice carried to the utmost, rectitude refined, magnanimity in trifles." Life Illustrated


Good manners and good morals are founded on the same eternal principles of right, and are only different expressions of the same great truths. Both grow out of the necessities of our existence and relations. We have individual rights based on the fact of our individual being; and we have social duties resulting from our connection, in the bonds of society, with other individuals who have similar rights. Morals and manners alike, while they justify us in asserting and maintaining our own rights, require us scrupulously to respect, in word and act, the rights of others. It is true that the former, in the common comprehension of the term, is satisfied with simple justice in all our relations, while the latter often requires something more than the strictest conscientiousness can demand--a yielding of more than half the road--an exercise of the sentiment of benevolence, as well as of equity; but the highest morality really makes the same requisition, for it includes politeness, and recognizes deeds of kindness as a duty.


In this country we need no incitements to the assertion and maintenance of our rights, whether individual or national. We are ready at all times to do battle for them either with the tongue, the pen, or the sword, as the case may require. Even women have discovered that they have rights, and he must be a bold man indeed who dares call them in question. Yes, we all, men, women, and children, have rights, and are forward enough in claiming then. Are we equally ready to respect the rights of others?


Out of rights grow duties; the first of which is to live an honest, truthful, self-loyal life, acting and speaking always and everywhere in accordance with the laws of our being, as revealed in our own physical and mental organization. It is by the light of this fact that we must look upon all social requirements, whether in dress, manners, or morals. All that is fundamental and genuine in these will be found to harmonize with universal principles, and consequently with our primary duty in reference to ourselves. 

1. The Senses 


Whenever and wherever we come in contact with our fellow-men, there arises a question of rights, and consequently of duties. We have alluded incidentally to some of them, in speaking of habits and dress. The senses of each individual have their rights, and it is your duty to respect them. The eye has a claim upon you for so much of beauty in form, color, arrangement, position, and movement as you are able to present to it. A French author has written a book, the aim of which is to show that it is the duty of a pretty woman to look pretty. It is the duty of all women, and all men too, to look and behave just as well as they can, and whoever fails in this, fails in good manners and in duty. The ear demands agreeable tones and harmonious combinations of tones--pleasant words and sweet songs. If you indulge in loud talking, in boisterous and untimely laughter, or in profane or vulgar language, or sing out of tune, you violate its rights and offend good manners. The sense of smell requires pleasant odors for its enjoyment. Fragrance is its proper element. To bring the fetid odor of unwashed feet or filthy garments, or the stench of bad tobacco or worse whisky, or the offensive scent of onions or garlics within its sphere, is an act of impoliteness. The sense of taste asks for agreeable flavors, and has a right to the best we can give in the way of palatable foods and drinks. The sense of feeling, though less cultivated and not so sensitive as the others, has its rights too, and is offended by too great coarseness, roughness, and hardness. It has a claim on us for a higher culture.

2. The Faculties 


And if the senses have their rights, we must admit that the higher faculties and feelings of our nature are at least equally dowered in this respect. You can not trespass upon one of them without a violation of good manners. We can not go into a complete exposition of the "bill of rights" of each. You can analyze them for yourself, and learn the nature of their claims upon you. In the mean time, we will touch upon a point or two here and there.

3. Opinions


Each person has a right to his or her opinions, and to the expression of them on proper occasions, and there is no duty more binding upon us all than the most complete and respectful toleration. The author of "The Illustrated Manners Book" truly says: "Every denial of, or interference with, the personal freedom or absolute rights of another, is a violation of good manners. He who presumes to censure me for my religious belief, or want of belief; who makes it a matter of criticism or reproach that I am a Theist or Atheist, Trinitarian or Unitarian, Catholic or Protestant, Pagan or Christian, Jew, Mohammedan, or Mormon, is guilty of rudeness and insult. If any of these modes of belief make me intolerant or intrusive, he may resent such intolerance or repel such intrusion; but the basis of all true politeness and social enjoyment is the mutual tolerance of personal rights."

4. The Sacredness of Privacy


Here is another passage from the author just quoted which is so much to the point that we can not forbear to copy it: "One of the rights most commonly trespassed upon constituting a violent breach of good manners, is the right of privacy, or of the control of one's own person and affairs. There are places in this country where there exists scarcely the slightest recognition of this right. A man or woman bolts into your house without knocking. No room is sacred unless you lock the door, and an exclusion would be an insult. Parents intrude upon children, and children upon parents. The husband thinks he has a right to enter his wife's room, and the wife would feel injured if excluded, by night or day, from her husband's. It is said that they even open each others letters, and claim, as a right, that neither should have any secrets from the other. "It in difficult to conceive of such a state of intense barbarism in a civilized country, such a denial of the simplest and most primitive rights, such an utter absence of delicacy and good manners; and had we not been assured on good authority that such things existed, we should consider any suggestions respecting them needless and impertinent.

"Each person in a dwelling should, if possible, have a room as sacred from intrusion as the house is to the family. No child, grown to years of discretion, should be outraged by intrusion. No relation, however intimate, can justify it. So the trunks, boxes, packets, papers, and letters of every individual, locked or unlocked, sealed or unsealed, are sacred. It is ill manners even to open a book-case, or to read a written paper lying open, without permission expressed or implied. Books in an open case or on a center-table, cards in a card-case, and newspapers, are presumed to be open for examination. Be careful where you go, what you read, and what you handle, particularly in private apartments." This right to privacy extends to one's business, his personal relations, his thoughts, and his feelings. Don't intrude; and always "mind your own business," which means, by implication, that you must let other people's business alone. 

5. Conformity 


You must conform, to such an extent as not to annoy and give offense, to the customs, whether in dress or other matters, of the circle in which you move. This conformity is an implied condition in the social compact. It is a practical recognition of the right of others, and shows merely a proper regard for their opinions and feelings. If you can not sing in tune with the rest, or on the same key, remain silent. You may be right and the others wrong but that does not alter the case. Convince them, if you can, and bring them to your pitch, but never mar even a low accord. So if you can not adapt your dress and manners to the company in which you find yourself, the sooner you take your leave the better. You may and should endeavor, in a proper way, to change such customs and fashions as you may deem wrong, or injurious in their tendency, but, in the mean time, you have no right to violate them. You may choose your company, but, having chosen it, you must conform to its rules til you can change them. You are not compelled to reside in Rome; but if you choose to live there, you must "do as the Romans do." The rules which should govern your conduct, as an isolated individual, were such a thing as isolation possible in the midst of society, are modified by your relations to those around you. 

This life of ours is a complex affair, and our greatest errors arise from our one-side views of it. We are sovereign individuals, and are born with certain "inalienable rights;" but we are also members of that larger individual society, and our rights can not conflict with the duties which grow out of that relation. If by means of our non-conformity we cause ourselves to be cut off, like an offending hand, or plucked out, like an offending eye, our usefulness is at once destroyed. It is related of a certain king that on a particular occasion he turned his tea into his saucer, contrary to his custom and to the etiquette of society, because two country ladies, whose hospitalities he was enjoying, did so. That king was a gentleman; and this anecdote serves to illustrate an important principle; namely, that true politeness and genuine good manners often not only permit, but absolutely demand, a violation of some of the arbitrary rules of etiquette.  The highest law demands complete HARMONY in all spheres and in all relations. 



In the qualified sense which no doubt Mr. Jefferson affixed to the term in his own mind, "all men are created free and equal." The "noble Oracle" himself had long before as explicitly asserted the natural equality of man. In 1739, thirty-seven years before the Declaration of Independence was penned, Lord Chesterfield wrote: "We are of the same species, and no distinction whatever is between us, except that which arises from fortune. For example, your footman and Lizette would be your equals were they as rich as you. Being poor, they are obliged to serve you. Therefore you must not add to their misfortune by insulting or ill-treating them. A good heart never reminds people of their misfortune, but endeavors to alleviate, or, if possible, to make them forget it." The writer in Life Illustrated, quoted in a previous chapter, states the case very clearly as follows: "It is in the sacredness of their rights that men are equal. The smallest injustice done to the smallest man on earth is an offense against all men; an offense which all men have a personal and equal interest in avenging. If John Smith picks my pocket, the cause in court is correctly entitled, 'The PEOPLE versus John Smith.' The whole State of New York has taken up my quarrel with John, and arrays itself against John in awful majesty; because the pockets, the interests, the rights of a man are infinitely, and therefore equally, sacred. "The conviction of this truth is the beginning and basis of the science of republican etiquette, which acknowledges no artificial distinctions. Its leading principle is, that courtesy is due to all men from all men; from the servant to the served; from the served to the servant; and from both for precisely the same reason, namely, because both are human beings and fellow-citizens!"



We purpose, in succeeding chapters, to set forth briefly but clearly, what the actual requirements of good society are in reference to behavior. You must look at these in the light of the general principles we have already laid down. It is not for us to say how far you ought or can conform to any particular custom, usage, or rule of etiquette. We believe that even the most arbitrary and capricious of them either have or have had a reason and a meaning. In many cases, however, the reason may no longer exist, and the form be meaningless; or while it embodies what is a living truth to others, you may have outgrown it or advanced beyond it. You have an undoubted right, politely but firmly, to decline to do what seems to you, looking upon the matter from your highest stand-point, to be clearly wrong, and it is no breach of good manners to do so; but at the same time you should avoid, as far as possible, putting yourself in positions which call for the exercise of this right. If you can not conscientiously wear a dress coat, or a stove-pipe hat, or cut your hair, or eat flesh-meat, or drink wine, you will naturally avoid, under ordinary circumstances, the circles in which non-conformity in these matters would be deemed a breach of good manners. When it is necessary that you should mingle with people whose customs you can not follow in all points without a violation of principle, you will courteously, and with proper respect for what they probably think entirely right, fall back upon the "higher law;" but if it is a mere matter of gloved or ungloved hands, cup or saucer, fork or knife, you will certainly have the courtesy and good sense to conform to usage.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Victorian Etiquette: Correct Personal Habits

Lady in striped dress with a hat and an umbrella, Newark, NJ, 1880s


"From little matters let us pass to less, And lightly touch the mysteries of dress; The outward forms the inner man reveal; We guess the pulp before we eat the peel." —O. W. Holmes.


Dress has its language, which is, or may be, read and understood by all. It is one of the forms in which we naturally give expression to our tastes, our constructive faculties, our reason, our feelings, our habits—in a word, to our character, as a whole. This expression is often greatly modified by the arbitrary laws of Fashion, and by circumstances of time, place, and condition, which we can not wholly control; but can hardly be entirely falsified. Even that arch tyrant, the reigning Mode, whatever it may be, leaves us little room for choice in materials, forms, and colors, and the choice we make indicates our prominent traits of character.



Playing croquet

"Dress," that admirable Art Journal the Crayon says, "has two functions—to clothe and to ornament; and while we can not lose sight of either point, we must not attribute to the one a power which belongs to the other. The essential requirement of dress is to cover and make comfortable the body, and of two forms of dress which fulfill this function equally well, that is the better which is most accordant with the laws of beauty. But fitness must in nowise be interfered with; and the garb which infringes on this law gives us pain rather than pleasure. We believe that it will be found that fitness and beauty, so far from requiring any sacrifice for combination, are found each in the highest degree where both are most fully obtained—that the fittest, most comfortable dress is that which is most graceful or becoming. Fitness is the primary demand; and the dress that appears uncomfortable is untasteful.

"But in the secondary function of dress, ornamentation, there are several diverse objects to be attained—dignity, grace, vivacity, brilliancy, are qualities distinguishing different individuals, and indicating the impression they wish to make on society, and are expressed by different combinations of the elements of beauty, line, or form, and color. When the appareling of the outer being is in most complete harmony with the mental constitution, the taste is fullest."




True art adapts dress to its uses, as indicated in the foregoing extract. It is based on universal principles fundamental to all art.

The art-writer already quoted says, very truly, that "Dress is always to be considered as secondary to the person." This is a fundamental maxim in the art of costume, but is often lost sight of, and dress made obtrusive at the expense of the individuality of the wearer. A man's vest or cravat must not seem a too important part of him. Dress may heighten beauty, but it can not create it. If you are not better and more beautiful than your clothes you are, indeed, a man or a woman of straw.

The next principle to be regarded is the fitness of your costume, in its forms materials, and colors, to your person and circumstances, and to the conditions of the time, place and occasion on which it is to be worn. Fashion often compels us to violate this principle, and dress in the most absurd, incongruous, unbecoming, and uncomfortable style. A little more self-respect and independence, however, would enable us to resist many of her most preposterous enactments. But Fashion is not responsible for all the incongruities in dress with which we meet. They are often the result of bad taste and affectation.

The first demand of this law of fitness is, that your costume shall accord with your person. The young and the old, we all instinctively know, should not dress alike. Neither should the tall and the short, the dark and the light, the pale and the rosy, the grave and the gay, the tranquil and the vivacious. Each variety of form, color, and character has its appropriate style; but our space here is too limited to allow us to do more than drop a hint toward what each requires, to produce the most harmonious and effective combination. In another work, now in the course of preparation, this important subject will be treated in detail.

"In form, simplicity and long, unbroken lines give dignity, while complicated and short lines express vivacity. Curves, particularly if long and sweeping, give grace while straight lines and angles indicate power and strength. In color, unity of tint gives repose—if somber, gravity but if light and clear, then a joyous serenity—variety of tint giving vivacity, and if contrasted, brilliancy."

Longitudinal stripes in a lady's dress make her appear taller than she really is, and are therefore appropriate for persons of short stature. Tall women, for this reason, should never wear them. Flounces are becoming to tall persons, but not to short ones. The colors worn should be determined by the complexion, and should harmonize with it. "Ladies with delicate rosy complexions bear white and blue better than dark colors, while sallow hues of complexion will not bear these colors near them, and require dark, quiet, or grave colors to improve their appearance. Yellow is the most trying and dangerous of all, and can only be worn by the rich-toned, healthy-looking brunette."

In the second place, there should be harmony between your dress and your circumstances. It should accord with your means, your house, your furniture, the place in which you reside, and the society in which you move.
Ladies in Walking Dresses; “... your costume should be suited to the time, place, and occasion on which it is to be worn.”

Thirdly, your costume should be suited to the time, place, and occasion on which it is to be worn. That summer clothes should not be worn in winter, or winter clothes in summer, every one sees clearly enough. The law of fitness as imperatively demands that you should have one dress for the kitchen, the field, or the workshop, and another, and quite a different one, for the parlor; one for the street and another for the carriage, one for a ride on horseback and another for a ramble in the country. Long, flowing, and even trailing skirts are beautiful and appropriate in the parlor, but in the muddy streets, draggling in the filth, and embarrassing every movement of the wearer, or in the country among the bushes and briers, they lose all their beauty and grace, because no longer fitting. 

The prettiest costume we have ever seen for a shopping excursion or a walk in the city, and especially for a ramble in the country, is a short dress or frock reaching to the knee, and trowsers of the common pantaloon form, but somewhat wider. Full Turkish trowsers might be worn with this dress, but are less convenient. The waist or body of the dress is made with a yoke and belt, and pretty full. The sleeves should be gathered into a band and buttoned at the wrist. A saque or a basque of a different color from the waist has a fine effect as a part of this costume. Add to it a gipsy hat and good substantial shoes or boots, and you may walk with ease, grace, and pleasure. This was the working and walking costume of the women of the North American Phalanx, and is still worn on the domain which once belonged to that Association, though the institution which gave it its origin has ceased to exist. If you reside in a place where you can adopt this as your industrial and walking costume, without too much notoriety and odium, try it. You must judge of this for yourself. 

We are telling you what is fitting, comfortable, and healthful, and therefore, in its place, beautiful, and not what it is expedient for you to wear. The time is coming when such a costume may be worn anywhere. Rational independence, good taste, and the study of art are preparing the way for the complete overthrow of arbitrary fashion. Help us to hasten the time when both women and men shall be permitted to dress as the eternal principles, harmony, and beauty dictate, and be no longer the slaves of the tailor and the dressmaker.

But without adopting any innovations liable to shock staid conservatism or puritanic prudery, you may still, in a good measure, avoid the incongruities which we are now compelled to witness, and make your costume accord with place and occupation.

In the field, garden, and workshop, gentlemen can wear nothing more comfortable and graceful than the blouse. It may be worn loose or confined by a belt. If your occupation is a very dusty one, wear overalls. In the counting-room and office, gentlemen wear frock-coats or sack coats. They need not be of very fine material, and should not be of any garish pattern. In your study or library, and about the house generally, on ordinary occasions, a handsome dressing-gown is comfortable and elegant.

A lady, while performing the morning duties of her household may wear a plain loose dress, made high in the neck, and with long sleeves fastened at the wrist. It must not look slatternly, and may be exceedingly beautiful and becoming.
In reference to ornament, "the law of dress," to quote our artist-friend again, "is, that where you want the eye of a spectator to rest (for we all dress for show), you should concentrate your decoration, leaving the parts of the apparel to which you do not want attention called, as plain and negative as possible—not ugly, as some people, in an affectation of plainness, do (for you have no right to offend the eye of your fellow-man with any thing which is ugly), but simply negative."



Ladies in outdoor dresses, in the 1880s
The materials of which your clothes are made should be the best that your means will allow. One generally exercises a very bad economy and worse taste in wearing low-priced and coarse materials. For your working costume, the materials should of course correspond with the usage to which they are to be subjected. They should be strong and durable, but need not therefore be either very coarse or at all ugly. As a general rule, it costs no more to dress well than ill.

A gentleman's shirts should always be fine, clean, and well-fitted. It is better to wear a coarse or threadbare coat than a disreputable shirt. The better taste and finer instincts of the ladies will require no hint in reference to their "most intimate appareling." True taste, delicacy, and refinement regards the under clothing as scrupulously as that which is exposed to view.

The coverings of the head and the feet are important and should by no means be inferior to the rest of your apparel. Shoes are better than boots, except in cases where the latter are required for the protection of the feet and ankles against water, snow, or injury from briers, brambles, and the like. Ladies' shoes for walking should be substantial enough to keep the feet dry and warm. If neatly made, and well-fitting, they need not be clumsy. Thin shoes, worn on the damp ground or pavement, have carried many a beautiful woman to her grave. If you wish to have corns and unshapely feet, wear tight shoes; they never fail to produce those results.

The fashionable fur hat, in its innumerable but always ugly forms, is, in the eye of taste, an absurd and unsightly covering for the head; and it is hardly less uncomfortable and unhealthful than ugly. The fine, soft, and more picturesque felt hats now, we are glad to say, coming more and more into vogue, are far more comfortable and healthful. A light, fine straw hat is the best for summer.
The bonnets of the ladies, in their fashionable forms, are only a little less ugly and unbecoming than the fur hats of the gentlemen. A broad-brimmed or gipsy hat is far more becoming to most women than the common bonnet. We hope to live to see both "stove-pipe hats" and "sugar-scoop bonnets" abolished; but, in the mean time let those wear them who must.


"Good taste is indispensable in dress, but that, united to neatness, is all that is necessary—that is the fabled cestus of Venus which gave beauty to its wearer."

Mrs. Manners, the highest authority we can possibly quote in such matters, has the following hints to girls, which we can not deny ourselves the pleasure of copying, though they may seem, in part, a repetition of remarks already made:

"Good taste is indispensable in dress, but that, united to neatness, is all that is necessary—that is the fabled cestus of Venus which gave beauty to its wearer. Good taste involves suitable fabrics—a neat and becoming 'fitting' to her figure—colors suited to her complexion, and a simple and unaffected manner of wearing one's clothes. A worsted dress in a warm day, or a white one in a cold day, or a light, thin one in a windy day, are all in bad taste. Very fine or very delicate dresses worn in the street, or very highly ornamented clothes worn to church or to shop in, are in bad taste. Very long dresses worn in muddy or dusty weather, even if long dresses are the fashion, are still in bad taste.

"Deep and bright-colored gloves are always in bad taste; very few persons are careful enough in selecting gloves. Light shoes and dark dresses, white stockings and dark dresses, dark stockings and light dresses, are not indicative of good taste. A girl with neatly and properly dressed feet, with neat, well-fitting gloves, smoothly arranged hair, and a clean, well-made dress, who walks well, and speaks well, and, above all, acts politely and kindly, is a lady, and no wealth is required here. Fine clothes and fine airs are abashed before such propriety and good taste. Thus the poorest may be so attired as to appear as lady-like as the wealthiest; nothing is more vulgar than the idea that money makes a lady, or that fine clothes can do it."



Gentleman with moustache wearing a hat, NY in 1889
The hair and beard, in one of their aspects, belong to the dress. In reference to the style of wearing them, consult the general principles of taste. A man to whom nature has given a handsome beard, deforms himself sadly by shaving—at least, that is our opinion; and on this point fashion and good taste agree. The full beard is now more common than the shaven face in all our large cities.

Victorian hairstyles and bonnets
In the dressing of the hair there is room for the display of a great deal of taste and judgment. The style should vary with the different forms of face. Lardner's "Young Ladies' Manual" has the following hints to the gentler sex. Gentlemen can modify them to suit their case:

"After a few experiments, a lady may very easily decide what mode of dressing her hair, and what head-dress renders her face most attractive."

"Ringlets hanging about the forehead suit almost every one. On the other hand, the fashion of putting the hair smoothly, and drawing it back on either side, is becoming to few; it has a look of vanity instead of simplicity: the face must do every thing for it, which is asking too much, especially as hair, in its pure state, is the ornament intended for it by nature. Hair is to the human aspect what foliage is to the landscape."

"Light hair is generally most becoming when curled. For a round face, the curls should be made in short, half ringlets, reaching a little below the ears. For an oval face, long and thick ringlets are suitable; but if the face be thin and sharp, the ringlets should be light, and not too long, nor too many in number."

"When dark hair is curled, the ringlets should never fall in heavy masses upon the shoulders. Open braids are very beautiful when made of dark hair; they are also becoming to light-haired persons. A simple and graceful mode of arranging the hair is to fold the front locks behind the ears, permitting the ends to fall in a couple of ringlets on either side behind."

"Another beautiful mode of dressing the hair, and one very appropriate in damp weather, when it will keep in curl, is to loop up the ringlets with small hair-pins on either side of the face and behind the ears, and pass a light band of braided hair over them."

"Persons with very long, narrow heads may wear the hair knotted very low at the back of the neck. If the head be long, but not very narrow, the back hair may be drawn to one side, braided in a thick braid, and wound around the head. When the head is round, the hair should be formed in a braid in the middle of the back of the head. If the braid be made to resemble a basket, and a few curls permitted to fall from within it, the shape of the head is much improved."



Fine gentleman greeting a lady on the street
Observe that we have been laying down some of the maxims deduced from the principles of art and taste, in their application to dress, and not promulgating the edicts of Fashion. If there is a lack of harmony on some points, between the two, it is not our fault. We have endeavored to give you some useful hints in reference to the beautiful and the fitting in costume, based on a higher law than the enactments of the fashion-makers. You must judge for yourself how far you can make the latter bend to the former. We have been talking of dress as an individual matter. In future chapters we shall have occasion to refer to it in its relation to the usages of society.




N. P. Willis, in the Home Journal, writing on the dress-reform agitation, thus closes his disquisition:

"We repeat, that we see signs which look to us as if the present excitement as to one fashion were turning into a universal inquiry as to the sense or propriety of any fashion at all. When the subject shall have been fully discussed, and public attention fully awakened, common sense will probably take the direction of the matter, and opinion will settle in some shape which, at least, may reject former excesses and absurdities. Some moderate similarity of dress is doubtless necessary, and there are proper times and places for long dresses and short dresses. These and other points the ladies are likely to come to new decisions about. While they consult health, cleanliness, and convenience, however, we venture to express a hope that they will get rid of the present slavish uniformity—that what is becoming to each may be worn without fear of unfashionableness, and that in this way we may see every woman dressed somewhat differently and to her own best advantage, and the proportion of beauty largely increased, as it would, thereby, most assuredly be."

FOOTNOTE: "Hints toward Physical Perfection; or, How to Acquire and Retain Beauty, Grace, and Strength, and Secure Long Life and Perpetual Youth."

From the book
"How To Behave: A Pocket Manual Of Republican Etiquette, And Guide To Correct Personal Habits" 
by Samuel R Wells, 1887