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Finishing School: Then and Now

This month, we’re turning the idea of finishing school on its head—less pomp, more polish. But that got us thinking: Is there a place for those mores of old in today’s society? Annie Dean, whose gorgeous blog covers everything from DIY stationery to 30-minute soiree suppers, weighs in.

Society women of yesteryear were famous for their impeccable style and unimpeachable manners. Think white gloves, tweed dress coats, and a gap year spent at a finishing school in Switzerland. These days, “finishing school” is a bit of an anachronism, unless you’re referring to a whirlwind MBA as a precursor to the corner office. But acting like a lady is as relevant as ever. Here’s how to mind your manners in modern society.

Lesson One: A Graceful Introduction

Then: Upon entering a formal dinner party, a woman was announced by the butler. She followed specific rules about whom she could speak to without her hostess’s introduction—and which guests she should converse with, at which points in the evening.
Now: Whether meeting the president of a company or the parents of a new beau, you should offer a firm handshake, a smile, and your first and last name. None of those weak, fingers-only handshakes, please.

Lesson Two: Articulate Correspondence

Then: Before the days of email and Facebook, a woman formalized social obligations (and those of her husband) through handwritten letters. If she made a house call to a friend who had stepped out, she left a visiting card with a personalized note written on the back.
Now: Text messages, Facebook messages, and tweets are fun ways to socialize, but they have nothing on a well-crafted note. Send handwritten correspondence when appropriate, such as thank you notes after a wedding or an important interview. Good grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential to professional email correspondence—save the abbreviations and emoticons for casual friendships.

Lesson Three: Courtship

Then: A woman was required to live in a supervised environment until marriage—at home with her parents, in a private apartment with a governess, or in a women’s-only living facility like the Barbizon Hotel for Women (my own grandmother was kicked out of one of these facilities after breaking curfew!), making courtship rigid and ritualized.
Now: Supervised environments after college have gone the way of the dodo. But the old ways had some wisdom to them. A woman should still dictate when an evening has reached its end. Be gracious and grateful when a date treats you to dinner or a movie ticket. Finally, do not become visibly intoxicated in public, especially on a date. Think cocktail aficionado, not kicked-out-of-the-bar-after-six-tequila-shots.

Lesson Four: Entertaining

Then: Women underwent extensive training to learn how to entertain. The goal? To help their husbands develop and nurture social and professional relationships. Inviting the boss over for dinner was commonplace, and a properly set table was essential.
Now: A dinner party is still a great way to nurture relationships—of your own! Experiment with recipes and perfect a few standbys that can feed a large number of people and are easy to make, even in a cramped New York City kitchen. (Hint: You can never go wrong with roast chicken.) Being a hostess is fun, and the practice will make you a better guest too.

Lesson Five: Common Courtesies

Then: Young women practiced “floating” downstairs with books on their heads. They spoke in the upper register of their voices, began questions with “may,” and concluded answers with “thank you.” They never left the house with their face or clothing unkempt.
Now: I doubt a makeup-less, sweaty Jackie O ever gave a guy in a business suit the finger after he stole her taxi in a triple-digit heat wave when she was nine months pregnant. (Sorry, Mom.) But manners will take you far. As you navigate through your workplace, social circles, and the city you live in, remember that each person you encounter deserves the best version of you. Always afford the people you encounter their dignity, no matter their position. Don’t be passive aggressive with your coworkers. Be generous to your friends. There are rules to etiquette: certain forks to be used just for fish and teacups to be held just-so. But even if you get those all wrong, a confident, kind woman will have the respect of her peers. Swiss finishing school or not.

Annie Dean is a 27-year-old law school grad living in New York City with her husband, Peter. She is the founder and author of the lifestyle website For the latest in etiquette, entertaining, and everyday glamour, follow Annie on Twitter and Instagram at @primandpretty.

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