Just where is the line between being real and exploring new styles and trends? Is it possible to be authentic on the inside but not on the outside? 111 years ago the rules of etiquette were straight forward. Putting on airs or trying to be something outside of your status and station was considered distasteful and vulgar in 1899. When a woman wore clothing or jewelry above her means, this could often lead to embarrassment. The popular woman’s periodical, Ladies’ World, offered guidance for both young and mature women as to proper public behavior and appearance.
Immodesty in movement and actions was strongly discouraged. Women were warned against shaking hands with men under most circumstances. Women who push themselves on men could be seen as rude and brash. However an exception was made for the hostess to any event or party. She was advised to shake the hand of everyone who entered and exited her home. This rule applied to both male and female guests.
The experts wrote that a woman’s voice should also be controlled. A high pitched voice should be countered by soft speech and loud laughter should always be avoided otherwise people will assume there was bad breeding and a lack of culture.
Controlling one’s children in public was an indication of good parenting. A good mother showed her children for limited amounts of time. Parading children in front of company was considered not only distasteful and difficult for guests, but etiquette experts also suggested that it could be hazardous to the emotional growth of both boys and girls. It was socially acceptable for a child to make an appearance for a few minutes in the evening and even play a short instrumental piece or recite a poem, but anything beyond a brief time was ill advised.
Modest behavior alone was not enough. It was essential for a woman’s appearance to match her temperament and social economic status. The most constant indicator of a woman’s character could be seen in the way she dressed. A refined woman was sensitive to the style, cut, and material of her clothing. A woman of modest means was advised to choose simple fabrics and conservative fashion.
Dressing beyond one’s means is a vulgar attempt to impress observers with an idea that one is well placed financially. This folly is usually very transparent to shrewd onlookers, but is frequently ensnares and captivates the youthful, shallow and unwary, and so succeeds in its mission.
Women were also warned against wearing a profusion of jewelry especially early in the day. The etiquette experts warned that women who chose to wear excessive jewelry in the morning were “indicative of a desire to show off one’s riches and is a piece of vulgar ostentation.” A few very choice jewels were appropriate in the evening; however the same rules that applied to clothing and behavior also applied to ornamentation. The jewelry’s value should coordinate with the clothing and the social status of the woman who wears it.
Although some of these rules might seem a bit harsh or outdated, the general principles still apply today. Choosing modest attire and behavior is a sign of refinement and sophistication. Maxing out your credit cards to obtain the latest fashions or being loud in public settings, might garner attention, but probably not the sort of attention you want.