Close your eyes and clear your mind. First of all… enjoy that. Now back to reality. What is the first thing that pops to mind when you hear the word “etiquette”? Elegant women balancing books on perfectly coiffed hair? The hierarchy of forks in “Pretty Woman”? Perhaps your stomach simply sinks at the memory of being told to keep your elbows off the table? I am sure most of us remember wondering when, if ever, those manners would truly matter… much like geometry class. If the application of etiquette seemed antiquated to us then, where does that leave us today? Is there a modern place for vintage etiquette?
From Ancient Egyptian viziers, to Confucius, to King Louis XIV and on to Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt, etiquette has long been recognized as a complicated series of rules closely intertwined with status. If you didn’t have the resources to learn this secret handshake, it was a quick way to reveal who was in the “right” social sphere and (more importantly to some) who wasn’t. Although truly what would be considered an ancient practice, the underpinning of etiquette remained healthy well into mid-century America. Reading the most up-to-date books from the most “appropriate” sources played a large part in the merry-go-round of keeping a well appointed home. How your guests were invited, by whom and how your table was laid shone a bright spotlight into the state of your life. Your entire life.
Now, let me be clear. I am happy to see some of that nonsense gone. I am more than pleased to invite friends over and not have to worry about snickers at the lack of proper place settings, whether I should serve from the left or from the right, or when I should be allowed wear white. However, I do enjoy the lost practice of the hostess gift and handwritten letters.
Of course the natural reaction of a modern man or woman with a sparkling personality is, “Oh H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks-NO”. And rightfully so. There can be a stifling rigidity to the regular practice of “old-fashioned” manners that seems an impossible companion to modern spontaneous language and charm. Or (heaven forbid) a healthy dose of quirk. I tend to believe quite the opposite. Good manners, a razor sharp wit and an effervescent unpredictability are the best of dinner party bedfellows. One sets the other soaring like a Pan Am airliner. Because these days it seems good manners are the most unexpected quirk of all!
Modern etiquette shouldn’t be an oxymoron although it seems to hold its place strongly in that category today. But perhaps we have the singular opportunity to choose a balance of social graces and modern conveniences in equal portion. In the time of endless electronic input and increasingly virtual relationships, what couldn’t be helped by a little Ms. Manners refresher? I know I would delight at the return of doors being opened for a lady or the surprise arrival of an engraved dinner invitation in my mailbox. My actual mailbox. What is now largely considered tirelessly impractical, could bring us all a bit less friction and a bit more pleasure. In the end, etiquette should be about living a better life and sharing that with those around you. Whether it be modern or mid-century.