Victorian Etiquette for Ladies

Written by g.d. palmer
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Victorian Etiquette for Ladies
Victorian women were expected to look pretty and behave demurely. (Woman in Victorian dress image by Steve Thompson from Fotolia.com)

The Victorian era had strict etiquette requirements for any lady, or any women who wanted to aspire to that status. During the 19th century, many pamphlets and guidebooks were written to help women behave properly in every area of their lives, from cleaning the house to entertaining visitors. Many of these rules of proper behaviour seem restrictive or strange to modern readers, but they were considered very important for ladies of the era.

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Personal Care

In the 19th century, a woman's appearance was very important. Ladies were advised to always be beautiful and sweet for their husbands--ideally without looking like the process required any effort. According to the University of Florida, the lady's dressing room was considered her sanctuary, and even her husband was not permitted inside. Hair was to be worn up, and the ideal figure was small-waisted and delicate, usually aided by restrictive, sometimes painful corsetry. All personal care had to be complete before leaving her dressing room, even pulling on her gloves.

Behaviour

The ideal Victorian woman was sweet, pleasant and patient at all times. According to "The Concord Magazine," ladies were expected to limit their talking so as not to seem “boisterous,” to avoid being overly frank and to be patient listeners. A lady would speak in a gentle tone, regardless of how she felt, and was expected to favour other people's opinions and needs over her own. A lady must not laugh until the speaker got to the end of his or her humorous story and never laugh at her own humour.

Meals

Victorian meals, especially dinner parties, included a large number of etiquette rules for both sexes. At afternoon tea, the hostess was expected to walk around and talk with all visitors, unless the party was too large, in which case she would have assistants. At dinner, everything was expected to be of the finest quality, but ladies were admonished never to make ostentatious displays of their wealth. There were also special requirements for table arrangement, type of food and seating, all of which the lady of the house was expected to take care of.

In Public

On the street, Victorian ladies were expected to greet anyone they happened to know--etiquette manuals specifically note that servants are not excluded. Ladies meeting men on the sidewalk were instructed to pass on the right. Taking the arm of a man as she walked was expected, but taking the arms of two men was a breech of etiquette. Ladies were also expected to be quiet and unobtrusive, even on the street, and were told never to try to attract the attention of men.

Mourning

Even mourning came with special etiquette requirements. Special clothes were required, especially for widows, and mourning could be a very expensive prospect. Women in deepest mourning wore non-reflective black clothes with minimal decoration, and little to no jewellery. Widows were expected to wear these clothes for two years. Girls mourning their parents wore them for one year. After this time, they could enter lighter stages of mourning, wearing lilac, grey and some limited jewellery.

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