The characters in The Importance of being Earnest are bound by the strict rules of etiquette that governed the society in Victorian England. According to "The Habits of Good Society" written in 1871 which detailed everything from the order in which one should drink their wines to which jewelry to wear with a dress when visiting an acquaintance, "society is a severe censor, pitiless and remorseless." A social faux pas could mean the end of one's social prospects, and for women in particular this could mean a life of spinsterhood.

 

Etiquette governed every aspect of society, and below are just a few of the strictures that Wilde's earnest bunch bump up against.

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Rank

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The British Aristocracy in the Victorian Era were considered to be the pinnacle of society and morality. Rank dictated who one should marry and how people were to be introduced to one another. The royal family of course top the chart of rank, and after that the order was as follows:

Duke/Duchess 

Marquess/Marchioness 

Earl/Countess 

Viscount/Viscountess 

Baron/Baroness 

Baronet/Baronetess 

Sir/Lady

Regarding  introductions, society members generally adhered to a few rules:

  • It is impolite to introduce yourself to someone without a mediator.

  • Introductions between two people by a third party should be mutually agreed upon before the introduction is made.

  • The only reason to break that custom is if a Lady or someone of a superior rank wants to be introduced, then the mediator may be overlooked.

  • Always introduce an inferior rank to a superior rank-- except if there are ladies present. Ladies always trump rank.

  • During the introduction, the introducer must first bow to the superior rank and ask to introduce the inferior. Then proceed with the introduction. Then the introducer is to murmur both names while the two being introduced are bowing to one another and slips away.

However, just because an Earl ranked higher than a Baron didn't mean that a Baron couldn't be wealthier than an Earl, or that an Earl was to be treated differently than a Knight. According to "The Habits of Good Society," 

"Indeed to insist on good birth in England would not only shut you out from people of no ordinary stamp, but is now generally considered as a cowardly way of asserting your superiority." (60)

Because title was important for political power, those in the middle class who were wealthy had a vested interest in gaining a title. This, combined with the aristocracy's desire to remain wealthy resulted in the complicated customs and traditions that marked courtship and marriage in the Victorian Era.

 

Courtship & Marriage

Because of the combination of Christian morality and etiquette's goal to "protect: the purity of our daughters, wives and sisters, and the honor of our sons," (Habits of Good Society 72) the rules of courtship and marriage were strict, and vastly different for men and women.

Young, unmarried women were not permitted in the company of men without a chaperone-- often times their mothers. With limited career options and a set of very strict guidelines for every their every move, women spent much of their time arranging matches for their children. "The Habits of Good Society" quotes, “one hen will always pick to death another’s chicks,” meaning that "matrons" (married women whose children are of marrying age) will always look out for their own daughter the most, but that she has “no right” to “tie to her apron string” her young sons.

1930s_ One of the Best Periods of Women

These "mercenary marriages," as many referred to them, were intended to maximize the social position of the women and the wealth of the man, as a woman's parents were expected to pay a large dowry to the man she was to marry. A typical courtship process went as such:

  • Women typically married between the ages of 18-23.

  • Once the bank accounts have been studied, the ancestral lineages inspected, and political connections explored, if both parties passed muster, the next step toward marriage was the engagement. 

  • If it had not already been done, the man was introduced to the girl's parents and her peer group. Permission to ask for the daughter's hand in marriage had to be granted by bride's father, although the gentleman should wait until he had his bride's consent before asking. 

  • A proposal was best made in person, with clear, distinct language, so the girl might not misunderstand the gentleman's intent. If he could not bring himself to propose in person, he could do so in writing. A girl did not have to accept her first proposal. She could play coy. 

  • Marriage between first-cousins was permitted, but become more and more frowned upon as the the turn of the century approached.

  • Marriage was encouraged only within one's class. To aspire higher, one was considered an upstart. To marry someone of lesser social standing was considered marrying beneath oneself.​

Unmarried men, or bachelors, were able to move through society quite freely. Marriage for men actually meant they had fewer privileges than they did before they were married. Here are a few examples of what married men couldn't do that bachelors could:

  • Married men must not go to any social engagements without their wives being invited along. They could no longer be "seat fillers" at dinner parties.

  • Married men may dance with other women, but they may not approach the woman's neck too closely during the dance, and they certainly cannot flirt with them.

  • Bachelors were forgiven a lot of roguish and borderline vulgar behavior because it was generally accepted that they were “on the hunt” for women and that their “young and carefree” attitudes were to be envied.

  • According to "Habits of Good Society," "A man’s friends can expect to see less of him when he is married," as a man is expected to accompany his wife to tea parties, etc. ​​

 

Socializing

Visiting

During the day, members of society spent their days visiting one another at home. Of course, there were myriad rules that governed the practice of visiting. ​​

  • All visits were preceded by the delivery of an invitation card, but delivering an invitation card could itself be a reason for a visit.

  • "The Habits of Good Society" cites the “drawbacks” of these types of visits as that they waste time, necessitate dressing up in case you see someone important, and that you have to make small talk.

  • Visiting is only permissible on proper occasion and during proper hours (except between really good friends).

  • Proper hours means that you avoid mealtimes and try to visit after working hours-- approximately between 3-6 pm.

  • It is impolite to stay longer than two hours and if someone else comes in to visit your host, you must wait a few moments, check your watch and then leave.

  • When a gentleman arrives, it they are permitted to take their hat and cane into the room, but must leave their umbrellas at the door.

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Language & Literature

  • In the Victorian Era, “The art of expressing oneself" was very important. "The Habits of Good Society" advises it's readers, "You must always have something interesting to contribute to a conversation." 

  • It also advises that "A knowledge of English literature is required" and that “how to read” is much more important than “what to read”-- in other words, it is better to read a newspaper and think and form opinions than it is to read a lot of books but not remember them, and be unable to talk about it.

Greetings

When out in public, the Victorians had a strictly regulated code of greeting, based on gender and familiarity.

 

  • Ladies have "the privilege" of recognizing gentlemen, but a gentleman may not acknowledge a lady if she has not yet acknowledges him first.

  • To acknowledge someone she does not know well, the lady would bow slightly-- but would never raise her glasses to look at the person before she bowed. 

  • In response, the man would lift his hat slightly using the hand farthest away from the person he's greeting. If you are smoking you must remove your cigar from your mouth. 

    • For this reason, a lady must be very selective when choosing to greet a gentleman-- if he must stop smoking you may have ruined a very expensive ​cigar!

  • If a lady chooses to greet someone she knows well, the two may stop and talk for a short time.​

  • You may not shake hands unless the woman extends her hand first.

  • However, if two people are old friends and want to stop to chat, they do not need to follow these guidelines.

 

Dining

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea became a staple activity during the Victorian Era. The drinking of tea led to the birth of a thing beyond a mere habit or addiction. It became a culture. Tea rooms mushroomed all over the place, private teas and teas in hotels were in demand. Tea dances were held as meeting place for potential match making and also so that young men and women could interact with each other.

Teatime etiquette included the following:

  • Greeting/handshake

  • After sitting down — put purse on lap or behind you against chair back

  • Napkin placement — unfold napkin on your lap, if you must leave temporarily place napkin on chair.

  • Sugar/lemon — sugar is placed in cup first, then thinly sliced lemon and never milk and lemon together. Milk goes in after tea — much debate over it, but according to Washington School of Protocol, milk goes in last. The habit of putting milk in tea came from the French. “To put milk in your tea before sugar is to cross the path of love, perhaps never to marry.” (Tea superstition)

  • The correct order when eating on a tea tray is to eat savories first, scones next and sweets last. We have changed our order somewhat. We like guests to eat the scones first while they are hot, then move to savories, then sweets.

  • Scones — split horizontally with knife, curd and cream is placed on plate. Use the knife to put cream/curd on each bite. Eat with fingers neatly.

  • Proper placement of spoon — the spoon always goes behind cup, also don’t leave the spoon in the cup.

  • Proper holding of cup — do not put your pinky “up”, this is not correct. A guest should look into the teacup when drinking — never over it.

Since ancient Rome, a cultured person ate with 3 fingers, a commoner with five. Thus, the birth of the raised pinkie as a sign of elitism. This 3 fingers etiquette rule is still correct when picking up food with the fingers and handling various pieces of flatware. This pinky “up” descended from a misinterpretation of the 3 fingers vs 5 fingers dining etiquette in the 11th century. (SOURCE)

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Dinner Parties

One of the most popular ways to socialize and meet new people in Victorian England was to host or attend a dinner party. Days of planning and foresight about guests, menus and table settings lead up to an evening where society darlings would hopefully meet, mingle, and have memorable conversation. What follows are a few rules about hoe dinner parties were expected to proceed:

  • One should invite both men and women to their dinner parties and one should also invite people who invite them to their parties. 

  • One should invite men and women who provide interesting conversation.

  • When servants serve the dishes at the dinner table, they should;

    • Begin at the guest on the master’s right, and another servant should begin at the guest on lady’s right.

    • But this can be trumped by age (i.e. an older woman would go first) 

  • The Table 

    • Oval table 

    • Medium height-backed chairs and no arms on them 

    • Table covered by white damask 

    • Nothing on the table higher than the guest’s heads 

    • Art in the middle (china, something Parisian) 

    • Each end of the table- bowls of biscuit-ware or vases filled with flowers 

    • The rest of the place setting should be deserts  

    • Too much silver is ostentatious 

    • Each lady’s plate gets a napkin bouquet 

    • Food is served on the side table by the servants so only plates on the main table 

    • Bachelors can have their own bottles of wine on the table but everyone else must be served 

    • Knives, spoons and forks next to the plate, wine glasses to the right, napkins in the glass or with a roll on the plate 

    • Only dish on the table is desert 

 

Of course, there were plentiful rules governing table manners as well, such as:

  • If there are servants present, one may not do anything  (i.e. cut their meat, pour their own wine, etc.) themself. 

  • Never put a knife in your mouth.

  • The only thing you can eat with your fingers is bread and if it isn’t buttered you must rip it into small pieces.

  • Don't put your elbows on the table 

  • Don't sit too close or too far from the table itself.

  • Wipe your mouth and mustache after you take each bite 

  • Wine is to be drunk from light to dark

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Manners

Apart from the complex set of rules and customs that people endeavored to follow for events such as meals and visits, the Victorians also set their standards for habits and mannerisms quite high. 

Posture

Posture and gait did not escape the scrutiny of etiquette either.

Men were expected to walk "upright" but "this uprightness should not go to the extent of curving the back inwards. The chest should be expanded, but not so as to make a 'presence'. The head should be set well back on the shoulders but not tossed up nor jerked on one side with that air of pertness you see in some men..." (The Habits of Good Society 218-219)

Women were advised that, "the grace of un upright form, of elegant and gentle movements and of the desirable medium between stiffness and lounging, are desirable both for married and single."

Fan Flirting 

A woman with a fan can say a lot without having to open her mouth. Women spoke in "fan language" like:

  • Fan fast--I am independent 

  • Fan slow--I am engaged 

  • Fan with right hand in front of face--Come on 

  • Fan with left hand in front of face--Leave me 

  • Fan open and shut--Kiss me 

  • Fan open wide--Love 

  • Fan half open--Friendship 

  • Fan shut--Hate 

  • Fan swinging--Can I see you home?

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Habits

When in public, one should attempt to keep as still and quiet as possible.

  • Don’t touch your ears or nose 

  • Don't pick your teeth 

  • Don't scratch your head, hands or anywhere 

  • Don't bite your nails 

  • Don't spit 

  • Don't shake your leg 

  • Don't whistle 

  • Blow your nose silently 

  • Sneeze into a handkerchief  

Smoking

  • Smoking is permissable among men but it is in fact quite rude to smoke in the presence of a lady. 

  • It should be done in moderation because while for some it calms their tempers and makes the masses overall less "riotous," but for some it causes coughing fits and ill health.

  • Smoking is a good occupation for those who are often idle because they would have spent their time in “devilries” and smoking prevents that.

 

Dress

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Women

Dress and fashion were just as integral to etiquette as table manners and proper introductions. According to an article that compared the way Victorian literature described the majesty of horses to the beauty expectations for women, Gina Marlene Dorré states:

 

"The intricate lexicon of fashionable dress...modeled what we now consider to be an outrageous and exorbitant female form: beneath the heavy layers of starched petticoats and rich silks, a technology of undergarments structured a striking visual contrast between a woman’s tightly corseted torso and the swelling prominence of her backward-sweeping bustle....It is my contention that the scientific, pragmatic, and moralizing rhetoric of dress reform, which denounced certain elements of female costume as frivolous, irrational, physically injurious, or positively indecent, finds further expression in the growing attention to the responsible grooming and management of the horse."

 

(Dorré, Gina Marlene. "Horses and Corsets: Black Beauty, Dress Reform, and the Fashioning of the Victorian Woman." Victorian Literature and Culture 30.1 (2002): 157-178.)

The main markers of Victorian women's attire were the monobosom, the corset, the bustle and the leg of mutton sleeves.

  • The Victorian era was the last period in fashion history when the mature female figure was every man's ideal. Buxom ladies tortured their flesh to achieve an hour-glass figure. Young or old, all laced themselves so tightly that they distorted their figures into the exaggerated 'S' shape associated with the era. 

  • The Monobosom Effect-- The general impression given was of an enormous one-piece bosom, referred to as a monobosom. Because the bust was largely unsupported, ladies began to wear various styles of bust bodices and added other extra padding, even handkerchiefs, to increase the frontage which hung low over the waist. 

  • As before, the bustle foundation softened until only a small pad was left by 1893. The armor-like hour glass figure soon developed into the S-Bend shape corset.

  • The leg of mutton sleeves continued to develop and sprouted high above the shoulders, By 1895 the sleeves swelled into enormous puffs similar to those of 1833. As happened in 1830 to balance the huge shoulders the skirt widened and flared, whilst keeping the waist tight and handspan narrow. (SOURCE)

Men

Men's fashion was just as regulated as that of their counterpoints of the female sex. They required the help of servants to dress because of how many pieces they wore.

  • Coats - Regardless of the style, coats were typically tightly fitted through the body and sleeves, which were kept short to allow shirt cuffs to show. Coats and vests were both buttoned to the neckline and featured very small lapels and ties. Colors were dark.

  • Vests - Vests followed coat styling with high necklines and slim cut lapels. Most often a part of the three piece suit for day wear, a vest was one of the few allotments for color for a gentleman so inclined.

  • Shirts - Shirts typically featured detachable collars and cuffs, which allowed the wearer to alter the shirt's appearance by swapping out collars. Extremely high stand collars were very popular, but high stand wingtip and banker collars were also under every chin. Many shirts also featured a stud closure on the front which gave gentlemen another outlet for expressing fashion sense. 

  • Trousers - Trousers began featuring a slimmer silhouette and were often shorter than previously worn. While monochromatic three-piece suits were prolific in business and casual social settings, daywear for the sophisticated man would likely include a pair of grey-and-black striped trousers to pair with a morning coat. Most pants of this era continued to feature a button fly and suspender buttons, and knickers (buttoned or elasticized under at the knee) were popular for sporting participation. 

  • Hats - A proper gentlemen wouldn't head outside without a hat and retailers offered a variety of styles to suit every situation. While tall black top hats continued to be required for evening occasions, they were falling out of favor for day wear. Derbies, Homburgs, Triblys and Panama Straw Boaters ruled the day, as did wool caps and wheel hats for sporting and leisure events. Lower classes could be seen wearing a similar style newsboy cap. With the advent of the automobile, caps, gloves and goggles were often worn to increase comfort while driving. 

  • Ties - Bowties, ascots and four-in-hand ties were all worn during the Edwardian era and one of the permitted "pops" of color. The bow tie remained a constant throughout the decades and varied mostly in size to suit the narrow openings at the top of vests and shirts. (SOURCE)

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Gloves

Both men and women wore gloves in the 1800s. But when wearing gloves, it required people to follow all sorts of etiquette rules. One etiquette book demonstrated this perfectly. It advised women in no uncertain terms to “never go out without gloves; put them on before you leave the house. You should no more be seen pulling your gloves in the street than tying the strings of your bonnet.” Other glove etiquette rules were also required that included rules for glove etiquette indoors and out, in warm or cold weather, and at funerals, balls, or dinner parties.

By the 1890s, white was the preferred glove color for both men and women and the pale or delicate tints preferred for evening parties. Additionally, on formal occasions if a guest met an ungloved host or hostess, the host or hostess was advised to “have no occasion to feel offended if others also in full dress should extend a salutation with a gloved hand.”

By the end of the 1800s, the importance of gloves changed. Gloves were considered optional at social events. However, people still wore gloves for most occasions. Gloves were worn regularly “on the street, at evening parties, to the opera, or theatre, at receptions, at balls, at church, when making a call, riding or diving, but not at a dinner.”[21] Gloves by this time were not as well-regarded or prized as they had been in the early 1800s. (SOURCE)

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Hats

"Tilted to the side a hat could look rowdy or impertinent; tilted back, leisurely; but tilted too far looked tipsy. Lloyd suggests right, left and forward tilts according to different moods: thrusting the hat down on the head over the ears is bad, but worst is ‘sticking the hat on the back of the head’, producing ‘slipshod’ and ‘grotesque’ effects."

  • A gentleman should not raise his hat to a lady until she has accorded him [a bow]. When a gentleman returns the bow of a lady with whom he is slightly acquainted he should do so ... very slightly raising his hat from his head.’ If she is a friend, ‘he should raise his hat with more freedom of action’. If he meets a gentleman friend walking with a lady with whom he is unacquainted, ‘he should not raise his hat, but nod to his friend’. Gentlemen ‘do not raise their hats in recognition of each other, but simply nod’. Mrs Humphry in Manners For Men, however, insists ‘the hat must be raised even in saluting a familiar friend if a) he is accompanied by a lady, and b) when one is oneself accompanied by a lady’ 

  • A gentleman ‘should take his hat and stick in his hand with him into the drawing room and hold them until he has greeted the mistress of the house. He should either place them on a chair or table or hold them in his hand accordingly.

  • Until the 1960s one principle seemed inviolate: no woman went out of the home without a hat.

  • Hats were especially ‘proper’ on occasions associated with church: Sunday services, weddings and funerals.

 

(Hughes, Clair. "Hats On, Hats Off." Cultural Studies Review 22.1 (2016): 118.)

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Hoppe, Michelle J. “Courting the Victorian Woman.” Courting the Victorian Woman, 2015, www.literary-liaisons.com/article009.html.

 

Sanders, Kevin. “How to Do Afternoon Tea like the Victorians.” English Heritage Blog, 10 Nov. 2016, blog.english-heritage.org.uk/how-to-do-afternoon-tea-like-the-victorians/.

 

Unknown. The Habits of Good Society: a Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen .. J. Hogg and Son, 1890.