The etiquette of occasions
Great plenty, much formality, small cheer, And everybody out of his own sphere.
I. Dinner Parties
A young man or a young woman, unaccustomed to the settled observances of such occasions, can hardly pass through a severer ordeal than a formal dinner. Its terrors, however, are often greatly magnified. Such a knowledge of the principal points of table etiquette as you may acquire from this book, complete self-possession, habits of observation, and a fair share of practical good sense, will carry one safely if not pleasantly through it.
You may entertain the opinion that such dinners, and formal parties in general, are tiresome affairs, and that there might be quite as much real courtesy and a great deal more enjoyment with less ceremony, and we may entirely agree with you; but what is, and not what might be, is the point to be elucidated. We are to take society as we find it. You may, as a general rule, decline invitations to dinner parties without any breach of good manners, and without giving offense, if you think that neither your enjoyment nor your interests will be promoted by accepting; or you may not go into what is technically called “society” at all, and yet you are liable, at a hotel, on board a steamer, or on some extraordinary occasion, to be placed in a position in which[Pg 84] ignorance of dinner etiquette will be very mortifying and the information contained in this section be worth a hundred times the cost of the book.
We now proceed to note the common routine of a fashionable dinner, as laid down in books and practiced in polite society. On some points usage is not uniform, but varies in different countries, and even in different cities in the same country, as well as in different circles in the same place. For this reason you must not rely wholly upon this or any other manners book, but, keeping your eyes open and your wits about you, wait and see what others do, and follow the prevailing mode.
Invitations to a dinner are usually issued several days before the appointed time—the length of time being proportioned to the grandeur of the occasion. On receiving one, you should answer at once, addressing the lady of the house. You should either accept or decline unconditionally, as they will wish to know whom to expect, and make their preparations accordingly.
You must go to a dinner party in “full dress.” Just what this is, is a question of time and place. Strictly interpreted, it allows gentlemen but little choice. A black dress coat and trowsers, a black or white vest and cravat, white gloves, and pumps and silk stockings were formerly rigorously insisted upon. But the freedom-loving “spirit of the age” has already made its influence felt even in the realms of fashion, and a little more latitude is now allowed in most circles. The “American Gentleman’s Guide” enumerates the essentials of a gentleman’s dress for occasions of ceremony in general, as follows:
A stylish, well-fitting cloth coat, of some dark color and of unexceptionable quality, nether garments to correspond, or in warm weather, or under other suitable circumstances, white pants of a fashionable material and make, the finest and purest linen, embroidered in white, if at all; a cravat and vest of some dark or neutral tint, according to the physiognomical peculiarities of the wearer and the prevailing mode; an entirely fresh-looking, fashionable black hat, and carefully-fitted modish boots, white gloves, and a soft, thin, white handkerchief.
A lady’s “full dress” is not easily defined, and fashion allows her greater scope for the exercise of her taste in the selection of materials, the choice of colors, and the style of making. Still, she must “be in the fashion.”
Never allow yourself to be a minute behind the time. The dinner can not be served till all the guests have arrived. If it is spoiled through your tardiness, you are responsible not only to your inviter, but to his outraged guests. Better be too late for the steamer or the railway train than for a dinner!
4. GOING TO THE TABLE
When dinner is announced, the host rises and requests all to walk to the dining-room, to which he leads the way, having given his arm to the lady who, from age or any other consideration, is entitled to precedence. Each gentleman offers his arm to a lady, and all follow in order. If you are not the principal guest, you must be careful not to offer your arm to the handsomest or most distinguished lady.
Source: Apostrophe 2