11 Oct 2021

How to dine like you're in Downton

In our fast-moving digital world, it can be a daunting task to keep abreast of the ever-changing codes of modern manners. As new technology and inventions – from social media and mobile phones to ear buds and e-scooters – re-write the manners rulebook, we must assess which traditional manners should still be retained, appreciated and practised in the modern world.

Against this shifting backdrop it is sometimes refreshing to dip into the history of etiquette and manners, just to remind ourselves how much life has changed. With a new Downton Abbey film coming to cinemas next year, we've shared some insights into the world of formal conversation and entertaining, and the manners that would have prevailed, in the 19th and early 20th centuries:

•Full evening dress was customary for dinner parties. Referred to as ‘dressing for dinner’, this meant tailcoats for gentlemen and full evening dresses for ladies. An exception was made for less formal supper parties when, if the hostess specified that it was to be a more causal evening, gentlemen could dress down and wear black tie.

•Long white evening gloves, worn with sleeveless evening dresses, were very fashionable during the early part of the 20th century. They were often very tight, sometimes made from leather and fastened with a row of small pearl buttons inside the wrist, which made them very difficult to remove. By undoing the buttons, the hands could be removed from the gloves. The empty gloves were then rolled back for practical purposes – an inelegant solution, which eventually led to the appearance of shorter evening gloves, made of more forgiving materials.

•At the dining table it was considered vulgar for a gentleman to talk very loudly, use slang, whisper to others, discuss taboo subjects (religion, politics) gossip or involve himself in long debates. Personal achievement, status, profession or wealth was never discussed. Humour and wit was used carefully and sparingly, the excessive use of puns or anecdotes deemed inappropriate and, as a general rule, a gentleman would not ask a lady a direct question.

•When giving a dinner party, it was usual to provide menu cards at the table, written in French. They were plainly styled, with a title of ‘Menu’ and date underneath and to the right-hand side. The food was described in simple terms, without any mention of sauces, vegetables, wines or coffee. For very elaborate dinners, they would have been printed, but for less formal dinners they were handwritten by the lady of the house.

•When pudding was over, the hostess would signal to the lady of the highest rank that it was time for the ladies to leave the dining room. The gentlemen would stand and then the host would move into the hostess’s seat so he was near the principal male guests. The gentlemen would enjoy more wine, port and cigarettes or cigars. The ladies would go through to the drawing room for coffee where, after a little while, they would be re-joined by the men.

•The tradition of passing the port originates from naval dinners where the port was always passed ‘port to port’ around the table – ie to the left. Remembering to pass the port, which had arrived silently to a person’s right, was something that could get forgotten, especially by those who did not drink it themselves. If this happened a trick was to remind the right-hand neighbour by saying: ‘Did you know the Bishop of Norwich? He was a charming man but never remembered to pass the port.’ In certain circles this tradition still stands.

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