23 Aug 2023

Ladies Who Lunch

Image: The Corner Table, Irving Ramsey Wiles

Inviting people around to lunch – whether it is a roast meal on a Sunday or a much more improvised affair in the middle of the week – is seen nowadays as a routine act of hospitality. Lunch is a flexible affair: it can be casual, it can encompass a varied array and number of guests, food requirements can be comparatively unambitious. For all these reasons, it is an excellent form of home entertaining for busy people who are daunted by the more ambitious dinner party.

In the 18th century it was normal to eat the main meal in the mid- to late-afternoon, but by the turn of the 19th century the main meal had been pushed back to 6 or 7pm. Ladies, who were finding the long interval between breakfast and dinner onerous, had established luncheon as a regular meal, not an occasional one, by about 1810. The industrial revolution, and developments in public transport during the 19th century meant that people began to work further from home, eating a light midday meal at their workplace. The main meal, still usually called dinner, was pushed to the evening hours after work, when they could get home for a full repast. As gas lighting and electricity began to be a feature of homes in the 19th century, the dinner hour was pushed even further back, with dinner at around 8pm–9pm becoming the norm in some households.

Manners and Rules of Good Society by “A member of the Aristocracy”, which was published in 1916, gives us some fascinating insights on lunch. Its opening remarks on the subject of lunch explicitly link the meal to the lateness of the dinner hour:

The lateness of the dinner-hour in a measure accounts for the position now taken by luncheon in the day’s programme, joined to the fact that it offers another opportunity for social gatherings; and as the prevailing idea seems to be to crowd into one day as much amusement and variety and change as possible, invitations to luncheon have become one of the features of social life.”

The author also reiterates that lunch is predominantly an affair for ladies, mainly because men work during the day and are therefore otherwise engaged, although some “idle” gentlemen are characterised as eating a late breakfast, thereby making lunch redundant:

The predominance of ladies at luncheon is due to the fact that the majority of gentlemen are too much occupied at this hour to be at liberty to accept invitations to luncheon, while others, more idle, breakfast at so late an hour that to them a two o’clock luncheon is a farce as far as eating is concerned.”

The main attractions of lunch, as far as the author is concerned, is the comparatively informal social mores. She points out that the hostess at liberty to make general conversation with both sides of the table, rather than being monopolised by the guests of honour who would sit on either side of the hostess at a formal dinner. Without the inflexible strictures about guest numbers and compatibility demanded by the formal dinner, she can invite a great variety of guests, who may not fit into the more rigid social planning and protocol that dictated dinner party planning: “young ladies, single ladies, elderly ladies, ladies coming to town, or into the neighbourhood for a few days only.” Ladies’ luncheons were able to embrace social misfits and anomalies, who generally found themselves excluded from more formal dinners.

Other general guidelines are, as usual, quite prescriptive: “In Town the usual hour for Luncheon is 1.30 to 2 o’clock; in the country it is generally half an hour earlier.”  In addition, “there is no going in to luncheon, conventionally speaking, save on official and public occasions”, which means that the guests were conducted from the drawing room, where they gathered on arrival, to the dining room by a servant, and did not proceed arm in arm according to a strict order of precedence.

At the lunch table, ladies were expected “not to remove their hats at luncheon. They should remove their fur coats and wraps. These should either be left in the hall on arrival or taken off in the drawing-room or dining-room. Short gloves should be removed; elbow gloves may be retained.”

The whole affair was kept reasonably short and guests were not encouraged to linger: “Coffee is sometimes served after luncheon in the drawing-room. It is handed on a salver immediately after luncheon. The most usual way now, however, is to have coffee brought into the dining-room at the conclusion of luncheon, and handed to the guests on a salver. The guests are not expected to remain longer than twenty minutes after the adjournment to the drawing-room has been made.”

It is interesting to note that these guidelines, formulated over a century ago, underpin many of our attitudes to informal entertaining today. When it comes to inviting guests to our house – whether it is for lunch, an informal supper or a dinner party – we have in general discarded the whole paraphernalia of formality that characterised Victorian dining. For the most part, we are not sticklers about placement; we do not insist on neat guest lists with even numbers of couples, and “spare men” provided for single women; we do not respect protocol or precedence. All these rules are now only respected at extremely formal dinners, often hosted by an organisation such as a livery company, charity, corporation or business.

The “ladies’ lunch”, which was an established feature of social life in the late 19th and early 20th century has become the model for modern informal dining. While most of us still find the rules about gloves and hats amusingly anachronistic, we would certainly recognise the easy informality of the guest list, the relaxed attitude to seating plans, and the decision to dispense entirely with the notion of gentlemen “taking ladies down” to the dining room.

The ladies who devised the notion of luncheon during the Victorian era were taking the first steps towards the relaxation of rigid rules and hidebound conventions and embracing an easy-going conviviality, which has become the aspiration of contemporary hosts. For them, discarding the formal rules of dining must have seemed innovative and exciting; these days, most of us will have no memory of the stuffy conventions observed by our ancestors and laid-back informality has become the norm.


MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Get In Touch
Subscription Enquiries
+44 (0)330 3339699
General Enquiries
+44 (0)20 3950 5240
Join our weekly newsletter
Subscription Form
MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Designed by Anna Ocipinska. Developed by BuiltByGo. © 2022 Debrett’s. All Rights Reserved
My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.