"A word fitly spoken is
like apples of gold in pictures of silver."
Q: What about
historic etiquette appropriate to the time period of an event? To what degree should we
attempt to emulate it?
A: The culture(s) and thus the thinking, manners and expectations of persons in the
seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were very different than
our own. We live in a world which seems increasingly bent toward cultural
and philosophical egalitarianism, with a very blurred sense of morality
where all ideas are considered equal and individualism is emphasized and expressed even to the point of the
detriment of society and any responsibility toward others is often dimly
perceived if at all.
Our ancestors lived in a
very different type of environment. It really is difficult to appreciate
this without attempting immersion into the thinking and experiences of the
times through first-person accounts such as diaries, autobiographies and
letters. Music, period books, speeches and documents are also helpful.
Visits to historic homes, battlefields, churches and cultural sites can add
a visual element to which one might imaginatively apply the sense gained
from other sources.
My opinion is that most
modern movies, television, books, etc. which attempt to portray other eras
do so through the generally obvious filter of present day thinking.
"Historical" dramatizations in the media are often remarkably "dumbed down"
and/or tend to create "good" characters which are politically and
culturally “correct” (by modern liberal standards) or "bad" characters which
are abominably “incorrect.” Whether the motive be marketing, ignorance or
outright propaganda, the result is inauthentic. It simply isn't history.
But authenticity, at times,
may be a real eye opener, demythologizing incorrect perceptions and
assumptions and/or jarring modern sensibilities. As an example, it may not
be surprising that an accurate portrayal of the thinking of a typical
mid-nineteenth century woman would likely be foreign and probably even
offensive to modern day liberal views. But conservatives might have some
surprises too, applauding the classic feminine virtues such as grace, charm,
good manners and devotion to family but not comprehending that ideals of
femininity were perhaps also behind a few strange (to us) points of
etiquette and the often low-cut (by our standards) bodices seen in 18th and
19th century paintings.
The great questions and
conflicts of other times also require looking beyond simple modern labels
which may be dumbed down and/or politically motivated. The idea that
The American Revolution was fought simply over taxes or that most persons on
either side of The Civil War were fighting for or against slavery would be
such examples easily dispersed by just a little effort at study which would
cause one to discover so much more in terms of complexity and causes. Modern
iconoclasm too has taken a toll and has slung mud falsely on many a noble
character. Attempting to honestly study and understand people within the
context of their times can bring much to light - rather than stepping in
with modern self-righteousness or post-modern arrogance and looking for someone to pass judgment upon
or simply label and dismiss.
There is much for us to
learn. So whatever our 21st century philosophical leanings may be we ought to be
willing to discover the people of the past for who they really were.
More to the point of our
Balls, it is necessary to remember that dances were social experiences. The
idea was to circulate and enjoy the company of others. This is difficult for
some to understand because many have grown up with very different ideas of
dancing and gender interaction. Most of us remember high school dances where
we looked around for the best looking girls (or guys) and often refused
unacceptable persons. Much was dependent upon appearance and a perception of
status. (To this day you may view a dance as an enjoyable activity or as
something to avoid depending on who you were and how you fit in as an
adolescent!) While the same sort of motivations may have been present to a
degree even then; custom, culture, religion, manners, traditions,
expectations and social mores all formed a person to think and act in a
different direction. Among the assembled throng of a Ball would have been
old and young as well as homely and beautiful, but from the perspective of
social responsibility all that was irrelevant. A gentleman had a
responsibility to dance with a variety of ladies and a lady generally had
the responsibility to dance with a gentleman if asked. These were not
primarily couple events but social events and in the context of the group
dances of the time you will sooner or later swing, turn or join hands with
everyone – not just your actual partner.
In Europe, the royalty and
nobility still held a higher status which carried over to special
recognition (precedence) and treatment (deference) at all social events. In democratic-minded America it was
generally considered that during the course of a Ball all present were on an equal
social footing. The host (and/or hostess) would receive respect due to
position and service and a visiting dignitary might be briefly acknowledged
and honored, but by and large all would be considered as equals - at least
for the evening. Thus a general’s wife would not refuse to dance with a
lieutenant based on his lower military rank nor would a United States
Senator need refrain from asking a dance of a bonnet maker.
(One of the many things
that were different then was the fact that the dance master and musicians
were considered hired help and were not usually recognized or applauded.
However, at our events we consider it good manners to acknowledge a job well
We desire to reenact to
some degree the experience of an historic Ball but we realize that our
culture today is different, that a number of newcomers will usually be
present, that even knowledgeable history and dance buffs are still learning
and that our interest is in creating an atmosphere that includes rather than
excludes so that all can enjoy, experience and learn together. Therefore I
desire these Balls to be such that complete novices feel welcome, accepted
and not overburdened while at the same time veterans are thoroughly enjoying
themselves as well. With that in mind, those who desire to carry out period
etiquette to the fullest are welcome to do so. However, for the majority
allow me to put forward the following list of suggestions that I think all
could easily abide by.
(The etiquette of the times
is typed normally with my suggestions following in italics.)
1. Gentlemen (including
married men) were expected to always have an eye open for unattached ladies
so that an inquiry could be made as to whether the lady would like to dance.
Thus no lady who desired to join in would have been abandoned to be a
Gentlemen, we expect
that all will cheerfully do their duty in this regard.
2. Ladies in those times did not typically ask gentlemen to dance nor did
anyone dance with a person whom they did not know or had not been properly
We waive these customs
knowing that not all gentlemen are acquainted with their responsibilities
enumerated in #1 and also in the interest of all being able to join in the
dancing as often as they may desire.
3. When a gentleman asked a lady to dance she was generally expected to
agree unless one of two situations applied. Either (A) she had already been
engaged for that particular dance by another gentleman or (B) she was
sitting that particular dance out. To refuse one gentleman and then accept
another for the very same dance was the height of bad manners and was
considered an insult not only to the first gentleman who asked but to the
host of the Ball as well, the implication being that the man was unworthy
and that therefore the host was unworthy for having allowed the man to
We ask that ladies
maintain this custom unless the man in question has (God forbid) behaved in
a crude or offensive manner. (If such were ever the case, your host would
like to know of it immediately.) We also make exception if you are a married
lady who isn’t comfortable with a partner other than your husband. (See #4
below.) But if you are willing to dance with some others then good manners
would suggest that you should be willing to dance with all others.
4. Believe it or not, in the 18th and 19th centuries it was considered very
rude for couples to dance together more than two or three times in an
evening! Why? Because dances were social events not couple oriented events and there
was an obligation to mix and participate.
We waive this rule
because our culture is so different today and it would make some married
couples (particularly newcomers) to feel very awkward. However, we encourage
all who are willing to dance, mingle and interact, remembering the social
obligations of ladies and gentlemen.
5. In 18th and 19th century
ballrooms, men danced with women and women danced with men. The one
exception was that it was sometimes permissible for ladies to dance with
other ladies, particularly if there were a numerical shortage of gentlemen.
(Group dancing was so much
a part of the fabric of American culture and social life that during the
Civil War bored soldiers in camp would hold Balls outside, even in freezing
weather and even with no ladies present. Of course this was not a ballroom
situation but it does help to illustrate that dancing in that period was
such a universal recreation and a social rather than a sensual event.)
We hold to the historic
ballroom practice while allowing (if need be) for the one historic
6. Dances were held of every size imaginable from small family gatherings to
immense events with a thousand guests or more. They also ranged from the
informal "hoe down" to the royal "court" ball. Dress and manners would have
varied with time, place and the nature of the occasion. An aristocrat would
have dressed very well at a ball held by one of his peers but probably not as
extravagantly as he would for court occasions. A modest farmer's wife might
have danced in her work clothes at home but would have worn her "Sunday
best" to the town dance. Decent people of all classes would have dressed and
behaved with the respect due to others as per their social circumstances.
As we have an interest
in a range of historical impressions we do not generally request that those
in period attire dress as per a certain social category. But out of respect
and a desire not to interrupt the atmosphere of the event we require that
those who attend these balls in modern attire dress at least at a semiformal
level. No historic man would have considered attending such an event without
jacket and neckwear and neither shall we. Likewise, no lady would have
attended without a gown. But some things do change along the way. For
instance, 17th & 18th century men often wore hats while dancing but by the 19th
century this would have been unacceptable.
7. As we have just
mentioned, social customs regarding men with hats changed over time. In the
17th and 18th centuries it was permissible for men to wear hats while
dancing and some dances even called for certain flourishes of the chapeau.
However by the 19th century men did not wear hats while dancing and did not
generally wear them indoors at all.
Comprehending that our
gentlemen have often spent considerable funds in acquiring distinctive
period headwear and that such headwear is part and parcel of many an
historic look, ensemble or persona - we do allow gentlemen to wear hats
regardless of the time period represented.
8. The world of the 18th
and 19th centuries was not nearly as "leveled", "democratized"
or "egalitarian" as it is
today in the 21st century. There were definite social classes which were
easily recognized by marks of attire, speech and behavior. Many groups
rarely or never engaged on a social level. Generally speaking, social
classes would have mixed far more in the latter 19th century than in the
early 18th and far more in America than in Europe.
Again, as we have an
interest in a range of historical impressions we generally welcome people to
engage in interpretations of a social level they are comfortable presenting.
There are creative means of being inclusive. For instance at a Ball for
Regency era English aristocrats there might be Americans or French present
for diplomatic or business reasons. At the Royal Governor's Colonial Ball
the gentleman in question naturally desires to become acquainted with the
nature of the provincials he has just arrived to govern. At a Civil War Ball
the patriotic fervor of the moment has a mellowing effect on the already
softening distinctions of class in America.
9. What about "modesty"?
One of the questions that often comes up when we hold workshops or seminars
on historic fashion is in regards to the low cut bodices of former eras. To
the historically uninitiated this is sometimes a shocking fact as there is
occasionally a wrong assumption that the farther back one goes in time the
less skin one will see. The very word "modesty" would have generally brought
an entirely different range of thoughts to mind for an 18th century person
than for a person today - but I digress - and that would be a large enough
topic of conversation all on its own. Let us return to the practical side of
the question. The fact is, how much skin - and what skin - could be put in
public view by a lady of good upbringing and morals has been a rather
changing phenomenon that has had its highs and lows (quite literally)
throughout the last several centuries. Attitudes have shifted in a wave-like
pattern. This has been true even in the microcosm of pop culture of the 20th
century. The 1920s were far more revealing than the 1940s or '50s. The late '60s and
'70s showed a great deal of skin and then the '80s and early '90s
considerably less. Skin returned again in the late '90s.
fashions, modern ladies uncomfortable with low necklines may easily adapt
patterns upwards to taste or make use of accessories offering extra coverage
such as a fichu. But beware of harshness in judgment regarding your ancestors. As
shocked as you may be by their low necklines, they would be FAR more shocked
to see modern ladies going about in pants and (gasp) shorts - or even skirts
that show the lower leg! A tasteful 18th
century lady with a low (by our standards) neckline saw herself as making a
very natural statement of femininity, declaring her gender - but she would
never have dreamed of exposing her legs to public view!
10. To criticize another for
their clothing or dancing ability was out of the question for an historic
lady or gentleman. Any such behaviour would be the very height of
Everyone, regardless of
dancing ability is welcome. Likewise those who attempt an historic look are
encouraged and their efforts will be applauded. Those who wear modern
evening attire are also welcome and respected but modern casual wear is not
appropriate. Need I mention how many have attended a
We Make History Ball
once or twice in a prom gown or bridesmaid's dress, found the sincere
welcome and the level of grace and respect to be incredibly appealing, and
then gone on to have a fine wardrobe of beautiful historic attire?
11. Basic, all around good manners and respect for people and property were
Sir, madame and other
appropriate titles should be used as well as please and thank you. Bows and
curtseys are good form when being introduced or before or after a dance.
Gentlemen should never abandon ladies once a dance ends but should thank the
lady and ask whether she would care to be escorted to a seat, would like a
glass of punch, etc.
and encouragement are signs of grace and respect toward those in the process
of acquiring historic style clothing and toward those learning to dance.
Treat those who are
making the effort to be "in character" according to their portrayal.
gentlemen on volatile subjects such as Jefferson’s embargo against Britain
or the Presidential race of 1860 may be animated and passionate but never
crude or base.
We attract a very gracious,
higher class group of ladies and gentlemen to our events. All are expected to behave with the manners, decorum, tastefulness,
grace, respect and gratitude appropriate to gentility. This high level of
respect and gentility is expected not only in person or on the ballroom
floor but also while socializing after the ball and in communications such as email
or other media.
If there were ever a
circumstance when harassment, threats, coarse comments or other obnoxious
behavior were displayed, such a person would be told to leave and would no
longer be welcome. The same would apply to anyone exhibiting the influence
of alcohol or illegal drugs.
Smoking is not permitted
during these events as the policies of We Make History as well as those of
our venues forbid it. Due to the nature of the beautiful wooden dance floors
we sometimes utilize (as well as our of concern for our guests' feet), spurs cannot be worn nor should historic footwear have exposed
nails or other parts which could cause damage. Photography is welcome if
discretion is exercised and permission is granted by the subjects. However
we do not permit videotaping or recording (other than an occasional "house" videographer)
as it is impolite to do so without permission of the host and musicians and
some persons are not comfortable being filmed while learning to dance; not to mention that it only takes a few video cameras to create a
distraction and begin detracting from the ambience we work so hard to