Un-invitation, Vol. 14, Issue 1

January 11th, 2015 . by Etiquetteer

Dear Etiquetteer:

For a long time I’ve given a big party every year to celebrate something fun, but this year I’ve decided to do something different for myself that won’t be a party. What’s my obligation to tell people they won’t be hearing from me as usual? It feels weird to tell people, but I also want to be thoughtful for folks to make other plans if they want to. What’s the rule?

Dear Unhosting:

Your query brought to mind two things almost at once. The first was the voice of a Dear Friend, who delights repeating the old saw “When you assume, you make an ass of you and me” when Situations of This Sort arise. The other was Washington author and journalist Sally Quinn and her 1997 book The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining. Etiquetteer recalls La Quinn writing about her annual New Year’s Eve party, but that also some years she and her husband Ben Bradlee would just go off to the country place instead and not host it. This led to some confusion from guests who, out of force of habit, just showed up at their dark town house and found nothing happening.

It’s the responsibility of your guests not to assume there’s a party if they haven’t received an invitation. There is no social requirement to issue an un-invitation*, a term of Etiquetteer’s invention that means “an announcement of an event that will not take place.” That said, if you want to “control your own narrative” and ensure that people don’t start creating Gossip, it makes sense to email your usual guest list to say that your plans have changed and that what they have come to expect will not, in fact, be on the calendar. Etiquetteer imagines that such an announcement would be helpful for those who travel.

*Etiquetteer was all set to call this an “unvitation,” but that term has already been invented and defined by the cast of Seinfeld.

New Year’s Eve, Vol. 1, Issue 29

December 30th, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

This column was originally published December 30, 2002.

The Old Year is about to pass from us, and Etiquetteer, chilling champagne and starching a shirtfront, feels compelled to share a few thoughts and instructions for New Year’s Eve, the most universal and accessible holiday of all.

Poor dear depressed Oscar Levant once said “Scratch the fake tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.” Sadly, Etiquetteer knows many people who feel just that way about New Year’s Eve. A much-maligned occasion, many people dismiss it as a manufactured holiday meaning nothing and falsely glamorous. In a world that reveres Britney Spears, Abercrombie & Fitch, and game shows like “Russian Roulette,” Etiquetteer will take his glamour where he can find it, thank you very much!

Besides, New Year’s Eve is the one holiday that everyone on earth can celebrate together. All races, colors, creeds, and orientations use the same calendar to function in daily life, so why not bring us all together for a global occasion?! Etiquetteer thinks New Year’s Eve has the capacity to create world peace.

New York City has given the world the two most enduring versions of how New Year’s Eve is celebrated. While Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians syncopate in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for elegantly dressed and coiffed high society types swirling through a blaze of streamers, confetti, party hats and tiaras, the excitable masses squeeze themselves into Times Square, shrieking and waving at television cameras until the ball drops. Rowdiness is not unknown in either location — Etiquetteer knows of one lady, now quite elderly, who lost her shoes one New Year’s Eve in Times Square, so compressed by the crowd was she — and for many that enhances their enjoyment. Etiquetteer can only go figure.

But Etiquetteer will not hold you to the standard of Gotham, however glamorous it may be, to celebrate this Occasion. Make your own glamour in your own Perfectly Proper way! Whether you are gathered around the dinner table, concert stage, hot tub, pulpit, coffee maker, hookah, or piano, spend this holiday with people you care for deeply. More than all the tenacious gift-giving of Christmas, tonight is a night to remind the people you love how special they’ve been to you in the past year. Which, if you pay attention, is what the lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne” are all about. That’s why it’s sung at midnight.

And you had best stay up until midnight to sing it! Etiquetteer doesn’t care if you go to bed at exactly 12:00:30, but the point of New Year’s Eve is participating at the exact second the Old Year passes. Ringing in the New Year at 7:00 PM just because it’s midnight somewhere in the world doesn’t cut it; if it’s not midnight where you are, it just isn’t midnight.

And please, dress appropriately. If you’re cavorting with the rabble in Times Square, combat gear will protect your person from the weather and God knows what else. Otherwise, believe it or not, black tie is not required – check with your hostess first.

That said, Etiquetteer dearly wants you to break out a tiara for the evening whatever you’re wearing (even if it’s nothing at all in the hot tub). “I do not pretend to understand,” says Uncle Paxton in Clemence Dane’s delightful novel The Flower Girls, “why tiaras should make so much difference to my enjoyment of the evening, but they did. Certain objects are romantic on their own account. A tiara is one of them.” Whether you rush to the vault for the diamonds or the drugstore for the foil-coated cardboard, tonight is the night for this un-American but oh-so-much-fun accessory.

And now, should auld acquaintance be forgot, Etiquetteer fondly and sincerely wishes you a New Year of Peace, Prosperity, and Perfect Propriety.

The Etiquette of Prohibition, Vol. 13, Issue 57

December 3rd, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Etiquetteer delivered these remarks at the 2013 Repeal Day Celebration at the Gibson House Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

Among other things, the madness of Prohibition created a Culture of Alcohol Concealment, leading people to find ingenious ways to secrete liquor in their homes or on their persons. Images survive of hollow canes, fake books, and even shot vials concealed in high-heeled shoes so that people could travel with their tipple unrevealed. In the 21st century, already awash with alcohol, similar devices are used to get around outrageous liquor prices at sports and concert venues. These include hollow flip flops, a necktie flask, and even a “wine rack,” which is a sports bra with tubing.

Prohibition left a permanent mark on American manners, illustrated uncompromisingly in a little etiquette book called No Nice Girl Swears by Alice-Leone Moats, first published in 1933, the final year of Prohibition. The last chapter, headed “Our Plastered Friends,” begins “When our mothers came out, learning to handle a drunk was not an essential part of a debutante’s education. Now every girl has to be capable not only of shifting for herself, but, more often than not, of looking out for her escort as well.” Can you imagine?! This is not the way Best Society is supposed to conduct itself. But Miss Moats goes on to detail the ten different types of drunks and how to make the best of their bad situations (often using one’s mad money to abandon them and take a taxi home. Miss Moats paints a worst-case scenario from the beginning. “If you’re going out very often, you might as well be prepared to think quickly and be ready to exercise your ingenuity at any time. You may be called upon to do anything form catching the bottles that your escort, in his exuberance, may chance to throw, to burrowing in the sawdust for him.” (You must remember that often the floors of gin joints and other dives were sprinkled with sawdust.)

And going out was what people did. Prohibition saw entertaining at home decline (though of course it still went on) in favor of the jazzy rise of cafĂ© society. Willa Cather famously described the phenomenon in 1924, saying “Nobody stays at home any more.” And that meant men and women drinking together in public, whereas before Prohibition, saloons were for men only. At home, one was less likely to be entertained at a traditional seated dinner of several courses as at that brand-new gathering, the cocktail party. Ladies and gentlemen just standing around drinking liquor without a meal, or perhaps any food at all, being offered — revolutionary!

Miss Moats makes it sound easy: “Cocktail parties have become the line of least resistance in entertaining. They are convenient for the person who must get 50 or 60 people off the list of obligations and prefers to do it at one fell swoop, saving money at the same time. It certainly isn’t much trouble; all you need is a case of synthetic gin and a tin of anchovy paste. The greater the number of the guests, the smaller and more airless the room, the stronger the gin, the more successful the party. But if you give one, you must be prepared to have your friends on your hands until two in the morning, as they will invariably forget their dinner engagements and stay on until the last shakerful is emptied.”

One of the places they went in Boston was the famous Cocoanut Grove on Piedmont Street, which opened in October, 1927. But in spite of some shady connections, the Grove was on the up and up. They didn’t serve hard liquor, but would provide setups, trays of siphons and glasses, so you could discreetly add your own booze from your flask under the table. It was often better to bring your own to some places. In The Greeks Had a Word For Them, a gentleman at a speak asks “Well, what do you have that won’t kill us, blind us, or burn holes in our clothes?” The brutal Dinah Brand in Dashiell Hammett’s equally brutal Red Harvest said that someone’s liquor tasted like it was drained off a corpse. Other places would get around the law by serving booze in teacups.

Tolerance for drunken behavior became more accepted, too. Again, we hear from Miss Moats: “There was once a time when a man who got drunk in a lady’s drawing room was never invited to that house again. If he showed the same lack of control in another home, he ran the risk of having every door closed to him. Now a hostess who insists that all her guests remain sober would find that she was giving parties to a chosen few, and very dull ones at that. She takes it for granted that the majority of her guests will be wavering before the evening is over.” A Paul Cadmus painting of 1939, “Seeing the New Year In,” shows just such an occasion, with drunken, careless intellectuals coming apart at the seams. It’s a mean and tawdry descent.

One of the most astonishing ways that Prohibition changed America was the sudden appearance and acceptance of young women drinking in public. And it was this that led Pauline Morton Sabin, an aristocratic heiress to the Morton Salt fortune, to begin to campaign for Repeal. She said “Girls of a generation ago would not have ventured into a saloon. Girls did not drink; it was not considered ‘nice.’ But today girls and boys drink, at parties and everywhere, then stop casually at a speakeasy on the way home.” And indeed, a Topeka police chief observed “The girls simply won’t go out with the boys who haven’t got flasks to offer.” But a girl still had to hang on to her reputation, as Miss Moats makes clear in No Nice Girl Swears. “A great many people have come to believe in the single moral standard, but few have been converted to a single drinking standard. A drunken woman is still looked upon with disgust and she is certainly more objectionable than a drunken man. Liquor generally hits her in one of three ways: she gets boisterous and wants to play games, or she gets maudlin, or, more often, she grows desperately amorous. Whatever the effect, she is dangerous.”

To which Etiquetteer can only conclude, “Hotcha!”

Etiquetteer’s Advice to 21st Century Brides, Vol. 13, Issue 53

November 15th, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Dear Etiquetteer:

My beloved eldest niece – she who resembles me more than either of her parents – is getting married almost a year from now. So far she has save-the-date cards ordered, but as her mother had an awful upbringing in terms of manners, expectations, etc., I know she will not be able guide the bride-to-be. What are some of the pitfalls of which a bride-to-be should be wary in 2014-2015?

Dear Aunt Bridey:

A Young Woman approaching the altar has many pitfalls to avoid, including many within herself. The saddest and most obvious is the delusion that one’s wedding is just as important to everyone else in the entire world as it is to oneself. The next is that everyone in the entire world is going to spend every cent they have gratifying her every whim; this is what Etiquetteer calls the Gaping Maw of Bridal Need. Etiquetteer hates to disillusion these women (actually, that’s not true; Etiquetteer is fiercely eager to shred their Veils of Deliberate Illusion), but even one’s fiancĂ© is not likely as interested in the wedding as the bride. In fact, no one cares about the bride. They care about the bride caring about them. Surprise them all, and make your wedding guests the focus of your wedding!

Etiquetteer has some ideas about Brides Today and Perfect Propriety. Dear Bride:

  1. Be a giver, not a perpetual taker. No one likes satisfying the Gaping Maw of Bridal Need. No one owes you the wedding of your dreams.
  2. Ask yourself if this is really about you and your mother and/or mother-in-law fighting to see who can come out on top.
  3. Ask yourself if you want a perfect wedding, or if you really just want to boss people around. Be honest. If the latter, get the ladder and elope.
  4. Think carefully about the experience your wedding guests are going to have and make absolutely sure that your wedding will be a party they’ll remember for the right reasons.
  5. Make the conscious decision that you’re going to have a good time with all these people, not have an anxious time trying to avoid them so you can be with your fiancĂ©/husband. After all, you’ll have him for the rest of your life!
  6. It’s a wedding, not a chorus line. Choose the number of friends you want for bridal attendants, not vice versa. An even number of attendants is not necessary – good heavens, attendants themselves are not necessary! (And you’d be surprised how many of your friends will secretly thank you for sparing them the burden.)
  7. Don’t be so selfish that you force your attendants to buy hideous dresses they’ll never wear again.
  8. Don’t skimp on a gift for each of your attendants, and don’t let your fiancĂ© skimp either. They’re your friends after all, yes?
  9. Consider skipping the vulgarity of a bachelorette trip to Las Vegas and instead hosting a traditional bridesmaids luncheon the week before the wedding.
  10. Expect to have a tantrum, and expect to apologize afterward for it.
  11. Under no circumstances should you plan to do anything on the day of the wedding but be the bride. This means no assembly of rice bags or souvenirs or table centerpieces, no cooking, no nothing.
  12. Do not publicize information about your bridal registry until people ask, and then send it to them privately. NEVER include registry information on a save-the-date card or invitation. People do still want to believe that they’ve been invited for the Pleasure of their Company, and not for the Generosity of their Purses.
  13. Lay in some good stationery now and send your Lovely Notes of thanks as gifts are received. You may NOT wait until after the honeymoon, and you certainly are NOT given until the first anniversary to send these.
  14. Keep it simple. The budget for ostentatious little touches might be better spent on upgrading the food.
  15. Most important, plan to speak to every wedding guest personally to thank them for attending. They have taken a lot of time, trouble, and treasure to celebrate with you, and they expect to get to speak with you. They deserve your attention. Etiquetteer, of course, remains devoted to the idea of a receiving line – while recognizing that they are routinely abused by wedding guests (not always elderly ladies) who expect to have long detailed conversations with the Happy Couple. Another solution is to circulate among the tables during the wedding banquet.

Now, Aunt Bridey, Etiquetteer feels the need to advise you not to insinuate yourself too aggressively into the plans for your niece’s wedding. If you and she are so truly alike and already have a strong relationship, Etiquetteer predicts that she will reach out to you to be engaged in some way in the planning. But it would not be Perfectly Proper to usurp the place of the mother of the bride, regardless of how accurate your assessment of her abilities is. You have a beautiful opportunity to set a good example by hosting a meal in honor of the Happy Couple’s engagement for your own set of guests, with all the proper accoutrements. But let Etiquetteer be clear that this should not take place later than three months before the wedding, and it is certainly not a bridal shower. Things get busy enough the closer one gets to the Big Day.

Etiquetteer wishes joy to the Happy Couple, and peace to all involved!

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