Sunday, January 27, 2008

Conspicuous Consumption

The etiquette scribes of the “conspicuous consumption” period took the position that they were helping to instill a more aristocratic style of behavior, one that was more in tune with the improving fortunes of the middle class. There was something of a backlash to this. Before long, critics began to cry out against this wave of “artificial refinement.” To these critics, Appleton’s Journal replied in 1871, “Is it not better to carry punctiliousness a little too far than continually to be sinning against those minor morals on which the pleasure of intercourse so much depends?” “Punctiliousness” was much in evidence. On crossing the street, a lady was to “gracefully raise her dress a little above her ankle.” When bowing, the head was to be bent, and “a mere lowering of the eyelids” was rude. Formal calls were to last no longer than 15 minutes. One was never to “emphasize a point with a touch of the foot.” Men were not supposed to smoke in the presence of women, and women were not supposed to smoke at all.
The dining room became an arena for conspicuous consumption with what was described as a bewildering display of goblets, plates, and silverware. The etiquette of the ballroom was complex and severe. Formal introductions were imperative, and the style and form of the dances themselves were strictly prescribed.

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