By Savanah Mandeville
One day when I was around 10 or 11, I was at my grandma’s house and discovered a 1967 etiquette book titled, “Charm & Poise For Getting Ahead.”
I blew the dust off and began flipping through the pages. I was immediately enthralled by all the step-by-step lessons about how to be a lady: the proper way to do your makeup, how to choose an outfit to flatter your figure, the Do’s and Don’ts of dating. I couldn’t wait to get older and wear makeup, have a figure to flatter, and be charming and poised on dates. From then on, “Charm & Poise” was one of the main attractions at my grandma’s house. On more occasions than I can count during my pre-teen years, I dove deep into the pages, both fascinated by its womanly insights and enchanted by the mysteries of the 1960s. I determined that most of the information was probably still useful except for the “Hairstyles” page – the big coiffures and bouffants kind of cracked me up and looked way more complicated than anything I could ever pull off.
Years went by and I forgot about the book. It went back in the closet to collect dust once again.
Then about 6 months ago, my grandma was in town visiting and the topic got around to her sorority days in San Francisco in the 1960s. I asked her if she ever went down to Haight-Ashbury in those days and the answer was a resounding “No.”
“That’s where the druggies were,” she said. “We stayed away from there. And if I’d gone down there, your grandpa would’ve had a cow.”
I silently thought about how wildly different my college days would’ve been if I were her. I think when people my age think of the 1960s, we think about the hippies and the Peace & Love Revolution but sometimes fail to realize there were still a lot of people like my grandparents with more traditional values.
I suddenly remembered “Charm and Poise.”
“Do you still have that etiquette book?” I asked.
She did! And she said she’d send it to me.
A couple weeks later, the book arrived in the mail along with a handwritten note from my grandma on the title page that read, “Savanah, I hope you enjoy this as much as you did the first time around! The book is not new, and rules haven’t changed that much. Most people just don’t know that there ARE rules. Granny M.”
It was exactly as I remembered it. I couldn’t wait to dig in like I did when I was a kid, but now, at 27-years-old and with a bunch of Women’s Studies classes behind me, what would I think of it? And what about my grandma’s note? Had things really not changed that much? Should we still be following these rules?
I was skeptical.
The whole thing reminds me of Mad Men or The Bell Jar. Everyone was a bit more tight-laced and polite in those days, and if The Bell Jar is any indication of what that life was like, it totally sucked and everyone was suffering in silent desperation.
I mean, “Charm and Poise” reeks of double standards, internalized misogyny, and pedestal sexism. It’s no secret that men have been basically allowed to do whatever they want for all time whereas women have been held to a strict set of social standards with the goal being to attract and keep a man. Men have decidedly not had to adhere to the same strict standards, even though, admittedly, there were certainly more rules of decorum for men in my grandma’s day than there are now. And as I continued through the book, I found that to be more and more true.
The book is divided into seven units:
- Skincare, Cosmetic Application and Hair Beautification
- Visual Poise
- Wardrobe Planning
- Personality Development
- Your Voice and You
- Being Successful on the Job
- Body Perfection
Body Perfection? Yikes. In the age of the Body Positivity Movement, that is a troublesome phrase.
I found that the Skincare section had a lot of the same advice that we see today: treatment for different skin types (dry, oily, combination), eating a healthy diet, and the ever timeless:
“Scrub a rub dub, get in the tub;
don’t go to bed with your make-up on.”
A full four pages are dedicated to “Facial Massage Techniques” which you rarely see today. The book also touts the benefits of tanning beds, which is unheard of now. Also, there’s a plastic surgery section that sings the praises of the face lift and concludes with:
“Although this type of surgery is not effective forever and the cost is considerable, it is one solution for the woman who can’t be happy with her face as it is.”
That wording seems pretty blunt compared to what we’re used to today — the euphemistic word you most often hear in justification of plastic surgery is “confidence.” Most makeup Youtubers have to preface each video with at least five minutes of, “These are just suggestions and you don’t have to wear makeup if you don’t want to and it’s important to love yourself exactly as you are and on and on and on.” Self-love is huge in today’s society, where this book seems to be 423 pages of how to fix yourself.
The book has a few pages dedicated to the 1960s version of contouring and eyebrow shaping to flatter different face shapes.
I noticed that the “complexion coloring” section lists White, Cream, Pink, Golden, Tan, Olive, and then Brown, Copper or Ebony. So there are several different caucasian complexions but “Brown, Copper, or Ebony” are lumped together into one group? For the most part, the book ignores the existence of women of color.
“Brow Shapes For Correcting Other Facial Features” gives advice for women with a “too-long nose,” “too-short nose,” “broad nose,” “narrow nose,” “high forehead,” or “low forehead.” Ouch. Reminds me of in Mean Girls when Cady says, “I used to think there was just fat and skinny, but apparently there’s lots of things that can be wrong on your body.”
As a culture, we are definitely more sensitive now. Beauty advice today isn’t as centered around what’s wrong with your face as it is about “making the most” of your natural features (wait…is there a difference?), or rather, how to make your face look exactly like Kylie Jenner. The styles change, but we’re still expected to fit into a pretty narrow box, albeit not as narrow…right?
The hairstyles for certain face shapes are all the big, highly-styled coiffures. There was
no letting it all hang loose. And, of course, there’s no advice for African American hair.
The unit for Visual Poise is interesting. There are rules for how to stand to slim your hips and distract from whatever is wrong with your legs.
“Know exactly why your legs are not perfect. Legs are classified as normal, bowed, heavy, thin and knock-kneed.”
Did men in 1967 need to know exactly why their legs were not perfect? Hmm.
There are rules for what do with your arms in different situations, what to do with your hands and the “Five Hand-Hip Positions.”
All of this seems like a lot to remember.
There are a lot of rules on how to properly walk.
“Ethereal qualities are associated with those who walk well,” says the introduction. “It is said that they ‘float’ or ‘glide’ as through there were no earthly connection between their feet and ground.”
Oh boy. Floating and gliding?
Ok, this could go on all day. There were rules for everything. The proper way to sit down (don’t look at the chair!), the proper way to be sitting in a chair (depending on the type of chair!), the proper way to get in and out of a car (depending on the type of car!), the right way to pose when entering an open door, the right way to enter a closed door, the right way to walk up stairs, the right way to take a jacket off and put it back on, the right posture for when someone is helping you take off or put on your jacket – whew! I’m exhausted and this isn’t even a quarter of the way through the book.
I can imagine there were a lot of women banging their heads against the wall trying to remember all this. Or being at a social gathering and internally berating herself for not posing the right way when entering an open door. Or lying awake at night with the realization that she made a fool of herself while taking her jacket off. It’s easy to imagine how damaging this stuff must’ve been to a lot of women’s self esteem.
And what does this advice tell women? What is it really saying when every second of your day has to be choreographed, planned, and perfect? I’m sure the book was written for ladies who were exceptionally interested in this kind of thing (like Jackie O. and my grandma) and not necessarily intended for everyone, but then again, to what degree were these rules of etiquette in the mainstream? This definitely seems like the type of stuff that helped spur the women’s liberation movement. The movement wasn’t just about liberation from the kitchen, but from literally your every single move being scrutinized and controlled. What’s more, women still feel like there are a lot of rules to follow just for being a woman.
Onto some fun stuff.
I found it pretty funny that the book includes classy tips for smoking a cigarette to avoid “looking masculine or uncouth.”
And, of course, I LOVE looking at the fashion.
The fashion styles are divided into 12 “types.” These are The Exotic, The Ingenue, The Athletic, The Romantic, The Woman of Fashion, The Voluptuous, The Boyish, The Sophisticated, The Intellectual, and The Young Matron, The Matron – Queenly Woman, and The American Girl. I think I would describe my style as three parts Boyish, two parts Intellectual, and one part Woman of Fashion. Really, these aren’t that far from the different “aesthetics” you seen on Pinterest today.
There were a ton of fashion rules as well. All the fashion advice is to never be whatever it is that you are — if you’re tall, choose clothes that make you look less tall. If you’re short, choose clothes that make you look less short. If you’re “stout,” choose clothes that make you look less stout and if you’re thin, choose clothes that make you look less thin. It’s never okay to just be the way you are — everyone is striving to meet in the middle and be as average as possible.
Some of the biggest differences between then and now that I found involve interactions between men and women.
Some of these Dining Out rules are pretty interesting.
The Personality Development Unit has a ton of problematic shit. Ok. Where to begin?
Under “The Top Nine Personality Traits,” number 5 says:
Five – Don’t show off your knowledge
Speaking of tact, people will love you if you will make them seem important. They may admire you for your education and erudition, but they will not love you. It is better to be loved than admired.
Under “Seven Keys to Popularity for Women,” number 3 is to “Be Feminine.”
- Be Feminine
Be the woman you were meant to be. Let your words and actions proclaim your ability to complement all that is masculine. Men will adore and women will emulate.
Gender binarism much? Don’t forget ladies… the whole point of existence is to complement the menfolk.
Under “Seven Personality Dimensions,” the “Masculinity – Feminity spectrum” starts out surprisingly woke but backslides at the end:
Some other Personality Don’ts are:
- Do not take a vulgar attitude toward the opposite sex.
- Do not talk about your personal troubles.
- Do not be a political radical.
- Do not laugh loudly.
- A lady never smokes on the street.
*Cough* Guilty as charged.
On the other hand, the book has some good advice too.
Some of the advice I like:
- Do not laugh at the mistakes of others.
- Do not spread gossip.
- Do not pry into other people’s business.
- Do not be out of patience with modern ideas.
- Etiquette demands that you give your weekend hostess a gift.
- Greet your hostess before you greet other guests.
- Answer compliments with a simple, “Thank you.”
Under the “Seven Keys to Popularity for Women,” number 2 is “Be Natural.”
- Be Natural
You can be loved and admired for your weaknesses as well as for your strength. Let others know how superbly human you really are.
This is saying that it’s okay to be yourself and show your vulnerabilities. I agree with this and think it’s nice, even though it is a little bit ironic in this book.
The book has some good advice and some weird advice for making introductions.
All in all, I think reading “Charm & Poise” is fun and interesting. In some ways, the book makes life in 1967 seems harder than life today, but in other ways, it makes life seem easier. I think a lot of the rules on how to act in social situations were invented to avoid awkwardness. I can think of several situations where I haven’t been totally sure of the appropriate thing to do, and this book lays it all out. But most of the rules were invented to keep women in their place. Most of the chivalry rules for men are unnecessary and only contribute to “pedestal sexism” and objectification of women. Women are complex human beings, just like men, so they don’t need special treatment or to be treated like pretty little weaklings. Like… the only boyfriend I’ve ever had who always opened the car door for me is also the only boyfriend I’ve had who punched me in the face. But I digress.
I thought I would read “Charm and Poise” and be really offended by the advice. First of all, none of it really surprised me and second of all, I don’t think things are all that different today. Women are still mostly valued based on how pretty and skinny they are, and there are a million and one photos on Instagram to prove it. Black women still don’t have as many makeup options available to match their skin color. We don’t call the fitness videos on Youtube “Body Perfection” videos, but isn’t the goal kind of the same? Our fashion choices are more loose, but we’re still expected to keep up with current trends. We might not be as in-your-face about the rules as people were then, but my grandma was right … the rules haven’t changed that much.
“Charm and Poise For Getting Ahead” is a peek into the past and I think books like this should be preserved for the sake of history. I know I’ll treasure it and keep it safe, and one day I’ll pass it on to my feminist granddaughter so she can analyze the shit out of it and come to her own conclusions and probably get a good laugh in the process.