How To Be Polite, Well-Mannered, and Ladylike or Gentlemanly


It is hardly necessary to remind the reader that dress, though often considered a trifling matter, is one of considerable importance, for a man’s personal appearance is a sort of “index and obscure prologue” to his character.

Lord Chesterfield has said, “I cannot help forming some opinion of a man’s sense and character from his dress.” Besides, the appearance of a well-dressed man commands a certain degree of respect which would never be shown to a sloven. As Shakspeare has written, “The world is still deceived by ornament;” and there are those who associate fine clothes with fine people so strongly, that they do not trouble themselves to ascertain whether the wearers are worthy of respect, as others form their opinions of books by the gilding of the leaves and beauty of the binding.

The dress of a gentleman should be such as not to excite any special observation, unless it be for neatness and propriety. The utmost care should be exercised to avoid even the appearance of desiring to attract attention by the peculiar formation of any article of attire, or by the display of an immoderate quantity of jewelry, both being a positive evidence of vulgarity. His dress should be studiously neat, leaving no other impression than that of a well-dressed gentleman.

Well-bred people do not often dress in what is called the “height of the fashion,” as that is generally left to dandies and pretenders. But still it is undoubtedly a great point gained to be well dressed. To be fancifully dressed, in gaudy colors, is to be very badly dressed, however, and is an example of ill taste which is rarely met with among people of substantial good breeding.

Cleanliness and neatness are the invariable accompaniments of good breeding. Every gentleman may not be dressed expensively, he may not be able to do so; but water is cheap, and no gentleman will ever go into company unmindful of cleanliness either in his person or apparel.

A well-dressed man does not require so much an extensive as a varied wardrobe. He wants a different costume for every season and every occasion; but if what he selects is simple rather than striking, he may appear in the same clothes as often as he likes, as long as they are fresh and appropriate to the season and the object. There are four kinds of coats which he must have: a business coat, a frock-coat, a dress-coat, and an over-coat. A well dressed man may do well with four of the first, and one of each of the others per annum. An economical man can get along with less.

Did any lady ever see a gentleman with an embroidered waistcoat, and a profusion of chains, rings, and trinkets adorning his person?

Avoid affecting singularity in dress. Expensive dressing is no sign of a gentleman. If a gentleman is able to dress expensively it is very well for him to do so, but if he is not able to wear ten-dollar broadcloth, he may comfort himself with the reflection that cloth which costs but five dollars a yard will look quite as well when made into a well-fitting coat. With this suit, and well-made shoes, clean gloves, a white pocket-handkerchief, and an easy and graceful deportment withal, he may pass muster as a gentleman. Manners do quite as much to set off a suit of clothes as clothes do to set off a graceful person.

A dress perfectly suited to a tall, good-looking man, may render one who is neither, ridiculous; as although the former may wear a remarkable waistcoat or singular coat, almost with impunity, the latter, by adopting a similar costume, exposes himself to the laughter of all who see him. An unassuming simplicity in dress should always be preferred, as it prepossesses every one in favor of the wearer.

Avoid what is called the “ruffianly style of dress,” or the nonchalant and slouching appearance of a half-unbuttoned vest, and suspenderless pantaloons. That sort of affectation is if possible even more disgusting than the painfully elaborate frippery of the dandy.

Gentlemen never make any display of jewelry; that is given up entirely to the dominion of female taste. But ladies of good taste seldom wear it in the morning. It is reserved for evening display and for brilliant parties.

The native independence of American character regards with disdain many of the stringent social laws which are recognized in England and on the continent. Thus, the dress which many of our countryman adopt for the assembly-room and private parties would subject them to serious annoyance abroad. A frock-coat would not be tolerated a moment in any fashionable society in Europe, and whether it be esteemed a prejudice or otherwise, we are free to confess that in our opinion it is a violation of good taste, and unsuited either to a ball-room or private assembly.

We should, however, be far from denying the claim of gentleman to any person, simply because he wore a frock-coat; for the fickle goddess, Fashion, tolerates it to a certain extent in America; but if the universal custom among the refined and polished members of society were to exclude it, as in Europe, its use would manifest a contempt for the opinion of others, of which no gentleman could be guilty.

If the title of gentleman should depend entirely and solely on one’s conformation to the laws of etiquette, the most unprincipled profligate or debauchee might successfully wear it; it is, however, but the finish and polish of the jewel—not the diamond itself.

If we were allowed to say anything to the ladies concerning dress in a dictatorial way, and were sure of being obeyed, we should order them generally to dress less. How often do we see a female attired in the height of fashion, perfectly gorgeous in costume, sweeping along the dusty street, perspiring under the weight of her finery—dressed, in fact, in a manner fit only for a carriage. This is a very mistaken and absurd fashion, and such people would be astonished to see the simplicity of real aristocracy as regards dress.

In our allusions to the dress of a gentleman, we have urged a studied simplicity of apparel; the same remarks are equally applicable to that of a lady. Indeed, simplicity is the grand secret of a lady’s toilet. When she burdens herself with a profusion ofbijouterie she rather detracts from than adds to her personal appearance, while all outré fashions and ultra styles of dress, though they excite attention, neither win respect nor enhance the attraction of the wearer.

Some ladies, perhaps imagining that they are deficient in personal charms—and we are willing to believe that there are such, although the Chesterfieldian school of philosophers would ridicule the idea—endeavor to make their clothes the spell of their attraction. With this end in view, they labor by lavish expenditure to supply in expensive adornment what they lack in beauty of form or feature. Unfortunately for their success, elegant dressing does not depend upon expense. A lady might wear the costliest silks that Italy could produce, adorn herself with laces from Brussels which years of patient toil are required to fabricate; she might carry the jewels of an Eastern princess around her neck and upon her wrists and fingers, yet still, in appearance, be essentially vulgar. These were as nothing without grace, without adaptation, without a harmonious blending of colors, without the exercise of discrimination and good taste.

The most appropriate and becoming dress is that which so harmonizes with the figure as to make the apparel unobserved. When any particular portion of it excites the attention, there is a defect, for the details should not present themselves first but the result of perfect dressing should be an elegant woman, the dress commanding no especial regard. Men are but indifferent judges of the material of a lady’s dress; in fact, they care nothing about the matter. A modest countenance and pleasing figure, habited in an inexpensive attire, would win more attention from men, than awkwardness and effrontery, clad in the richest satins of Stewart and the costliest gems of Tiffany.

There are occasionally to be found among both sexes, persons who neglect their dress through a ridiculous affectation of singularity, and who take pride in being thought utterly indifferent to their personal appearance. Millionaires are very apt to manifest this characteristic, but with them it generally arises through a miserly penuriousness of disposition; their imitators, however, are even more deficient than they in common sense.

Lavater has urged that persons habitually attentive to their attire, display the same regularity in their domestic affairs. He also says: “Young women who neglect their toilet and manifest little concern about dress, indicate a general disregard of order—a mind but ill adapted to the details of housekeeping—a deficiency of taste and of the qualities that inspire love.”

Hence the desire of exhibiting an amiable exterior is essentially requisite in a young lady, for it indicates cleanliness, sweetness, a love of order and propriety, and all those virtues which are attractive to their associates, and particularly to those of the other sex.

Chesterfield asserts that a sympathy goes through every action of our lives, and that he could not help conceiving some idea of people’s sense and character from the dress in which they appeared when introduced to him.

Another writer has remarked that he never yet met with a woman whose general style of dress was chaste, elegant and appropriate, that he did not find her on further acquaintance to be, in disposition and mind, an object to admire and love.

The fair sex have the reputation of being passionately fond of dress, and the love of it has been said to be natural to women. We are not disposed to deny it, but we do not regard it as a weakness nor a peculiarity to be condemned. Dress is the appropriate finish of beauty. Some one has said that, “Without dress a handsome person is a gem, but a gem that is not set. But dress,” he further remarks, “must be consistent with the graces and with nature.”

“Taste,” says a celebrated divine, “requires a congruity between the internal character and the external appearance; the imagination will involuntarily form to itself an idea of such a correspondence. First ideas are, in general, of considerable consequence. I should therefore think it wise in the female world to take care that their appearance should not convey a forbidding idea to the most superficial observer.”

As we have already remarked, the secret of perfect dressing is simplicity, costliness being no essential element of real elegance. We have to add that everything depends upon the judgment and good taste of the wearer. These should always be a harmonious adaptation of one article of attire to another, as also to the size, figure and complexion of the wearer. There should be a correspondence in all parts of a lady’s toilet, so as to present a perfect entirety. Thus, when we see a female of light, delicate complexion, penciling her eyebrows until they are positively black, we cannot but entertain a contempt for her lack of taste and good sense. There is a harmony in nature’s tints which art can never equal, much less improve.

A fair face is generally accompanied by blue eyes, light hair, eyebrows and lashes. There is a delicacy and harmonious blending of correspondences which are in perfect keeping; but if you sully the eyebrows with blackness, you destroy all similitude of feature and expression, and almost present a deformity.

We cannot but allude to the practice of using white paints, a habit strongly to be condemned. If for no other reason than that poison lurks beneath every layer, inducing paralytic affections and premature death, they should be discarded—but they are a disguise which deceives no one, even at a distance; there is a ghastly deathliness in the appearance of the skin after it has been painted, which is far removed from the natural hue of health.

The hostess should be particularly careful not to outshine her guests. We have seen many instances where a lady, fond of dress, (and what lady is not fond of dress?) and conscious that it is unbecoming to dress to excess when visitors are invited, yet so unable to restrain the desire of display, has made the whole of her guests look shabby, by the contrast of her own gay colors. To dress meanly is a mark of disrespect to the company, but it is equally so to make a very gay appearance. If you make a grand display yourself, you are apt to appear as if you wished to parade your appearance, and it is always safer to be under than over the mark.

In going out, consider the sort of company you are likely to meet, and endeavor to assimilate to them as much as possible—for to make a great display elsewhere is an evidence of bad taste. But here if you miss the happy medium, dress above the mark rather than below it, for you may dress more out of doors than you may at home. Where dancing is expected to take place, no one should go without new kid gloves; nothing is so revolting as to see one person in an assembly ungloved, especially where the heat of the room, and the exercise together, are sure to make the hands redder than usual. Always wear your gloves in church or in a theater.

We may add a few general maxims, applied to both sexes, and our task will be done.

“All affectation in dress,” says Chesterfield, “implies a flaw in the understanding.” One should, therefore, avoid being singular, or attracting the notice, and the tongues of the sarcastic, by being eccentric.

Never dress against any one. Choose those garments which suit you, and look well upon you, perfectly irrespective of the fact that a lady or gentleman in the same village or street may excel you.

When dressed for company, strive to appear as easy and natural as if you were in undress. Nothing is more distressing to a sensitive person, or more ridiculous to one gifted with an esprit moqueur, than to see a lady laboring under the consciousness of a fine gown; or a gentleman who is stiff, awkward, and ungainly in a bran-new coat.

Dress according to your age. It is both painful and ridiculous to see an old lady dressed as a belle of four-and-twenty, or an old fellow, old enough for a grandfather, affecting the costume and the manners of a beau.

Young men should be well dressed. Not foppishly, but neatly and well. An untidy person at five-and-twenty, degenerates, very frequently, into a sloven and a boor at fifty.

Be not too negligent, nor too studied in your attire; and lastly, let your behavior and conversation suit the clothes you wear, so that those who know you may feel that, after all, dress and external appearance is the least portion of a Lady or Gentleman.