At a flea market this summer at Madison’s Fete de Marquette festival, I purchased a used copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, first published in 1952. How could I pass up a book that covered such wide-ranging topics as Monogramming, How to Eat a Maine Lobster, and How to Write an “Angry” Letter? Being a lawyer by profession, though, I don’t need much help with that last one. There’s even a section on what to do if you can’t remember someone’s name (Ms. Vanderbilt recommends saying “Nice to see you” or “You’re looking well.”)
Although some of her advice, when viewed from a modern day perspective, is downright sexist (“a woman who achieves executive status of some kind must guard against being dictatorial at home as well as in the office”), Vanderbilt gives us a peek into a different era–an era when it was necessary to have formal and informal riding clothes, dress hats for different seasons and, for men, morning coats and dinner jackets.
I enjoy Vanderbilt’s sense of humor and surprising practicality. For example, she gives this advice on fashion trends:
While fashion, if you can afford it, is fun, it is no fun to feel you must discard an expensive dress you have worn only a few times because it is no longer “high style.” Unless you can really afford it, or because of your position must afford it, it is better to avoid all the expensive aspects of radically new fashion ideas until they have been sifted through for the sound ones to emerge and have a fair existence.
And speaking of sifting, if you can sift through the old-fashioned bits of the Complete Book of Etiquette, some of Vanderbilt’s tips are timeless. She advises that, while it often makes sense to delegate management of income and bill-paying to one spouse in a marriage, whether that person be male or female, both spouses should be informed about finances and have a say in major financial decisions. She is also a fierce advocate of the notion that people should live within their means. “It is never a disgrace to say, ‘I can’t afford it,'” writes Vanderbilt. In fact, she thinks it is preferable to simply say you can’t afford something than to go into a long-drawn-out explanation of why. Given today’s economic climate, living within our means is an enduring piece of “etiquette” advice that we modern-day consumers would be wise to follow.