10 Ridiculous Victorian Etiquette Rules

By: Jane McGrath  | 

victorian bride
A Victorian family cheerfully prepares the dowry for a bride. clu/Getty Images

The Victorians have a reputation for being prim, proper and persnickety. As a member of the upper class in Victorian England (during the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901), one had to know the exhaustive rules of etiquette that went along with one's position. Today, many of these rules seem arbitrary and silly: Does it really matter the order in which dinner party guests enter the dining room? At the time it did, because such social niceties constituted basic manners and politeness.

Of course, some etiquette rules were arbitrary, but they were nonetheless functional. Every society has such rules — like whether to drive on the right or left side of the street — to establish expectations and keep things running smoothly. In the Victorian era, etiquette lubricated the mechanism of social exchange: There were rules for making new friends, keeping up with old friends and even cutting out morally dubious friends. But most importantly, knowing the rules helped one show respect for everyone else, including servants, acquaintances, nobility and clergy.

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Yet such rules could go too far. It was evident to many even then; social critics of the time popularly mocked the more ridiculous elements of Victorian society. The magazine Punch published cartoons of farcical social scenes, and the satirist W.S. Gilbert penned humorous lyrics to comic operas skewering silly elements of the culture. We'll take a glimpse into some of the rules that seem absurd to us today.

Let us start with a proper invitation: We kindly request the pleasure of your company to take part in an exploration of Victorian etiquette. Let's start with what they wore.

10: Fashion Etiquette: Crinolines and Corsets

crinoline fashions
Fashions from the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine (April 1865) were arranged over crinolines. duncan1890/Getty Images

The Victorians firmly believed in the importance of wearing the appropriate clothing on every occasion. And while in the early part of the 19th century (Jane Austen's time) women's dresses were fairly simple, by the age of the Victorians, the pendulum had swung back to favor elaborate, refined and embellished attire. The average girl needed many styles of dress stashed in her closet, including dresses for balls, dinners, walks and carriage rides, in addition to country attire. Strict rules established how long one was to wear black when mourning a husband, father, sibling and even in-laws [sources: Yesterday's Thimble, Andrews].

Undoubtedly, the most famously ridiculous item of a Victorian woman's wardrobe was the crinoline. As a substitute for layers of heavy petticoats, these wide, steel-constructed domed cages held women's skirts far from their legs. Such devices made it easy to use the chamber pot, perhaps, but maneuvering in small spaces became a challenge. Women also had to relearn how to sit elegantly [source: Publicism]. Nevertheless, it was the popular fashion, and every fine upper-class lady had one. Later in the century, fashion favored crinolettes, which propped up just the rear of the dress.

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But perhaps no other article of clothing better represented Victorians than the corset, which was essential for a Victorian woman. These tight-fitting undergarments helped one stay erect and even represented a sense of self-respect. Indeed, corsets were ubiquitous for women across classes — they were even standard in prisons and workhouses. Some physicians at the time argued that women needed the corset for health reasons — to support their internal organs [source: Publicism].

9: Street Etiquette: Greeting One Another

men and women on the village green
Young men and women gather on the village green in this illustration by Randolph Caldecott. duncan1890/Getty Images

Strict guidelines governed social interaction on promenades and public thoroughfares, especially between the sexes. A young, unmarried woman would not go out without an escort. Etiquette forbade young ladies from looking around for acquaintances or stopping to chat in a crowded thoroughfare.

According to Cassell's Household Guide, a comprehensive book on Victorian life published in 1869, if the young woman did see a gentleman friend and felt she couldn't ignore him, she would have to take the initiative and offer her hand. The gentleman had to wait for the lady to recognize him before lifting his hat (not simply touching the brim), and he had to use the hand farthest from her. If she offered her hand, the gentleman had to turn and walk with the lady instead of stopping. Above all else, the conversation itself had to be reserved: Cassell's dictates, "Strict reticence of speech and conduct should be observed in public," without "loud talking" or "animated discussions."

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A gentleman never smoked in the presence of a lady. Indeed, it would be impolite for ladies to "detain gentlemen in conversation" while they were smoking, because it would force him to put out a good cigar [source: Cassell's].

Only under extreme circumstances could one perform the practice of "cutting," in which you stared directly at someone you knew with no sign of recognition. Cassell's called this "the most ill-mannered act possible to commit in society."

In a carriage ride, a gentleman never sat next to a lady who was not a relative; he always sat with his back to the horses, allowing the opposite seat to the lady. A gentleman also had to take care not to step on a lady's dress, and he was to alight first to help a lady down.

8: Introduction Etiquette: Addressing Nobility

victorian doctor
The doctor pays a house call to a Victorian couple. Since none of them are nobility, maybe introductions are less of a minefield. duncan1890/Getty Images

Proper introductions were important to Victorians, as it was generally considered improper to address someone to whom you hadn't been formally presented. Social inferiors were presented to social superiors in an introduction, with the exception that ladies were always introduced to gentlemen regardless of rank.

So to introduce people as a proper Victorian, you had to know your social rankings, or the order of precedence. This was no easy task to keep straight. After the sovereign and the sovereign's close relations came the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord High Chancellor, and so on. Titled nobility included two orders: the peerage (which included dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons, in that order) and, below them, baronets and knights.

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Properly addressing such nobility was also difficult. Generally, one used "Lord" to address peers, "Lady" to address women married to a peer, and "Sir" to address baronets and knights. Making it more confusing, however, was the use of "Lord" and "Lady" to address upper-class people who were not nobility (as a "courtesy title"). This was also opposed to written communication, because one had to know that a marquis was addressed as "The Most Hon.," while other peers were addressed as "The Right Honorable" [sources: Susanne Dietze, The English Manner].

7: Calling Card Etiquette

illustration from "Nicholas Nickleby"
This illustration from "Nicholas Nickleby" shows a man presenting his card to a lady. duncan1890/Getty Images

If you arrived in town for an extended visit, it was customary to go around leaving your calling card. This was a way to announce your presence and arrange visits to keep up with old acquaintances. The receiver customarily returned the favor in the form of a card or visit within a week. (Intimate friends could call right away without waiting for a card.) One would also customarily leave cards for a household during certain events, such as illness or engagements, to express condolences or congratulations.

A very fine lady would go around in her carriage with a footman, who brought the cards into the house. And he would bring many. One married woman calling on another would bring one card with her name and two with her husband's name (for both mistress and master) in addition to cards for unmarried daughters or guests in the household. The names of the visitor's unmarried daughters could be written on the mother's card.

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Fans of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens will recall how aspiring upper-class citizens would sometimes pretentiously display on their mantle the cards from high-ranking acquaintances who came to call.

6: Visiting Etiquette: The Art of Calling

introductions
A Victorian man introduces his lady friend to his father and sister. duncan1890/Getty Images

When a formal visit was accepted or arranged, one wouldn't wear anything showy: Etiquette dictated "plain walking costume" [source: Cassell]. Because of tradition, these calls were known as "morning calls," but by Victorian times, they were hardly ever performed before noon. In the 19th century, "morning" simply meant any time before dinner (i.e., 7 p.m.).

Every day, if a lady happened to be home, she was expected to be properly dressed and ready for visitors between 3 and 5 p.m. In fact, the time visitors arrived depended on how intimate an acquaintance they were: The closer you were, the later you could visit. Someone not well-acquainted with you could call between 3 and 4 p.m.; if they arrived earlier, they certainly exhibited "ill-taste" [sources: Pool, Cassell].

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When you arrived, the butler would lead you to the drawing room, where it was customary to receive guests. According to etiquette, gentlemen would bring their hat and riding whip with them to indicate that they didn't intend to stay long. The gentleman would keep his hat in his hand unless it was necessary to put it down on a piece of furniture — but never something as vulgar as on the floor or under his chair. "Shaking hands," according to Cassell's, is an "inappropriate" term implicating a firm, vigorous shake. Instead, one must apply only "gentle pressure" and "slight movement from the wrist." And, of course, a gentleman never initiated taking a lady's hand.

Visits were to be limited to 15 or 20 minutes and tea would be served during that time [source: Victoriana].

5: Dinner Party Etiquette

dinner party
This engraving by Fred Barnard depicts a dinner party in full swing. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Victorian dinner party was a minefield of potential social missteps. First, guests were required to arrive 15 minutes late [source: Pool]. After gathering in the drawing room for a short time, a servant would announce dinner to be ready, and the party would enter the dining room.

But this simple event of moving to the dining room was actually a ceremonious one for the Victorians: It was a carefully planned procession of couples, beginning with the most honored guests. The hostess would have to organize the order of the procession, making sure not to offend anyone. It could get complicated when one's guests included single people or widows and widowers, because this necessitated deciding whom to couple together.

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Getting the procession wrong could create tension for what was sure to be a long night: The meal itself was usually around 10 courses, not counting dessert [source: Pool]. That might account for the late arrival time, to give the host time to prepare. And during the meal, as guests waited for the footman to serve the food, a gentleman was to converse with the lady to his right.

But after dessert, the night wasn't over. Ladies retreated to the drawing room to chat and drink coffee or tea, allowing the gentlemen to smoke and possibly engage in ribald conversation.

4: Court Etiquette: Presentation to the Queen

Queen Victoria visits Napoleon III
Queen Victoria visits Napoleon III, emperor of the French in August 1855. duncan1890/Getty Images

When a girl was presented at court, in the eyes of the Victorians, she transformed from being underage and off-limits to suddenly being marriageable.

Young ladies were presented several times a year in St. James's Palace. But they weren't the only ones who had to make an entrance: Young men were also presented several times a year in "levees," hosted either by the Queen or the Prince of Wales.

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Strict rules outlined the costume for presentation at court. Men wore knee breeches and buckle shoes and wielded a sword. Ladies had to wear feathers in their hair high enough for the Queen to see, and the train on their dress needed to measure 3 yards (2.74 meters) long exactly. And although the Victorians had a reputation for modesty, the required dress for presentation left a lady's neck and much of her shoulders bare.

Ladies had to carry their trains on their left arm while waiting in the palace for their presentations. Several lords-in-waiting were at hand to lay out a lady's train and pass along her card to announce her to Queen Victoria. After entering, she kissed the Queen's hand (or the Queen kissed her forehead if she were a peeress or daughter of a peer). She then needed to wait for a page to place her train on her left arm again before she somehow managed to elegantly exit the room without turning her back to the Queen.

The young men's presentation was similar: A man, once announced, would bend down on one knee and hold out his right hand to the Queen. The Queen would lay her hand on his and he would kiss it [source: King].

Now, after being presented at court, young Victorians could finally get down to the business of finding a mate.

3: Courtship Etiquette

lady with suitors
This lady had a lot of suitors to contend with. Let's hope no bounds of propriety are breached! duncan1890

During the Victorian Age, the English prided themselves on being more liberal than the French in recognizing the importance of love and mutual affection in marriage. Nevertheless, Cassell's states, "Marriages of affection are not necessarily incompatible with marriages formed from interested motives, but mutual affection is not considered necessary as a starting point." Tension necessarily grew when young people had to choose between mutual affection and retaining financial or social stability.

Etiquette books of the day advised readers to look only within their own class for a mate [source: Phegley]. The common law customs of entail and primogeniture, which kept estates whole and in the hands of first-born males, had unfortunate repercussions for those seeking a marriage of mutual affection. It was accepted as normal and right that ladies seek eldest sons. When an estate was in trouble (and unable to be mortgaged because of entailment), eldest sons often sought heiresses of new money, even if they were crass women of low social rank. This practice was a bitter and ironic pill for Victorians to swallow.

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Men generally married younger women; one book advised that a 30-year-old man is suited to a 22-year-old woman and a 40-year-old man is suited to a 27-year-old woman [source: Phegley]. All "out," or available, girls made sure to be in town during the season, a period of chaperoned social events (beginning in January but accelerating in April through June) that served essentially as a marriage market. And, if a young lady couldn't snatch a husband in three seasons, she would start resigning herself to spinsterhood [source: Pool].

A gentleman who was interested in a lady could never expect to be alone with her. Rather, he would call on her at her family's home and they would converse in the presence of her parents or chaperones. Each would try to determine the other's character. A woman would be wary of a man who enjoyed "low and vulgar amusements," while a man would want to make sure his future wife made good company and that she performed her household duties [source: Phegley].

2: Ballroom Etiquette

victorian ball
Couples dance at a high-society 19th-century evening ball. duncan1890/Getty Images

A ball was a highlight of social life for young people during the Victorian Age. Compared to a country dance, a ball was more formal and had a larger attendance and an orchestra. Those lucky enough to receive the formal invitations got them three to six weeks before the event and had to RSVP within a day [source: Pool]. The ball featured dinner, card-playing and, of course, music and dancing.

A hostess would go all-out to prepare her house, taking doors off hinges, removing carpets, polishing floors, adding as much light as possible, planning food and eating arrangements, purchasing flowers and hiring an orchestra.

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At balls, ladies generally had dance cards on which to write the names of their partners. According to Cassell's, a promise to dance, once made, was sacred and "should not on any account be broken." If a lady advertently promised the same dance to two gentlemen, the polite thing to do was to decline to dance with either, "set[ing] the gentlemen free to choose other partners." And she was never to dance more than three times with one gentleman, since the point was to be social and mingle, not to hog one person's time [source: Pool]. During the dance, a lady always carried herself gracefully. Indeed, a lady always had to be perfectly and seamlessly elegant, never so much as letting anyone see her adjusting her hair or outfit [source: Carpenter].

Strangers, of course, couldn't dance without an introduction, so a gentleman who took interest in a lady had to ask a mutual acquaintance for one. But this introduction counted only in the ballroom. If he saw her again, he could not presume an acquaintance unless she took the initiative.

While a lady couldn't walk around a ballroom without a gentleman or escort at her side, the practice of promenading a lady around the room after a dance fell out of fashion in the middle of the Victorian era [source: Carpenter]. Instead, a gentleman escorted the lady to her seat, bowed and retired. The choice of a dance partner on the last dance before the meal was especially important, as the gentleman would escort his dance partner to dinner.

1: Engagement Etiquette

victorian couple
Cassell's advised that an engagement should be no longer than 12 months. maodesign/Getty Images

According to Cassell's, when a Victorian gentleman wishes to propose, he first "ascertains the state of a lady's feelings towards himself before he makes a positive declaration of his love." He then had to seek out a blessing from the lady's father before the engagement was official.

If there was some holdup to their being formally engaged (for instance, the young lady had a fortune that needed to be put in some sort of trust) , the couple had to suspend communication and "live towards each other as perfect strangers for the time" [source: Cassell's]. Ideally, she would pay a visit to distant friends while all this was being sorted out. Even if there was no fortune to worry about, it was expected that the man, as the bread-winner, would insure his life and make his future wife the beneficiary. Once an engagement was official, if one party chose to break it, the other could sue for damages [source: Pool].

Assuming it all worked out, engaged people had to behave themselves before the happy event. The lady still needed chaperones with her, as she was never to go out alone with her fiancé. Furthermore, the couple mustn't retreat from a group to whisper together or do anything to "excite smiles and comments" from others. Cassell's unequivocally declares that such "absurd" behavior "is a violation of propriety." Indeed, it was considered "excessively vulgar" for an engaged woman to clasp her hand on her fiancé's arm. Twelve months was the recommended engagement period, according to Cassell's but it noted people who think a long engagement period can help them to know their betrothed better are "just as liable to be deceived" as those who marry after a hasty courtship.

Originally Published: Apr 30, 2015

Victorian Rules FAQ

What were the rules of courtship?
People could only look for a spouse within their own social class and it was common for women to seek out the eldest son, as they kept the estate. The “marriage market” began in January and ended in June. If a young lady couldn't find a husband in three seasons, she could largely expect to spend her life as a spinster. Couples were never allowed to be alone with each other and would only converse in the presence of a chaperone. A gentleman would call on a lady at her family home to spend time together and determine each other’s character.
What did a butler do in Victorian times?
A butler was the head male servant. They were in charge of the dining room, wine cellar and silver. Butlers were also in charge of receiving guests, taking letters to and from his master and announcing when dinner was ready.
What is the Victorian era known for?
The Victorian era is known for being prim and proper, as it was filled with social rules and etiquette that can be hard to wrap our heads around in modern times. It was also known for it’s sometimes outrageous fashion, with massive crinolines and tight corsets.
How did you visit someone in the Victorian era?
In Victorian times, most visits were formal and people were expected to wear a plain walking costume. If a lady was home, she had to be properly dressed for guests who usually arrived between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. Visits almost never happened before noon and guests were brought into the drawing room by the butler.

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Author's Note: 10 Ridiculous Victorian Etiquette Rules

In Whit Stillman's film "Metropolitan," the protagonist argues that "nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is near ridiculous from today's perspective," to which another replies, "Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen's perspective would look even worse?" As an admirer of Jane Austen, I'm not one to necessarily dismiss the importance of a social rule simply because it seems ridiculous out of context of time and culture. It's easy to (and often nearly impossible not to) laugh at foregone customs. But examining these customs will tell you a lot about a culture and what has changed, for better or for worse.

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Andrews, Stefan. "Mourning Fashion and Etiquette in the Victorian Era." The Vintage News. Sept. 16, 2018. (Aug. 20, 2021)https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/09/16/mourning-fashion/
  • Carpenter, Lucien O. "Universal Dancing Master." VictorianWeb.Org. 1880. (April 29, 2015) http://www.victorianweb.org/history/Etiquette.html
  • Cassell, Ltd. "Cassell's Household Guide: Being a Complete Encyclopedia of Domestic and Social Economy, and Forming a Guide to Every Department of Practical Life." Cassell, Ltd., 1869. (April 23, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=L0sCAAAAQAAJ
  • Goodman, Ruth. "How to Be a Victorian." Liveright Publishing Corp. 2013.
  • King, Greg. "Twilight of Splendor: The Court of Queen Victoria During Her Diamond Jubilee Year." John Wiley & Sons. June 4, 2007. (April 29, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=tNa57nc2S0wC
  • Phegley, Jennifer. "Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England." ABC-CLIO. Nov. 30, 2011. (April 29, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=jYL9cPE_M5EC
  • Pool, Daniel. "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew." Simon & Schuster. 1993.
  • Publicism. "How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life – Ruth Goodman (2014)." (Aug. 20, 2021)
  • Susanne Dietze. "Forms of Address." (Aug. 20, 2021) http://www.susannedietze.com/british-forms-of-address.html
  • The English Manner. "Marquess and Marchioness." (Aug. 20, 2021) https://www.theenglishmanner.com/forms-of-address/marquess
  • Victoriana. "Victorian Etiquette and Calling Cards." (Aug. 20, 2021) http://www.victoriana.com/Etiquette/victorianetiquette.html
  • Yesterday's Thimble. "What to Wear: Rules for Victorian Dressing, Part 1." (Aug. 20, 2021) http://yesterdaysthimble.com/articles/rules-for-victorian-dressing-i/

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