Weird and wonderful rules of etiquette

July 7, 2014 9:00 am

The Georgian court, such as that of Kensington Palace, was a ruthless place that decided whether or not you were ‘of favour’ at that particular moment in time. ‘Courtiers’ could tell how fairly they stood in the eyes of the King/Queen by either being dismissed with a turned back or being greeted with a nod. Courts were filled with ‘wannabe’ socialites and those who wanted to distinguish themselves in the eyes of the upper class and although it was much harder to climb the social ladder up, you could fall to disgrace in a mere heartbeat.

In this dog-eat-dog world where whispers behind people’s back were a permanent undercurrent, it was a game to be played; and for all the melodrama and make up, everyone knew the rules and how to play along. From Queen Anne’s Orangery at Kensington Palace to the high court of King George the rules of etiquette began to form and became a steadfast unwritten legislation to obey.

Starting in 1704 – the notion of dining etiquette was born at Queen Anne’s luxurious greenhouse, the Orangery at Kensington Palace, to entertain guests outside Whitehall. With a theme of ‘the more, the better’, the Queen’s tables were ornamented with every utensil to serve a different purpose highlighting the wealth of the queen and the disposable-ness of their lifestyles.

At a ‘normal’ formal gathering at Kensington Palace, you might expect to drink out of 9 different wine glasses, a variety of different cutlery from stilton spoons to oyster prongs. It was in the 18th century, in fact, that the buffet style fell out of fashion to be replaced by elaborate meat-based dishes served over a number of courses, of course ending with a huge lavish desert platter involving moulds, plates, platters and trays – to further show off the extensive silverware that was in possession of the Queen at Kensington Palace.

Now, what to wear to a dinner such as this? The women would wear a ‘mantua’, a wide dress spread out over wide hoops at the skirt, while the top was a tight laced bodice and corset, highly uncomfortable, with elaborate ruffles at the sleeve. As the 18th century progressed, so did the dresses as they go wider and wider with every fashion. Accessories consisted of a fan and a lady’s best jewels while gentlemen should wear a wig, embroidered suit and sword (which you could hire upon entrance!) with a flat hat under the elbow. You might think this was all a little extreme, and it is, to our standards (the women’s outfits were so impractical that they had to step sideways through doors!), however back then it was the height of high fashion and was just as important as your ticket into the court – no dress, no entry.

Queen Anne’s court at Kensington Palace was only the start of such Georgian rules. Another one of women’s secret weapons was her fan; brandished like knives they could warn away mistresses, threaten enemies and even flirt with other men, all in silent secrecy. This code language was already in place by the 1720s and it is visible in the grand staircase frescoes of the women at Kensington Palace by William Kent who are all rebuffing suitors with their coded movements.

Court etiquette extended just as far into the realm of the men, too. Vying for a place in the sacred ring of people around the king it was every man for themselves when it came to the inner court and you needed to get your elbows out if you wanted a chance of making an impression. Men would throw punches and be very underhand to get a chance to impress the king – oh the irony. It was even recorded that despite appearances, these courtiers could have just as easily gate-crashed a party with the right clothes on as having received a cordial invite. So it’s not surprising there was a huge falsity in the behaviour of the court, from poor hygiene concealed in expensive clothes and wigs to forced smiles and accents.

Should you have fallen out of favour with the king, having been shown his back, this side-lined group named themselves the Rumpsteak Club in order to console their fall from grace. Furthermore, the fact that this group annoyed the king added fuel to the fire with some members remaining in court despite being unpopular. It was common for women after these events, especially elaborate feasts at Kensington Palace and the like, to go home straight to bed, while the men would stay out and network among the clubs and coffee houses of St James’s. Some things never change…

Visit Kensington Palace this summer with The London Pass and make the most of entry without further payment, as well as entry into the Fashion Rules exhibition where you can explore the modern monarchy’s etiquette and fashion and take part in the family festival the Glorious Georges. Find out more, here

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