The Last Conformist

May 02, 1994|By JACK L. LEVIN

Remember etiquette?

I was reminded of it at the recent funeral of a beloved relative who was the essence of etiquette. She was a stickler on the forms, manners and ceremonies established by social custom.

All her working years, beginning at age 15, she devoted to corsets, which she sold and bought for Baltimore's leading department stores. Corsets, for those who don't recall them, were close-fitting undergarments often tightened with laces and reinforced with stays. They were worn chiefly by women to give support or a desired figure to the body from the hips to the breast. In all things, she was committed to ''holding it in'' -- however painfully uncomfortable -- instead of ''letting it all hang out.''

As the eulogy proceeded, I recalled her insistence on my observing all the proprieties in courting her younger sister, and her personal indignation over King Edward's dalliance with Wallis Warfield Simpson, for whom the king relinquished his throne in 1936.

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Everything with her had to be just right, comme il faut, in all matters of dress and conduct. The ''right'' color combination, the ''right'' hat or fork, the ''right'' phrase. Yet she was a loving, caring, generous person, usually tolerant and forgiving of our mistakes.

I wondered if she was the last of the red-hot conformists. A hieratic papyrus from Egypt in about 200 B.C. traces the beginning of modern codes of conduct to the wisdom of an earlier sage, about 2500 B.C. Ptahhotep counseled sons to heed their fathers and underlings to flatter their superiors by laughing at their jokes: ''Laugh when he laughs. So shalt thou be very agreeable to his heart.''

The sage's advice anticipated rules and regulations similar to those my relative lived by. When, as a department store buyer, she rose above her former clerk status, she shared the ancient Egyptian's belief that ''if you have become great after you were little, and have gained posessions after you were in want . . . be not unmindful of how it was with you before.''

She also agreed with Ptahhotep that ''to be boastful of your good fortune is a prideful error that could often precede a fall.''

She accepted his advice for social success: ''to let your mind be deep and your speech scanty . . . for speech is more difficult than any craft.''

As to table manners, she practiced the preaching of Ben Sira in the Apocrypha: ''Eat as it becometh a man, those things which are set before thee; and devour not, lest thou be hated. Leave off first for manner's sake; and be not insatiable, lest thou offend. When thou sittest among many, reach not thine hand out first of all. . . . Be not insatiable in any dainty thing, nor too greedy upon meats.''

The dictates of etiquette and fashion through the ages have included some of the weirdest notions ever conceived by the proper mind. Words dealing with the anatomy were once almost totally taboo. '' 'Stomach' should only be uttered to your physician, or in private conversation with a female friend interested in your health,'' stated a 19th-century book on table manners.

Women were given directions for fainting elegantly. From ''The Genteel Female'': ''The eyes grow dim, and almost closed; the jaw fallen; the head hung down; as if too heavy to be supported by the neck. A general inertia prevails. The voice trembling, the utterance through the nose; every sentence accompanied with a groan; the hand shaking, and the knees tottering under the body.''

Harper's Bazaar, in the late 19th century, advised in a column on decorum: ''Our unmarried girls are entirely overdressed. The excess of dress is responsible for much of the vice of the day. Overdress leads to false expectations. It has more to do than any other single cause for the fall of woman.''

The early years of the 20th century, the formative years for my relative, were the heydey of Dorothy Dix and Emily Post, of corsets and ostrich feathers. Between 1900 and 1910, at least 71 etiquette books were published along with hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles.

On the whole, however, all the rules and customs of behavior add up to what we need more of today -- simple civility, defined as ''politeness, courtesy and consideration.'' My relative had all of that. She, and her kind, had the right stuff and are sorely missed.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore business man.

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