Back in the Day: Finishing schools taught etiquette and grace | Lifestyle

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Recently while chatting with a colleague, we observed several females walking past talking loudly, using the language of drunken sailors, dressed in skimpy outfits and displaying several tattoos. This experience resulted in my sharing an incident involving a colleague who took a “fine” young lady to New York by way of a Metro liner to a five-star restaurant where the waiters were dressed in tuxedos with tails. As he and his date de ella placed their order, I noticed that she appeared to be uncomfortable as she looked at the menu, so he placed the order de ella. My colleague ordered soup and realized that he made a mistake when it was placed in front of his date. She stared at the soup, looked at him, and after staring at the soup again, she did the unthinkable; she picked up the bowl and drank the soup. What occurred in this situation, as well as the things discussed with my colleague about the inappropriate behavior observed in the young ladies noted earlier, took me back to the days when young ladies knew better and were expected to do “lady like” things, particularly because of home training. Back in the day, a great deal of appropriate decorum was learned from ones parents and sometimes from “finishing schools” or charm schools,

I believe the non-lady like behavior as well as the restaurant incident described above, speaks to a need for the return of finishing schools. What do you know about finishing or charm schools? Are you aware of their history or origin? Do you have more than a cursory view of what these schools actually did or do today? In the article, “Finishing Schools for Young Girls,” Neil Kokemuller points out that a finishing school is a formal training program that helps young women become more polished personally and professionally before going to college or entering the world of work. The original finishing schools of the 1800s were full-time and centered on training young women to become polished, accomplished wives and socialites. Miss Porter’s School was one of the original finishing schools, founded in 1843 by Sarah Porter, a minister’s daughter. Her attempt by her was to train young women to become principled adults and good wives and mothers.

The Final Touch Finishing School website notes its focus on the four key disciplines of a polished image: grace, elegance, confidence, and strength. I know what some of you are thinking; finishing schools were for the well-off and were not popular in the lives of Black folk. Well, this is not the case as Blacks participated in finishing schools, many owned by them, back in the day.

I searched The Tribune archives for information on finishing schools and came across many articles on this subject. One article from February 25, 1964, highlighted a fashion production of tots, teens and adults at the Heritage House, located at 1346 North Broad Street in Philadelphia and the Vera Gunn Charm School, a popular charm school of the past. Another article highlighted the Ruth Harper School of Charm and Modeling.

While many charm schools appeared in the archives, it was an internet article from October 18, 2013, about Motown’s Charm School that really caught my attention. I learned that Maxine Powell ran the only in-house finishing school at any American record label. Mrs. Powell explained that when she opened the school in 1964, its purpose was to help Motown artists develop class and know what to do on and off stage. Most of the artists came from humble beginnings and Mrs. Powell, a former actress, model, manicurist, cosmetologist, and Black finishing school-modeling agency founder was hired by Motown to help polish the public images of its artists. Her official title was “artist development,” but her duties were much broader. She taught Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Smokey Robinson, and other top performers of the Motown family how to present themselves during interviews, performances, and off-stage public appearances. Interestingly, when they were in Detroit, Motown singers were required to attend two-hour sessions with Powell, learning public speaking, posture, walking, stage presence, etiquette, and personal grooming. She even taught the performers how to sit in a limousine or on a stool at a bar with a short dress. She wanted women to be “ladylike.” She wanted Motown’s artists to be able to behave themselves appropriately if they were ever invited to the White House or Buckingham Palace.

Some of you may have been exposed to finishing or charm schools but not everyone could afford it. You may have noted that I have used the terms finishing and charm schools interchangeably. I have learned, however, that finishing school should only be used by authorized vocational institutions who issue legitimate diplomas. Some of you will recall how parents compensated for being unable to attend a finishing school by providing regular practice at home. You learned how to set the dinner table, to require your male friend to open doors for you or to walk on the outside when walking down the street with you, to never chew gum or smoke in public and many other lady-like behaviors. Some of you even recall being required to practice walking with a book on your head to develop good posture.

Yes, finishing schools have seen their day due to increasing financial demands of parents and the changing roles of women. Today, women have much more independence and freedom. Yet, some charm and finishing schools still exist and many have been merged with fashion schools. I suspect that some of you, like me, would welcome the return of finishing schools to improve the lifestyles of young ladies and yes, young boys, that were widely popular, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at [email protected] or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 South 16th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146 The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Philadelphia Tribune.

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