Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Back to Front Street...and Beyond

Another place on Front Street in Tynemouth that I tried to take a picture of is the Martineau Guest House, but the sun defeated me, casting reflections all over the place. I confess to not knowing very much about this woman. Her name caught my eye when she was mentioned in The Fashion Reader. But first, some background.
Before the Industrial Revolution, fashion was set by the aristocracy, who also set the rules for "courtesy". During the 18th century the growing middle classes were rapidly adopting the fashions in dress and manners; this meant that the aristocracy had to work to stay ahead of the game. Meanwhile, the middle classes were working hard to segregate themselves from the lower classes.

Apparently, it was democracy that caused this problem. The book quotes
Alexis de Tocqueville (whose observations of post revolutionary America are interesting):

"In democracies, where the members of the community never differ from each other and naturally stand so near that they may all at any time be fused in one general mass, numerous artificial and arbitrary distinctions spring up by means of which every man hopes to keep himself aloof lest he should be carried away against his will in the crowd."
So, in order to get into more privileged circles, one had to dress very fashionably and practice ceremonial etiquette to an absurd degree.
"The social supremacy of the Chestnut Street set within Philadelphia society, reported Harriett Martineau, her tongue in cheek, rested on the practice of rising thrice on the toes before the curtsy; Arch Street residents rose only twice".

I definitely need to find a biography of Harriett -- she sounds like good fun.

One of the forms of "courtesy" I never got the hang of over here was the business of greeting people with kisses -- at work. In the US, kisses on the check are for very good friends and for Grandmas. At work, handshakes or a pat on the back. Over here there were several of my colleagues who air kissed as greeting -- not that I minded it, I just didn't know what to expect. The French seem to do one on each side -- correct me if I'm wrong here -- and I heard somewhere that the Russians go for 3 kisses. Mind, the only Russians I know give me a big American-style hug when they come to my house! I gather I'm not the only one that gets confused with the air kissing business. I'm definitely an amateur, me.

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