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Downton Abbey Etiquette: A Primer On How To Be Proper

February 5, 2015

We can’t all have our own personal Mr.Carson to remind us of the Dos and Don’ts of acting like a proper servant, Lord, or Lady, but thankfully we have a wealth of Downton Abbey episodes to guide us—and the recent special on social rituals of the time, The Manners of Downton Abbey

Hosted by the show’s historical advisor, Sir Alastair Bruce, this one-hour program gave us a peek behind-the-scenes of the Abbey, along with some etiquette details you may have missed amidst all the romance, mystery, and betrayal on screen. Here’s a handy numbered list to make it easy to know how to act in Edwardian England! 
How to Dine 
"Nothing succeeds like excess!” ~ The Dowager  
Rules for Downstairs: 
1) Make sure each place setting is exact! All plates, glasses, and silverware must be the same width apart from each other. The butler will check your work, and Mr. Carson will not put up with anything being out of place. 
2) Wear gloves when setting the table! Fingerprints on glasses and silverware are NOT allowed. 
3) The first footman always serves the first course—unless you’re Jimmy and Mr. Carson doesn’t like you—followed by the second and third footmen. 
4) You must make sure you pour the right color of wine for each course! Mixing up white and red won’t do.
5) When serving, keep one hand behind your back and bend forward at the exact same time as the other footmen, being careful not to spill food or serving ware off the tray. 
6) The butler must stand mid-table to make sure all the dinner guests’ needs are met. 
7) And this is very important: NO MAIDS IN THE DINING ROOM. 
Rules for Upstairs: 
1) You must always dress appropriately for dinner. Gentlemen, that means a set of tails; Ladies, that means your most luxurious dress and jewelry. According to The Dowager, without these customs,  “We’d be like the wild men of Borneo!” 
2) No slouching! Those chair backs are not for leaning, just decoration. Lady Mary probably remembers her nanny putting knives on those chairs when she was little so she wouldn’t forget. 
3) No hands on the table! Ever. For any reason. 
4) Make sure you know which spoon is a bouillon spoon, which fork is a salad fork, and which knife to cut your meat with. 
5) Ladies, your evening gloves must be on your lap while you’re eating, and put back on before you leave the table. 
6) The hostess must take a bite before you do, and she will drive the conversation—unless you’re Ms. Bunting, in which case you’ll just do whatever you want even if it enrages the Lord and Lady of the house. 
7) Make sure you take your cue to “turn” from the hostess, so that everyone at the table can take equal part in conversing. 
How to Marry
“How many times am I to be ordered to marry the man sitting next to me at dinner?” ~ Lady Mary 
“As many times as it takes.” ~ Lady Grantham
Rule for Upstairs
1) Young ladies must be presented at court before they can be proposed to. 
2) After “coming out,” ladies can enter society and must attend the season in order to meet eligible men.
3) Be aware that “eligible men” means men with money, power, and a title of which your father will approve. 
4) Ladies are not allowed to go and meet a man without a chaperone! We’re looking at you, Rose. 
5) Men are not allowed in young ladies’ bedrooms. We’re looking at you, Mary. 
6) Ladies must wear gloves at all times when out with a man. This time, we’re looking at YOU, Edith! 
7) If you break any of these rules, you’ll be shamed and your reputation in London will be RUINED—along with the honor and status of your family. 
Rules for Downstairs
1) Don’t get married. 
2) If you do, you’re out of a job and you won’t have anywhere to live. (Obviously Anna & Bates are breaking both these rules! That means the Crawleys are actually more forward-thinking than we imagine.) 
How to Behave
“You’re my darling daughter and I love you, hard as it is for an Englishman to say the words. “ ~ Lord Grantham 
Rules for Upstairs
1) NO HUGGING! English men don’t hug, or tend to show any emotions. Handshakes only. 
2) English women must also keep their emotions under wraps! You may think Lady Mary’s an “ice queen,” but honestly, that’s how she’s been trained to behave.  
3) You must be rude to be posh. There is no need to thank anyone serving you! You are above them. 
4) Greet everyone with formality, even your dearest friends. 
5) Behave properly, or the whole country will know your shame. (Thanks, NEWSPAPERS!) 
Rules for Downstairs
1) Be as invisible as you can at all times. 
2) Use discretion! Do not gossip about the family. (Unless you are Thomas.)
3) Never burden your master with your own problems.  (Unless Thomas will do it for you first.)
4) Never prompt a conversation, nor offer your opinion on what your master is saying to you. 
How to Dress
“Is there any aspect of the present day that you can accept without resistance?” ~ Lady Grantham
“Oh milady. I wouldn't mind gettin' rid of my corset!” ~ Mrs. Patmore
Rules for Upstairs
1) Ladies may only wear a tiara if they are married. Oh, poor Edith. She’ll never to get to wear anything sparkly! 
2) Cinch that corset as tight as you can possibly stand it; then cinch it another inch just for good measure. 
3) Flapper dresses are now allowed (it is 1924 after all!), but you'd better keep your gloves on at all times! 
4) Men must wear the proper hat for each occasion. 
5) Men have as many coats as women have dresses: greatcoats, mess jackets, and dinner jackets. DO NOT mix up which one to wear at which time, or there will be a lot of gossip about it. Don’t worry, your valet will help you. 
Rules for Downstairs
1) Wear the proper uniform when on duty. 
2) Dress modestly when you’re not on duty—if that time ever actually occurs. 
How to Make Money
“What is a weekend?” ~ The Dowager
Rules for Upstairs
1) A job? What’s that? If you’re an aristocrat, you don’t need one. You just live off your inheritance and estate. 
2) Unless you’re “new money,” which means you probably have a business. Like Mary’s nasty ex-fiancé, Richard Carlisle. 
Rules for Downstairs
1) Work hard, 24/7.
2) Retirement? Great houses did provide for their servants in retirement, but early retirement was rarely an option. That was for the lucky ones who managed to save any of their wages, or received an unexpected inheritance. Like say, Mr. Bates, whose mother left him money which caused the whole “wife killing herself and framing him for murder” situation. Eesh. Maybe it’s better just to keep working hard! 
Tell us your favorite etiquette-breaking moments in the comments! 
Photo credit: Courtesy of Nick Briggs/Carnival Films 2014 for MASTERPIECE



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At each table setting I have 8 pieces of Vermeil and growing up in Boston I was told always to be correct start on each side and go in. So never ever had a problem. Now in the west people just use this and that and really don't know what to do. GAD! 8 pieces where do I start. lol

How in the world did ordinary people know which hat to wear? Or did they have only one?
Also, how did the live-in staff have time to do their OWN ironing?

I have noticed that while sitting down, Dora sort of flops her hands, palms down, in her lap. I have also see habit done of several photos of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. Did his position of the hands have any significance?