The Dowager vs. the Dinner Jacket: Round 3

(ITV)

(ITV)

Season 4 of Downton Abbey is now airing on PBS and the fictional Grantham household is continuing to adapt to the social changes brought about by World War I.  For her part, the Victorian-minded Dowager Countess is still no more accepting of informal dinner jackets than previously. In episode 4, she converses with her tuxedo-clad son following a family dinner that included an unexpected house guest:

The Dowager Countess: Why are you in your rompers?

Lord Grantham: Tony only brought black tie.  He didn’t think we’d be changing if there was no one staying.

The Dowager Countess: So another brick is pulled from the wall.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a romper is a loosely fitted, short-legged one-piece garment worn as playclothes by small children.  Hardly a valid substitute for traditional full dress.

Interestingly, Lord Grantham’s decision to dress down reflects period etiquette requiring hosts to make sartorial accommodations for last-minute guests.  The following passage is from a 1914 American conduct manual:

When a dinner is hastily arranged for an out-of-town guest, who is perhaps passing through the city for the day only, or some distinguished man or woman on a tour of lectures, the hostess may particularly request the guests not to wear evening clothes out of consideration for the guest of honor who, not expecting any social courtesies, is not prepared so to dress himself.  In such cases the men will wear their day clothes, though a woman is always privileged to make her evening toilet somewhat more dainty and elaborate than her daytime one.

4 Comments

  1. jonasspring

    Speaking of downton abbey can you explain the difference between what carson is wearing and what the men wear to dinner, it appears on the surface that the servants uniform is very similar to evening wear worn by the guests and host.

    Reply
    1. Peter Marshall

      The footmen wear striped vests to designate them as servants but it appears that Carson wears regulation full-dress just like the men he serves, possibly as he is the most senior staff member. The confusion caused by the similarity between downstairs livery and upstairs evening wear was frequently remarked upon around the turn of the century.

      Reply
  2. CharlesM

    “…may particularly request the guests not to wear evening clothes out of consideration for the guest of honor who, not expecting any social courtesies, is not prepared…”

    What a perfect example of etiquette: the rules are subordinate to consideration (and therefore respect) for one’s guest!

    It seems of late that the tables have been turned, and in many instances the rules (or imagined rules) are expected to trump all, or worse, the guests are expected to be subordinate to consideration for the host. I must admit, however, that thankfully such expectations are usually honored more in the breach.

    How have we gone so far astray?

    Reply
    1. Cajetan

      One can see that the one way or the other. But is definitively so, that the guest is also subject to (at least some) consideration for the host.

      In the respective situation, Tony lacked the consideration for his hosts because he “assumed” that they would not change for dinner (to white-tie). Consideration for his lack of preparedness is, of course, good style for a good host, but the dowanger countess has has her point point, too.

      Just imagine that more and more people “assume” that their guests are not changing to white-tie for dinner. Black-tie would automatically become the usual dresscode at some place and people who still dress white-tie would be considered outdated or excentric.

      And the next step? Some people might even go so far as to assume that their hosts do not dress at all for dinner and come only in casual clothing…luckily I will not live long enough to have to experience this.

      (I am writing the above with a slight ironic undertone, but consideration like the one shown by the Earl should be one of the main reasons why we are doing exactly this in today’s society)

      Reply

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