Finishing School: I'm a lady, I am
She's always wanted to be a lady, but even so, Joanna Kiernan was nervous about going to finishing school. Eager to impress, she learnt that appearances do matter and that she holds a fork incorrectly, but her handshake is acceptable. And then she went out for dinner and promptly forgot everything she'd learned. Photography by Kip Carroll
As a child, I walked around endlessly with a book on my head. One of my sisters would, of course, inevitably knock it off at the mere sight of any progress, but I persevered. The eldest had a habit of persuading me into things, and, in this instance, she swore that if I could master walking with a book on my head, it was a sign that I was a secret princess, entrusted into this normal family for safe keeping until my royal duties called. I swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
My sister had a habit of playing on my desire to be a princess. I blame her for my habit of sleeping with a pea under my mattress until I was 12, and denying me blue Smarties for the first 10 years of my life as they contained a "vicious poison", apparently.
But, given how unlikely my royal ambitions were as an Irish Catholic who has never been into blond/ginger horsey types, the goal soon morphed into that of simply me becoming a lady -- a real lady.
Yet, when I was told I was to attend something called The Finishing School, my inner feminist was a little ill at ease. I wasn't quite sure what to expect. A caped headmistress with a stiff upper lip and a rather inept sense of humour had crossed my mind -- a sort of Martha Stewart on crack, or the quintessential Bree Van de Kamp.
But, although there were some similarities -- pearl earrings, a neat wool cardigan and strict adherence to table manners -- it wasn't quite as bad as I had thought.
"First impressions are made within the first seven seconds that you meet somebody," Claire Crone, our finishing-school mistress imparts on our arrival, which inspires me to give myself a subtle once-over glance and conclude that I had just blown my chances to impress.
"Our minds are amazing because they gather all of that information within seven seconds and formulate an opinion," she adds, and I suddenly realise that a hair kink, which I refer to as my zogabong, has decided to make a most unwelcome appearance.
"This graph here" -- Claire points a manicured finger at the blackboard -- "shows how those first seven seconds are assessed. The way you look and how you speak is 32 per cent of how you're judged; 23 per cent on the tone of your voice; and only 7 per cent is based on the content of what you're actually saying. So it is important that you are well groomed, your nails are clean and that your hair is reasonably tidy, because people will suss you out on first meetings. They might get you on a bad day, but that's what they're going to remember about you."
At this point I become incredibly self-conscious and begin berating myself for not making more of an effort, as I surreptitiously attempt to smooth my mane.
"Body language gives away a lot about what we are actually thinking," Claire continues, "and if you're not aware of that, people can read you very clearly. If you play with your hair it means that you are quite conscious of how you're looking and that you don't feel very confident."
Claire smiles momentarily before continuing, while I try to disappear beneath the table.
"We can have it all," Claire promises, "We can have the successful career, the active lifestyle, the partner, the family and be very efficient at home. There is a balance to be found in every aspect. The goal is to have a clean home, but not be cleaning for eight hours of every day; to be relatively good in every aspect, rather than to strive to be the best, and to have the perfect figure and the perfect wardrobe and the perfect husband."
Claire is immaculately groomed and extremely elegant. Her movements are those of a woman from a different era, but that is the incredibly attractive aspect of the entire finishing-school business. On the one hand, it's a positive that such schools are not regarded as essential anymore -- women don't have to be trained in areas such as housework, image, and table manners. No one is forcing us to become Stepford wives, but, if we choose to be a little more ladylike, it is quite nice to have that option.
"The definition in the dictionary is that it's a private school reserved for debutantes and for women who are preparing to find a husband and, technically, that would be correct," Claire says. "However, my finishing school recognises that the roles of men and women have changed over the decades, thanks to the work of the suffragettes, and, basically, we can all do everything now. Automatically, when people hear about the finishing school and etiquette, they think it's posh and only for wealthy people. I have experienced some very wealthy people with atrocious manners. It's not about showing off, it's not about snubbing others or making them feel inferior. In actual fact, manners should make other people feel better about themselves. The effect that good manners has is that it makes the world a little bit better and more pleasant to live in."
There are moments in the class when I get the overwhelming sensation that it's all a bit surreal and antiquated, with Claire, at times, taking on what's almost a caricature role, using phrases such as "in a pickle", where I would more than likely use a profanity.
After a while, I begin to despair that my quest to become a lady is a little more of a steep climb than I had thought, despite the childhood years of practice. There is certainly a lot to think about.
"Guidelines for introductions," Claire announces. "Men are introduced to women. So, you might say, 'Miss Murphy, I would like to introduce Mr O'Shea to you.' And younger to older, without rank to those with rank, so you'd say, 'Mrs Obama, I would like to introduce Paris Hilton to you.' So, based on your age, achievements and position, that's how you determine who is the inferior and who is the superior in the relationship."
I try to imagine myself secretly calculating these details. I am more of an analyser than a quick thinker so it would probably be a bit of a disaster with my acquaintances all having left before I could decide which one to introduce first.
Unsavoury, gory or awkward conversation is also to be avoided. So that would be the majority of topics that come into my mind.
Up next was shaking hands. "For a first introduction and for business meetings, handshaking is appropriate. So I'm going to go around and just check your handshake."
I'm first up. "Yes, that's good and firm," is Claire's verdict, and I breathe a little sigh of relief. "You want it to be acceptable," she continues to the class, "you don't want to pump and you don't want to give a flimsy hand. In Western etiquette it's more polite to give a firm, but not crunching, handshake. It shows sincerity, and it shows confidence. So it's important to get that right. You'll know when you need to remove your hand because the other person's hand will relax."
"When you see somebody you know at a distance," Claire continues, "a simple wave or a smile would suffice. You don't have to call across the street. It is important to always greet somebody that you know, even if you can't stand them."
After a while I get into the swing of it, and I am forced to agree that appearances are everything. Well, maybe not everything, but something very important.
"As adults, we choose what we wear and it isn't necessarily fair to be judged on how we dress, but people perceive you in a certain light based on how you dress, whether you like it or not," Claire argues. "It's good to dress appropriately, professionally and not to dress as though you're going on a date. Baring your midriff, lots of cleavage, or your back or your thighs, is inappropriate in a business situation."
Armpit fat rolls caused by an ill-fitting dress, bra straps and G-strings on display and hair where it shouldn't be are all big no-nos.
"It's always better to be well groomed and be conscious of how you look," Claire suggests while clicking her way through a slideshow of bad examples, which concludes with a close up of a VPL (visible panty line).
Once we have attire out of the way, Claire begins our table-manners section, an area she believes can make or break an individual. "The point I want to make about table manners is that it can affect your job, or potential job, or partner. If you gross out your date, there's no way that he will take you home to meet his parents," she states with conviction as I stifle a giggle.
Looking at the place settings Claire then sets out, I have a very obvious Pretty Woman moment. "Everything that we have on the table has a use, so you should use it correctly," Claire starts. "If you're in doubt about which utensils to use, take your cue from the host. A good host will actually follow suit of the guest who has made a faux pas to make them feel better.
"When you sit down at the table, the first thing to do is put the napkin in your lap, so you open it and you halve it and that's how it sits. Never blow your nose in your napkin. The napkin should be used often during the meal and you should blot your mouth before you take a sip of your drink. The bread at the beginning of a meal comes in very handy then, because if you are wearing lipstick most of the lipstick should have come off by the time you start eating, so when you're blotting you're not leaving horrible lipstick stains on it, because it's quite hard to get off."
And there was I, thinking the bread was to be eaten to pass the time until the actual food arrived.
"There's nothing wrong with getting up from the table at any stage, and you don't need to say, 'I have to go for a wee!' or something, just 'Please excuse me, I'll be back in a second'," Claire explains.
This nugget was quite helpful for me, as I do have a minor compulsion to tell others where I will be at all times and explain in-depth when there is actually no need.
"Good idea not to do your hair and make-up at the table, as hair does fall out, and also it's just not very refined. Never use your knife as a mirror."
And then came the bombshell, as Claire told us, "Never eat off another person's plate."
At this point I wondered if Claire had actually followed me incognito on a night out and spied on my movements, as I have an awful habit of checking myself in any reflective surface I can find and of tasting the other half's food. I do remember my dad finishing my dessert any time I could not.
Now came another test: holding a knife and fork correctly. I failed. The tines of my fork were up instead of down, creating a shovel effect.
Suddenly I feel myself engulfed in a cocoon of self-loathing. How gluttonous of me: of course the tines should be down.
"So, the knife and fork: the handles rest in the palms of your hand and your index fingers rest on the top of the fork and the knife," Claire attempts to help me into the correct position.
"For pudding, you usually have something that looks like a teaspoon, but with a much longer handle," she continues. "When you put pudding in your mouth, clean the whole spoon; don't take it out and then lick it. I have seen it done. Just last week I saw a lawyer doing that while we were eating. If you have the pudding spoon and fork in front of you, you only use the spoon and the fork is used to push. You don't lift the fork to your mouth."
The no-spoon-licking rule had me re-evaluating my lady aspirations -- a life without spoon-licking might just be a life with class, but would it be worth it?
After our lesson, I get the chance to speak to Claire about her finishing school in more detail. I want to know if she thinks she can make me into a lady.
"I am very hesitant to use the word 'lady' in the course, or in any of its descriptions because the term has connotations attached to it that might seem pretentious or, dare I say, very English," she explains politely.
"Being ladylike is attractive to me -- that is what I like to be seen as -- but I certainly wouldn't want to force that on to anyone else. If women want to come to the course to learn the skills that will make them more feminine and ladylike, I'm not going to turn them into ladies, necessarily, but, for them to become more ladylike, and to be more in control of the various aspects of their life, then I would very much like that to happen. We can have the full package if we want it, and it just takes a bit of time to concentrate on every aspect. Once you're aware of it, it's a lot easier. If women can be in control of every aspect of their lives, that can make a very good impact."
As a teenager, Claire attended Bev Livingstone's Finishing School in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. At 18, she was approached, at the University of Port Elizabeth, to participate in her first beauty pageant. Two crownings led to her participation in the week-long finals of two national pageants; representing Port Elizabeth at Miss South Africa: Eastern Cape finals and Miss China South Africa.
"I started in university and I was approached to take part in a pageant. I do feel that having done a finishing course I might have looked a little more polished than the other girls of the same age," she says of the experience.
Claire, a qualified quantity surveyor, sees being ladylike as very much a current trend. "I think that it was also helped by the TV series Mad Men," she says. "That whole trend, where the women from that era were very groomed and very feminine. I think nowadays because women have been through the cycle, they've achieved their freedom and they can pursue careers for themselves in a male-dominated field and we've proven that we can do everything that men can do, and we can now relax into being female and feminine again and ladylike.
"It is a trend, and I like it, personally. There is nothing wrong with being a strong woman inside, not bending to other people's will, necessarily, but to still enjoy the fact that you are feminine, and not only looking feminine, but also behaving in a feminine manner.
"It does help relationships. Men want to be men as well; no man likes to be emasculated. I'd never want to dominate my husband and emasculate him because it would break down the fabric of the relationship between a man and a woman. There's nothing wrong with a man holding the door open for a lady, or coming around and opening the car door. It makes him feel like a man, and I like being treated like a lady."
That evening, I meet a friend for dinner in busy Temple Bar. As I approach I shout out her name (strike one), give her a big hug and begin chatting. At dinner, I forget to place my napkin on my lap (strike two) straight away, but soon correct myself. Then we begin to chat about childbirth and her first week as a trainee midwife (strike three), share our desserts (strike four) and eat with the tines up (strike five).
Perhaps I'm not cut out for this ladylike thing after all.
For more information on Claire Crone and The Finishing School, including dates for her next course, see www.thefinishingschool.ie
Jacket, Sisley; blouse, Jaeger; skirt, Ted Baker; shoes, Dune, all Arnotts.
Dress, Ted Baker; shoes, Dune, both Arnotts
Photography by Kip Carroll
Assisted by Robert Chambers
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Aisling Neenan
Make-up by Seana Long, Make Up For Ever, 38 Clarendon St, D2, tel: (01) 679-9043
Hair by Paul Davey for Davey Davey, tel: (087) 417-3504 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Shot in the Ian Ritchie Suite at the Gresham Hotel, 23 Upper O'Connell St, D1,
tel: (01) 874-6881,
or see www.gresham-hotels.com