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The History Behind Gentlemanly Action

From escorting a woman on our left arm to giving her flowers, we take a look at the history behind some of our most common gentlemanly deeds.

 

Do you ever wonder why we gentleman do the things we do? At Forgetful Gentleman, we’ve always been fascinated by the origins of the gentlemanly actions we conduct every day. In some cases, understanding where our cultural norms come from can give us a renewed appreciation for them. In other cases, it just makes for fun trivia. Either way, we hope you’ll find these historical tidbits as interesting as we do. At the very least they make for great cocktail conversation fodder!

Why do we escort women on our left arm?

When a man escorts his partner, tradition has it that he offers his left arm.This tradition originates from medieval times when men escorted women around town and through the fields. Should a threat arise or the woman’s honor require defending, the man’s sword hand (his right hand) would be free, giving him quick and easy access to his sword, worn on his left side.

To this day, the left arm rule still applies while indoors. However, with the rise of wheeled vehicles and non-pedestrian streets, the proper escorting etiquette evolved over the years for outdoor environments. Today, when escorting a women outdoors, you should position yourself on the outside (closest to the street) to protect her from traffic, mud splashing, etc.

Why are the bottom buttons of our suit jackets and blazers never to be fastened?

This fashion guideline is typically attributed to King Edward VII, the British monarch from 1901 until his death in 1910. Quite the gourmand, King Edward loved his food so much that the royal tailors often had trouble keeping up with his ballooning figure. One day, seeking reprieve from the confining constriction of his waistcoat, King Edward casually unbuttoned the bottom button. At that time, the King set the fashion trends and when members of his court saw his new look, they quickly emulated it. The fad spread like wildfire and within weeks unbuttoned bottom buttons were found everywhere.

We continue to honor the memory of Edward the Wide to this day. Modern suit jackets and blazers are actually designed to cutaway at the hips with the bottom button left undone. Buttoning it results in unsightly pulling and bunching of fabric at the waist and disapproving looks from your fellow gentlemen.

Why do we give toasts?

In ancient Greece, being poisoned was a real and constant fear. In order to allay this fear, at a party, the host would pour wine for his guests and then take the first drink and toast everyone to show that the wine was safe to drink. Incidentally, the term “toast” also comes from this tradition. Toasting is a reference to the toasted bread that ancient Greeks dipped into their wine to cut the acidity.

Where did the custom of removing or tipping a hat as a sign of respect come from?

In medieval times, knights often encountered each other in full armor making it difficult to distinguish friend from foe. As a sign of friendliness, knights would lift their helmet visors, showing their faces to one another.The custom of tipping ones hat to another, as a symbol of politeness, is a direct descendant of this medieval practice. Interesting note: the modern military salute shares the same origin.

Why do we give flowers to communicate our feelings of love, friendship, grief, sympathy and congratulations?

In the 1700’s, Charles II of Sweden returned from Persia, bringing with him the custom of “the language of flowers” to Europe. Different flowers communicated different sentiments or meanings to the point that entire conversations were carried out through the sending and receiving of flower bouquets. Today we usually communicate our intent overtly with an attached note or card but the custom of sending flowers endures.

Do you know the history behind your favorite gentlemanly etiquette? Share it with us in the comments section; we’d love to hear it!

About

Nate Tan and Brett Nicol, b-school buddies and self titled “original forgetful gentlemen,” founded Forgetful Gentleman, www.forgetfulgentleman.com, in Charlottesville, VA in January 2009. With the goal of making it easier for the busy, modern man to be a gentleman, Forgetful Gentleman’s innovative products have been recognized by NBC, Businessweek, Thrillist, Cool Material and the National Stationer’s Guild.

 
  • Evgeny

    Not entirely true about offering your left arm. It very much depends on the side of the road you walk on. If it’s left, in England or Japan, you walk your lady on the far left side to keep her from being pushed by people going the other way. Vise versa in right-sided countries. As for the legend about swords, it actually makes things opposite. Men never had problems freeing their hands in case of a danger, but a sword worn on the left side would constantly hit lady’s dress, which was much more of a problem in everyday life. So with the exception of a few countries, men escort loved ones offering their right hand.

  • Tyrone

    Is there a source for that information about knights tipping up their helmets? Because it seems highly unlikely to me that all the knights just popped a helmet on every time they left the house. Pardon my skepticism.

    • FuzzyWulfe

      They wouldn’t wear it all the time. Think of it like a police officer wearing a vest. S/he wouldn’t wear it every time they go out, just in relation to their jobs. Knights might come across it be allied with other nations, so raising the visor showed it wasn’t stolen armor and possibly a friend. Likely aren’t any sources since it was practice that wasn’t worth writing down, and it shifted over time. Most texts don’t explain why the Save icon looks like it does, for instance.

  • http://www.todays-gentleman.com Peter Ryan

    Nice post Guys. I like reading about the history of Gentlemanly mores.

    We should definitely hook up too – check out http://www.todays-gentleman.com/bag-day trying to bring back a bit of Gentlemanly conduct.

  • Angelo A. Sedacca

    I really enjoyed the article involving the history of gentlemanly customs. Well done. I am so happy to see that I am not the only person who cares about doing such things — and knowing the reasons why.

  • Kristiyan

    Under which arm we escort women, in old days was more dependant on the time and intention. In times of war or during hightened alert from danger, women would walk by man’s left side, thus keeping their active right arm available for quick response. Drawing a sword, gun, or brandishing a fist. However, in peaceful times, women would stand by the right side of a man, thus softening their otherwise aggressive impulses, keeping the right hand under soft control.

    The above is the legend I’ve heard. However I think men held women on their left side so to keep them close to their hearts, a sign of more intimate closeness rather than having a practical rationalle.

    Today, in a pedestrian, at night – man would keep his lady away from the wall of the buildings from where an attacker might jump out. During the day, walking on the pedestrian with lively traffic, a man keeps his lady on the inner side of the pedestrian, so to stand on the way of car accident, or rain splashes.

  • Informed

    Just a heads up to the writer, the reason for men walking closest to the street, while often explained as having to do with protecting her from traffic and/or mud, it actually has a much more entertaining medieval origin. Back then, with the lack of modern plumbing and ignorance in regards to hygiene, many people people would go in a bucket and chuck it out into the street. If you think to the standard building of that era, the second floor of the building was pushed out of the wall and gave some overhang to those walking along the building. Any true gentleman would walk closest to the street so that in the case of raining sewage, his lady would remain spotless while he took the hit.

  • NYGUY

    I agree with INFORMED. Escorting a woman and situating yourself near the street was to avoid the waste people often dumped out the windows.

  • http://www.frosteddelight.co.uk Wayne

    I had also been told that a man walked with a lady on his right as this was his sword arm and that you should express such violence in front of a lady. Also the army salute is with the right arm (sword arm) to show that you bear no arms against your superior officer.

  • Brian

    Additionally, the differences between the direction in which men’s and women’s shirts button cam from the proper side from which to escort. A woman’s shirt buttons with the right side overlapping the left so that when the man was escorting her properly, on her right side, he could not see into her shirt, whether purposely or accidentally!

    • FuzzyWulfe

      I’ve heard it’s because a man would dress himself, but a woman would have servants or ladies-in-waiting that helped dress them. Possibly due to the amount of clothing fashion necessitated women to wear.

  • Mwooten104

    I am directing an outdoor wedding. The bride is certain that the usher extends his right arm when ushering a lady to her seat.  I thought the left and your article affirms my belief. Thanks, however, it is her wedding and she can have it as she chooses (even if she is wrong!)

  • ghani

    nice to c

  • Mike Watson

    So why did the Persians give flowers? Can you tell the whole story?

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