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!

Nate Tan and Brett Nicol, b-school buddies and self titled “original forgetful gentlemen,” founded Forgetful Gentleman,, 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.

    • Peter Locke

      The sword thing is basically true but it is more the reason for which side of the road we pass, as in which side we drive. In medieval times we would always pass on the left, to keep the sword free , in case of attack. The reason France and most of Europe pass on the right is because, when Napoleon came to power, he was left handed and wore his sword on the right and made everyone pass on the right, for that reason.

    • Ed McMahsn

      Don’t guess you took the time to read and comprehend what it said!
      It states that left stem is still the proper for inside but that outside you should always take the curb or street side and put the woman away from traffic
      It is totally right and you are wrong

  • 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.

    • MrDrT

      Lifting the visor is the origin of the military salute.

    • Greg T

      Only applied immediately prior to combat

  • Peter Ryan

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

    We should definitely hook up too – check out 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.

    • Joshua Jason Molloy

      There is a show on netflix called dirtiest cities. After watching this I would have to say that someone emptying a chamber pot was the least of a person’s worries lol. I could guess that the emptying of the chamber pot led to the invention of the umbrella.

    • Rick Teisan

      That is the reason that I have alwas heard. The puddle splashing is a new explanation.


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

  • 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.

    • Trudie Moses Sandberg

      Also was taught in history class that the splashing problem was not originally from passing traffic. Before there was plumbing and sewers, nightly “slop jars” were commonly emptied out the upstairs bedroom windows directly to the street below. In the emptying process, the lady was protected by being closer to the building. So the gentleman really got dumped on!

  • 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?

    • 13thGenPatriot

      Because they hadn’t discovered oil yet. (ta da)

  • Josep Maria Dalmau Noe

    I wonder about how self centered it would be about the side to offer the arm. The medieval part of it doesn’t really ring right. I would believe for instance that men would present the woman on his left arm as to allow hand shaking with others and as well to introduce the woman with the right hand. Anyways in a more relaxed environment i believe being a gentleman would equal meaning to allow the woman to walk and stand on the side she is more comfortable?

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  • Tara

    I was always taught that gentlemen escorted ladies on their right arm, thereby protecting ladies from mud splash of the hackney cabs, and the chamber pot refuse being shied from upper storey windows.

  • kbartel

    The tipping of the hat and the salute that is used in military developed very much the same way. It was to show to your passerby person that you did not have a weapon in your hand showing respect and safety to the other person.

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  • Duncan

    All bullshit

    • Duncan

      Not that I’m saying they are wrong about the origins of the customs, but rather their relevance in the modern world.

  • Riya Jacob

    very informative information. !

  • Angel Divera

    Nice idea, thank you!

  • Greg T

    Yes it is true about offering your left arm as most people are right handed. Your primary hand is your gun (or sword hand in the old days). You never EVER keep your weapon hand occupied if you are carrying a weapon on your hip. That’s just silly. Whoever you are “escorting” stays on the left. If they freak out due to danger, the will and have gripped the hand or arm they are holding for dear life. If that’s your weapon hand/arm you now have to wrestle it free in order to “get to work.”

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  • Franny Dee Pollard

    Not sure where I heard it at but a long time ago I heard something different. I had known all the above reasons for a woman to walk farthest away from the street and when asked such a question responded accordingly. However I was told I was wrong because a man who walks with a woman and has her closest to the street does so because she is for sale and he is acting as her ‘pimp’. It was explained that a woman was considered a painted lady if this was done and was considered a “lady” if she were to walk with the man on the oustide. Is there any merit to this explanation?

    • G.L.Ric Kage

      There must be something to this. My illustrious lady of five years has been informing me of this idea ever since I put her on the inside from the curb since our first date!
      BTW:I will do further research

  • Delbert Townsend

    The hat remove going into a place comes from vlad lll … He nailed it to the heads of them who refuse to do it

  • Stefano Mariani

    Actually walking the lady on the left is not fully true! You were to escort the lady on either the left or the right arm to which would place her away from the curb. This is due to in Europe the streets were the sewer so when someone was done relieving themselves they would toss the it out the window, so the man would take the “hit” and not the lady!

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  • Jeffrey Wright

    I know the whole sword arm thing has been accepted as common knowledge but I have my doubts. Where is the knowledge coming from? Are there source documents from medieval times describing the practice? Most men didn’t own a sword and the idea that men were all walking around with a sword is a myth. It only happens in movies. Most men didn’t even own a sword and would not have been trained to fight with one. Perhaps knights and members of the aristocracy would have been but they were also not likely to have been wandering around unattended with just their lady. They would have had staff including guards with them when travelling, especially when traveling anywhere threatening.

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