Gestures And Carriage
THERE are no more crucial tests of good breeding than a man's carriage, his way of moving, and the gestures which he makes. The heroine in Julian Hawthorne's " Bressant " says of a gentleman: " He was dressed like one; not bandboxy, but nicely and easily, and he stands and moves well." You can tell a racehorse by his gait, and a gentleman by his walk. Virgil uttered this same sentiment nearly two thousand years ago, when he said of Juno, Incedo regina, – " I walk (or move) a queen."
After the lapse of all this time we have not found a better phrase to express true queenly dignity. King Lear's " Ay, every inch a king voices much the same thought; namely, that majesty and high breeding are not shown by the face alone, but by the carriage and attitude of the whole body. It is said that Queen Victoria's bearing was very majestic and imposing, despite her 'short, stout figure.
From this it would appear that neither a commanding stature nor a commanding figure is essential to a dignified and high-bred carriage. What then are the necessary elements that go to its composition? Are they not - first, a proper self-respect, second, the habit of good society, and third, a perfect control of all the muscles?
The second element is not always at command; but the first and third — self-respect and a perfect control of one's muscles — ought to be within reach of most people.
It has been said that it is very difficult to stand erect in the presence of a great man in other words, people are too much inclined to truckle to those who hold power of one sort or another, and in the effort to do homage to the great, men barter their self-respect, and with it the upright bearing of the body which ought to accompany an upright mind.
The awkwardness of movement and carriage that is simply physical and muscular can be removed wholly or in part by physical exercise; those exercises are certainly best which use all the muscles and develop them symmetrically. Dancing, fencing, riding on horseback, skating, golf, tennis, calisthenics, — all are excellent for this purpose. Rowing or using chest-weights develops the muscles of the upper part of the body and so tends to make a man top-heavy, unless he supplements it with running or some other exercise which calls into play the muscles of the lower limbs. The invention of the sliding-seats now used in racing-shells, has remedied this defect to a certain extent. These bring into play the muscles of the whole body. As calisthenics are not violent, they are well adapted for girls and women.
Riding on horseback is said to be one of the most perfect forms of exercise, calling into use all the muscles of the body. And yet Punch - that excellent authority on manners and morals — speaks of a dismounted dragoon as bearing a strong resemblance to a swan on a turnpike road! Which only proves that if one takes all his exercise on a horse's back, one may forget how to walk well.
The sort of awkwardness that torments many people in the society of others arises from an unhappy self-consciousness which cramps the body as well as the mind. They take too much thought as to how they are looking and how they are moving; hence all the ease of nature is lost, and they have no adequate art with which to replace it. Emerson says: " Nature is the best posture-master. An awkward man is graceful when asleep, or when hard at work or agree-ably amused. The attitudes of children are gentle, persuasive, royal, in their games and in their house talk and in the street, before they have learned to cringe."
If you can get one of those awkward, ungainly youths, to whom society means utter constraint and misery, to forget himself, and to think and talk about something that interests him, you will find that he ceases to be all arms and legs, elbows and knees, and becomes a reasonable, properly articulated human being. Talk to him about his base-ball nine, or his studies, or some subject for which he has an enthusiasm, and if you can but succeed in drawing him out and in making him think you too care for his hobby presto! what a change will take place! Instead of the ugly duckling you have a cygnet.
I think this power of transformation, which belongs to the accomplished society woman, one of her most delightful and enviable possessions. What can be pleasanter than to be a Circe of this kind? To be able to bring life and animation into the trembling heart of the shy, to drive away the nightmare of mauvaise hante, and to change an awkward hobble-de-hoy into an Adonis, is a most desirable faculty. For a young unmarried woman it may be a dangerous one.
If she is too sympathetic, she may make a deeper impression than she intends, and one that the unhappy youth may retain in his heart for many a day.
It is a bold saying of Emerson's, that it is the want of thought that makes people awkward. " Give me a thought, and my hands and legs and voice and face will all go right. And we are awkward for want of thought. The inspiration is scanty, and does not arrive at the extremities." This seems at first a start-ling hypothesis, and one calculated to make the famous Lord Chesterfield shiver in his genteel grave. But the more one looks at it the more rational does it appear. As the seer of Concord goes on to demonstrate, men of thought sometimes appear awkward in society because they are out of their usual element, and the conversation probably turns on subjects unfamiliar and uninteresting to them. If the company consists, however, of men and women who are intellectual as well as elegant, behold, your timid sage becomes an inspired lawgiver, and his gestures adapt themselves to his new and natural mood.
If another argument were necessary to prove the truth of this saying, would it not be found in the noble attitudes, commanding and graceful, in which sculptors and painters in all times have posed their inspired figures, their men and women who are filled with high thought and purpose? Do not we ourselves, in our minds, always invest high thinkers with a noble bearing?
What people were ever such thinkers as the ancient Greeks, and yet what people were ever so graceful in all their motions? The well-known case of Demosthenes shows that they would tolerate no inelegance of voice or gesture; while the perfection of their statues still gives the civilized world its highest ideal of the poise and attitude of the human form divine.
Let the shy man, therefore, endeavor to have thoughts that are worth something, and above all things let him keep his thoughts, if possible, from dwelling on himself. Let him remember that people are not thinking about him nearly so much as he supposes, they are all too busy thinking about themselves. Let him especially avoid nervous, awkward tricks playing with his cane or his hat or his watch-chain. If he can once learn to sit perfectly still, he has done a great thing, although he must beware of a repose that is too stiff, and he must not look as if he had been frozen into one special attitude. We Americans are too nervous and too energetic to care to sit entirely quiet for more than a very short time; and yet the ability to do so in company and malice prepense shows one has reached the high-water mark of good breeding.
To move well, to be graceful and easy in manner while speaking, — either of these is far easier than to sit perfectly still and yet to be free from all awkwardness. The grace of repose is far harder of attainment than the grace of motion. Talleyrand said of a great statesman, " He is imposing in his own repose." Lord Bacon said, " Men's behavior should be like their apparel, not too straight or point device, but free for exercise or motion."
Goethe, in his " Wilhelm Meister," thus admirably defines the carriage of a person of good breeding:
" A well-bred carriage is difficult to imitate, for in strictness it is negative; and it implies a long-continued previous training. You are not required to exhibit in your manner anything that specially betokens dignity; for by this means you are like to run into formality and haughtiness; you are rather to avoid whatever is undignified and vulgar. You are never to forget yourself; are to keep a constant watch upon yourself and others; to forgive nothing that is faulty in your own conduct, in that of others neither to for-give too little nor too much. Nothing must appear to touch you, nothing to agitate; you must never over-haste yourself, must ever keep yourself composed, retaining still an outward calmness whatever storms may rage within. The noble character at certain moments may resign himself to his emotions; the well-bred never. The latter is like a man dressed out in fair and spotless clothes; he will not lean on anything; every person will beware of rubbing on him. He distinguishes himself from others, yet he may not stand apart; for as in all arts, so in this, the hardest must at length be done with ease; the well-bred man of rank, in spite of every separation, always seems united with the people round him; he is never to be stiff or uncomplying; he is always to appear the first, and never to insist on so appearing.
" It is clear, then, that to seem well-bred a man must actually be so. It is also clear why women generally are more expert at taking up the air of breeding than the other sex; why courtiers and soldiers catch it more easily than other men."
These remarks Goethe puts into the mouth of one actor who is advising another as to how best to play the courtier.
In our own day we see some very good counterfeit presentments of gentlemen on the stage, made by actors who in many instances have had few advantages of early social training. And is it not by thought and study that they succeed in these representations? Nevertheless, the imitation is not quite perfect. I know a middle-aged gentleman in New York — an aristocrat by birth and breeding - who dislikes very much going to the theatre to see society plays,- be-cause, he says, the actors and actresses so travesty the parts of ladies and gentlemen! This critic is a person of little imagination, as one might guess. It is said that Lester Wallack wanted his actors to attend a performance given by amateurs at the Union League Theatre, that they might get some hints for their own carriage and demeanor upon the stage.
Affectations of carriage should be very carefully avoided by those who wish to attain elegance of poise and motion. True, they are sometimes used by well-bred people, but it is a dangerous matter to try to counterfeit them. Like flourishes in handwriting, they are always doubtful ornaments, and intolerable unless supremely well done. The Grecian bend and Alexandra limp seem very absurd as we look back upon them, but there are affectations in vogue at the present day that are quite as ridiculous. One of these is the custom — of certain would-be sports — of carrying the elbows raised and of swinging the arms across the body in a curious, oblique fashion. Another is the gait produced by the hobble-skirt. Why a pretty woman should be willing to put on such a gown, and so give herself the air of having her feet tied up in a sack, ready to run a potato-race, it is hard to under-stand.
" Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, " says Hamlet in his famous directions to the players; and the meaning, the language of gesture is a thing we do not study half enough. The famous Frenchman Delsarte, who, from a ragged street-boy, grew to be a great singer and actor, crowned his life-work by a long and arduous study of gesture, — of the language of the body. He studied in the streets, the hospitals, the theatres, and even the battlefields, and founded a system which has now many followers among actors; artists and others. Whatever one may think of the Delsartian exercises, and they are said to impart flexibility and grace, a symmetrical development to the body, — the subject is one that is full of interest. One would hardly wish to make a study of every motion; but it is both agreeable and useful to learn what construction such a careful thinker as Delsarte has put upon different gestures; nay more, to learn what were the results of his long and laborious observation.
The bow of many fashionable youths is strongly objected to by Delsartians, and with good reason. A short, sharp bending at the hips, with no movement of the feet or knees, the elbows curved outward, the chin poked forward, — what grace is there in a bow of this sort, or what respect does it show? It is a mere mockery of a bow, and full of self-assertion. The bow should be made first by inclining the head; if you wish to show more respect (and certainly a movement of the head alone can be but a nod, quick or slow), the inclination must extend to the shoulders, to the waist, even to the whole body where you wish to show deep respect. But to square back the shoulders like a prize-fighter, and suddenly double yourself up as if you had received a blow in the stomach, or as if you were made of two pieces of wood hinged in the centre, — surely this ought to be an abomination to gods and men!
No woman could be guilty of doing a thing in such shockingly bad taste; her intuitions would warn her against it. It is only the reflecting male animal that makes such gross mistakes of deportment. Howells, in his " Indian Summer," thus describes the modern bow: " The officer whom Imogene had danced with brought her to Mrs. Bowen and resigned her with the regulation bow, hanging his head down before him as if submitting his neck to the axe."
To make a reverence! How 'little that old expression has in common with our modern bow! True, it denoted a feudal condition of things that would ill suit our times. We do not bow down to idols in the shape of people of high rank, as the world used to do; at least, we say we don't.
According to the observations of Delsarte, the greater the emotion, the more will it extend over the muscles, until at last supreme emotion affects the whole body. Hence the artist who painted a picture of despairing Hagar with square shoulders, painted an artistic anomaly. In moments of despair the whole body droops.
There is a way of moving the body from side to side in walking, which some women use who ought to know better. It is rather pretty, even though it savors of affectation, in a brisk French nurse-maid; but in the walk of a lady it is wholly out of place. Sometimes this swinging motion is made very slightly and very slowly. In this case it is less objectionable only be-cause there is less of it. Some girls have an awkward habit of lurching forward, first with one shoulder, then with the other. Another ugly trick is that of allowing the whole body to rise and fall with every step, so that a man seems to be walking with his shoulders quite as much as with his legs. This slouching or jerky gait is to be seen in some children, and should certalaiy be corrected while their muscles are still young and easy to bring under control.
Indeed, most people need to be trained to walk well just as much as they do to ride, drive or dance well. A mincing gait is extremely disagreeable in a man, and will always make him appear effeminate. In the same way women should avoid a long striding walk, which makes them look ungraceful and masculine. Very high-heeled shoes, especially where the heel is placed very far forward on the sole, give the wearer a tottering ugly gait that reminds the beholder of the Chinese women, and their absurdly small feet. These shoes are also said to be extremely injurious to health, be-cause they throw the body into an unnatural position.
A satirical writer thus commented on the fashionable gait of the young men of his day: " In receiving the attentions of a male acquaintance, remember to proportion your civility to the depth of his neckcloth, the cleanness of his top-boots, or the number of his seals. Take especial care likewise that his toes are significantly turned inward in walking, as it is meant to betray great skill in riding."
The comments of the Baron de Mortemart Boisse, on the postures assumed by Americans fifty years ago, are both shrewd and naive " A French dandy desiring to see the beauties of New York, arrives and walks up Broadway on a bright Sunday morning, looking at the windows of that thoroughfare of which he has heard so much said. He sees nothing but the boot-heels of the citizens of Broadway; proving that the fashion in this country is to occupy the windows with the feet and not with the head. These gentlemen smoke their cigars and sit with their legs in the air and their feet on the window-sash."
Tennis and other athletic exercises, now so much in favor with young girls, no doubt assist greatly in producing a good muscular development, although tennis is such violent exercise that one cannot recommend women to make use of it, except with a good deal of caution. It is said that the habit of carrying burdens on the head produces the finest carriage of the body, and gives also great freedom and elasticity of movement: Certainly the free graceful walk of the Italian peasant girls contrasts very favorably with the con-strained gait of many American women tottering uncertainly on their high heels.
Golf has the advantage of keeping its votaries much in the open air, without greatly fatiguing them. Some of the postures are very ugly, it must be confessed. The woman golfer may find it necessary to stand with her feet apart, when addressing the ball, but she should be careful not to do so, away from the links. It is an extremely ugly and unfeminine attitude. Our girls of the present day should remember that the postures and motions necessary in athletic exercises, are out of place in the drawing-room. The special costumes used for swimming and for basketball, should remind us of this. We wear bathing-dresses or gymnasium-suits because they give us a freedom of motion impossible in a ball-gown. We all know this, if we stop to think, but some of our young girls are so delighted with athletics, that their manners are reminiscent of these, more than they themselves realize.
( Originally Published 1911 )
Conversation In Society
On Voice, Language And Accent
Gestures And Carriage
Letters Of Introduction
Dress And Customs Appropriate To Mourning
Host And Guest
Country Manners And Hospitality
In The Street And In Public Places
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