What Is the Difference Between Etiquette in the Victorian Age & Present Etiquette?

Social etiquette was decidedly more strict and, in many ways, more complicated than modern etiquette.
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Victorian culture has become synonymous with strict morality and punishing social codes. Much has changed in etiquette since the era ended with Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, and modern etiquette acknowledges more equality in how men and women are expected to behave.

1 Guidelines for Daily Behavior

John H. Young wrote the book on Victorian etiquette when he published "Our Deportment: Or, the Manners, Conduct, and Dress of the Most Refined Society" in 1882. The more than 400-page guide shows how codified every aspect of social interaction was throughout much of Europe and the United States in the mid- to late-1800s.

By contrast, the Emily Post Institute and numerous advice columns weigh in on the changing nature of what is expected in modern social situations.

2 Courtship and Dating

Modern dating etiquette largely addresses the issue of what medium of communication to use when asking someone for a date (Phone call? Text? Email?) as well as who pays on a date. The rules surrounding dating today are arguably fluid, reflecting changing gender roles. Broadly speaking, men and women have achieved greater parity when it comes to romance, and it is far more acceptable for women to take a more proactive role in pursuing a relationship than it was in the Victorian era.

For Victorians, there was strict protocol for how a man should go about wooing a woman and how the woman should act in response. All courtship was done with the goal of marriage, and new relationships unfolded with little to no privacy. It was not respectable for a young, unmarried woman to be alone with a man outside her family, so “dating” would happen under the watchful eyes of chaperones and family friends.

3 Engagement

Nowadays, it is not unusual for an engaged couple to already be cohabitating. In Victorian culture, however, most couples would wed having spent little time alone together.

From the Victorian age until as recently as 20 years ago, tradition dictated it was bad form to ever congratulate the bride-to-be, because it implied she “caught” a man. For the groom-to-be, however, congratulations were appropriate, because he had managed to secure the hand of the woman he’d pursued.

But as websites like the Emily Post Institute argue, this idea is outdated in view of modern social values -- such as the idea that marriage should be a partnership between two equals.

4 Death and Mourning

The etiquette surrounding grief and mourning shows how much has changed in the past century.

Victorian practices called for very public displays of grief, with a set dress code and period of mourning. For two years, a widow was expected to wear only black, and it was considered gauche for her to remarry, attend any recreational activities or socialize in any way outside of church activities.

Modern practices reflect the belief that grief is an extremely personal, even private, process that differs for each individual. After the loss of a spouse, it is customary for a man or woman to wait a year before dating again -- but even this guideline is flexible.

Sabine McKellen began her career teaching English as a Second Language to adults from around the world. She has spent the past seven years in journalism, covering social issues, specifically in rural communities. Her work has appeared in community newspapers throughout southern California, and in various trade and educational magazines.