Finishing School

“Finished,” by Alice Gregory. The New Yorker, 10/8/2018.

The term “Finishing School” has a quaint ring to it, like Bette Davis in an old movie, of time gone by, yet my Japanese-American mother-in-law, born in Pasadena, returned to Japan as a teenager to attend Mrs. Hani’s School in Tokyo, a two year finishing school, or what would now be called a junior college. Two years of college was respectable back then, but the British still feel that a finishing school is for women too stupid for a university.

This New Yorker article describes the last Swiss finishing school, the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, known simply as IVP.  In a house built in 1911 for a baroness, it is located in the tiny village of Glion overlooking Lake Geneva and accessible only by funicular. It claims to be the last Swiss finishing school. In the 1920s, the Swiss city of Lausanne alone had 45 finishing schools.

Author Gregory cites two factors in their demise. First is the success of the feminist movement. “Why learn how to run one’s home like a corporation if suddenly it was possible to run the corporation itself?” Next was the property values. Most finishing schools sat on valuable property that made them tempting to sell out for corporate headquarters and other commercial uses.

The author visited IVP for their six-week summer course, costing an average of $30,000. The school advised the women to “dress in good taste” and they all arrived with “remarkable consistency—blow-dried hair and dry-clean-only dresses that suggested an abundance of wealth and time.” The women came from all over the world, and many had MBA training. There were 29 of them, all women. They were there not to learn how to make money, but to acquire gestures of having inherited it (this, surprisingly, is desirable). The curriculum was designed to expose the women to the oddities and customs of other countries. For example, marigolds, red roses, and silver make inappropriate gifts in Mexico (marigolds are morbid, red roses are sexual, and silver is too common), but they were also taught how to clean marble, how to serve a luncheon. and how best to make a bed. (“If you don’t know, then your housekeeper is going to do it however she learned how.”)

The summer faculty when the author was there, included a butler formerly employed by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, an Austrian florist, a Guatemalan etiquette consultant, and a former Nestle communications director. The school’s head mistress, Viviane Neri, grew up in Zurich, traveled widely, was married to the director of a textile-machine company. She teaches some classes herself.

“Manners do not constitute virtue, but they do set out to imitate virtue’s outward appearance.” Both Confucius and Plato addressed etiquette. Even the New Testament advises, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (No reference)

Privacy is important at IVP. The students go only by their first names. For the most elite (the wealthiest), the head of IVP will coach the daughters of sheiks within their own palace walls. For this summer session, the students live on campus and quickly bond. There were many several-course luncheons, with the students playing the parts of servants. They were graded on their performance.

Things I learned for only the cost of The New Yorker: Pastry is deadly for carpets (I assume wool. Mine are all from Lowe’s, of washable polyester, and are cheaply replaced.) At a cocktail party (“an efficient and economical way of simultaneously returning multiple favors”), the table for the buffet should be as far as possible from the bar to facilitate mingling. Staff should be instructed verbally rather than in writing because hired help might be illiterate. A cocktail party for 100 requires 2 coatroom attendants, at least 2 valets, an elevator attendant, 2 people working the kitchen, 2 for washing up, 2 security staff (for gate-crashers), one maitre d’hotel, and a minimum of 6 waiters. The local police should be notified in advance to control traffic.

Good to know these things just in case the need arises.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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