Winifred Merrill on manners and dress for women

It is interesting that Winifred Edgerton Merrill should consider that "the most pressing and by far the most important question in the education of woman: 'Should instruction as to manners and dress be included in our curriculum?'" She argues her case for the appointment of a chair of dress and manners in Winifred Edgerton Merrill, Should instruction as to manners and dress be included in the curriculum?, Regents' Bulletin, University of the State of New York 8 (January 1893), 450-451.

Should instruction as to manners and dress be included in the curriculum?

Mrs Winifred Edgerton Merrill, Albany - Allow me, Mr Chancellor and members of the Convocation, to express my thanks for this opportunity of presenting what I consider to be at present the most pressing and by far the most important question in the education of woman: "Should instruction as to manners and dress be included in our curriculum?"

Our common experience is such as to render it superfluous for me to indicate the value of politeness, of acquaintance with social ordinances, in short of all that gracious and kindly consideration for the convenience, comfort and pleasure of others which can only result from attention carefully and systematically directed to questions of courtesy and good breeding. Moreover, if it be a pleasure to look upon any well-mannered woman, is not the pleasure greatly enhanced if her body be clothed harmoniously? And can a woman more easily attain harmony in colour and form in dress, without a study of the subject, than in producing agreeable effects in painting or music or any of the fine arts?

Instruction in good manners begins, or should begin in the nursery, and continues while the child remains under home supervision; and I submit to those members of this Convocation who are parents the question whether such instruction can be utterly suspended for a single week or even a single day, with favourable results? Why then should it be practically abolished in the college, the high school and the academy? Are our young women and our young men such models of good breeding and good taste in dress as to satisfy those interested in their highest development? Is there no significance in the fact that our sons and daughters interpolate and transform the English of Addison and Irving, of Arnold and Curtis with expressions which shock the ear and offend good taste? Is there no significance in the loud voices and laughter which too frequently supersede "that most excellent thing in woman?" Is there no significance in the fact that the leading Greek student and also the leading mathematical student in a recently graduated class of one of our prominent colleges should be conspicuously careless in matters of dress and behaviour? Is there no significance in the following extract from one of this morning's Albany papers, a criticism only too typical of public opinion: "Will the University Convocation explain why so few women know how to walk "

Every so-called fashionable school gives daily instruction in matters pertaining to manners and dress. Should the college, which offers excellent facilities for the study of music, painting and sculpture, for gymnastics and athletic sports, be inferior with respect to the matters which contribute so largely to make young womanhood beautiful and attractive?

I trust that I may be pardoned if I say that I myself, a college woman, would send my daughter to a fashionable school, rather than to a college where little attention is paid to the dress and behaviour of its students.

An experiment has recently been made in Boston, in connection with a coeducational college, by giving such instruction. A lady of great culture and high social position, full of deep interest in the welfare of college students has during the past winter been giving a series of talks upon manners and dress. The experiment has been attended with grateful appreciation on the part of the students as well as success in its object.

Allow me then in view of the great need of improvement and in consideration of at least one successful attempt in giving such instruction to leave with the members of the Convocation one question to which I beg them to give their attention: Is a chair of dress and manners practicable and desirable?

Last Updated December 2021