A finishing school is a school for young women that focuses on teaching social graces and upper-class-cultural rites as a preparation for entry into society. The name reflects that it follows on from ordinary school and is intended to complete the education, with classes primarily on deportment and etiquette, with academic subjects secondary. It may consist of an intensive course, or a one-year programme. In the United States it is sometimes called a charm school.
Graeme Donald claims that the educational ladies’ salons of the late 1800s led to the formal, finishing institutions evidenced in Switzerland around that time. At their peak, thousands of wealthy young women were sent to the dozens of finishing schools available. A primary goal was to teach students to acquire husbands.
The 1960s marked the decline of the finishing school. This can be attributed to the shifting conceptions of women’s role in society, as well as succession issues within the typically family-run schools and sometimes commercial pressures driven by the high value of the properties the schools occupied.
The 1990s saw a revival of the finishing school, although the business model has been radically altered. Schools like Institut Villa Pierrefeu began to focus more on business etiquette, international etiquette, and related protocols, helping women become more effective in multicultural environments and dealings.
On the website of Institut Villa Pierrefeu, you will find that the Institute teaches a mix of traditional and modern courses. For example, they have a traditional course on European and American table manners. They also have a course on exploring cultural differences in which they teach conversation, dining, and gift giving customs from Europe, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East. Their curriculum acknowledges the changing landscape for the modern women.
Switzerland was known for its private finishing schools. Most resided in the French-speaking cantons near Lake Geneva. The country was favoured because of its reputation as a healthful environment, its multilinguality and cosmopolitan aura and the region’s political stability.
The finishing schools that made Switzerland renowned for such institutions were Brilliantmont, founded in 1882, now an international secondary school, and Château Mont-Choisi, founded in 1885, which closed in the 1990s. Both were in Lausanne.
In London, there where a number of schools in the 20th century including Signets, the Monkey Club, St James and Lucie Clayton. The latter two merged in 2005 to become St James and Lucie Clayton College and where joined by a third secretarial college Queens to become the current QUEST college in London’s Victoria. QUEST offers a number of business administration related courses for students aged 16-25 years old and is coeducational. Eggleston Hall was located in County Durham and taught young ladies aged 16-20 from the 1960s until the late 1980s. Paddock Lodge founded by a second world war French resistance leader and charity worker. It ran from the 1940s to 1982 after the founder stumbled upon a large clientele of diplomats children wanting to perfect their English.
About a decade after these schools had closed a diverse group of public relations and image consultancy firms started to appear in London offering largely 1 or 2 day finishing courses and social skills at commercial rate fees far higher that those charged by the colleges that closed mostly by the millennium (Lucie Clayton had been the exception). They appeal often to new international money and corporate clientele. Some partner with 5 star hotels to offer their courses but none are taught by a body teaching staff in a school or college environment like their predecessors. The model is more business and commercial than before.
The old former finishing schools where stand-alone organisations lasting for 15-50 years with a curriculum based around the particular philosophy of their proprietor much like the older Private School model in the UK. Contrary to popular belief today, many did offer a small number O-level and A level subjects and allowed pupils to do retakes or study languages and commercially applicable skills as well as traditional subjects including self presentation; etiquette and deportment. However many young women where gently pressured to attend these rather than University up until the late 1970s particularly in elite Catholic schools.
Through much of their history, United States finishing schools emphasized the social graces and de-emphasized scholarship: society encouraged a polished young lady to hide her intellectual prowess for fear of frightening away suitors. For instance, Miss Porter’s School in 1843 advertised itself as Miss Porter’s Finishing School for Young Ladies—even though its founder was a noted scholar offering a rigorous curriculum.
Today, with a new cultural climate and a different attitude to the role of women, the situation has reversed: Miss Porter’s School downplays its origins as a finishing school, and emphasizes the rigor of its academics. Likewise, Finch College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was “one of the most famed of U.S. girls’ finishing schools”, but its last President chose to describe it as a liberal arts college, offering academics as rigorous as Barnard or Bryn Mawr.
Today’s young women are encouraged to attend university and obtain salaried positions after graduation. Yet, there will always be a need for a bit of finishing. And week-end etiquette workshops are filling that need. They are easier to attend and less expensive option than the finishing schools of the past.
Despite how easy and inexpensive they are, modern etiquette schools have come under criticism for their quick fix methods. A week-end course cannot train a young women in the same way a three month or year long program can.
Finishing schools of the past were never only about how to eat at a dinner table, receive guests properly, or the proper conversations to engage in. They were much in depth than that. They taught a myriad of social graces that cannot be taught in one month, let alone one weekend.
Along with dining etiquette and greeting protocols, finishing schools also taught languages, skiing, rhetoric, music, speech as well as how to run a household, from managing staff to budgeting. They taught about fashion and style. Not just what should be worn for each event, but also how to use apparel to set a mood, gain attention, and to further a goal; how to dress to better accentuate one’s shape and coloring; how to shop for the right clothing by the right designers.
There were also lessons on how to deal with all types of guests and their behaviours. For example, how to effortlessly change a conversation topic before an argument began and how to get the shy-est of characters to speak openly at an event.
Finishing schools catered mostly to the wealthy. So, it was also a good place to make financially, politically, and socially benefiting contacts. Many influential marriages resulted from lasting relationships formed in finishing school.
At finishing school, it wasn’t just the teachers educating, it was also the students. By sharing personal experiences, mannerisms, family histories, values and beliefs – young women were able to learn a myriad of concepts that they could have never learned at a week-end workshop.
Examples of young women who studied at finishing schools:
- The Maharani of Jaipur studied at Brillantmont. In her memoir, she claimed the time to be a happy one, in which she wrote letters to her later husband and pursued skiing and other sports.
- Actress Gene Tierney also attended Brillantmont, speaking only French and holidaying with fellow students in Norway and England.
- Carla Bruni-Sarkozy,Princess Elena of Romania, Monique Lhuillier, Kitty Carlisle, Saudi scholar Mai Yamani, and New York socialite Fabiola Beracasa-Beckman studied at Château Mont-Choisi
- Diana, Princess of Wales, Tiggy Legge-Bourke and Tamara Mellon studied at Institut Alpin Videmanette in Rougemont.
- Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Ingrid Detter de Lupis Frankopan studied at Mon Fertile, in Tolochenaz.
- Queen Anne-Marie of Greece attended Institut Le Mesnil.
- Vieux Chalet in Château-d’Œx was a finishing school run by the parents of the current owner.
- British spy Vera Atkins and a sister of the first King of the Albanians studied at Le Manoir, in Lausanne. It had a private beach and students were taken skiing in St Moritz.