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 had 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.
The curriculum at the Institut Villa Pierrefeu acknowledges the changing landscape for the modern women. The tagline they chose for their website reads: Learning the importance of local knowledge in 20 countries across 5 continents.
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 multi-linguality 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 were 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. They were then 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 co-educational.
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. Many offered 1 or 2 day finishing courses at commercial rate fees far higher than those charged by the schools that had closed down. Some are now partnering with 5 star hotels to offer their courses. However, none of these courses are being taught by a teaching staff in a school or college environment like their predecessors. The model is more business and commercial than before. And its appeal is increasing, especially among new international money and corporate professionals.
Through much of their history, the 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 many currently in America are a less expensive option than the finishing schools of the past. For those looking for an even more affordable and quicker option, online courses are now being offered. This format has provided women from different socio-economic levels around the world, the opportunity to learn all sorts of “finishing” techniques.
Despite how easy and inexpensive they are becoming, modern etiquette schools have come under criticism for their quick fix methods. A week-end workshop cannot train a young women in the same way a three month or year long program can. Teachers of week-end workshops can only teach the basics. They must continuously ask themselves, how much knowledge can one learn and how many bad habits can one break in a single week-end?
Because young women were sent to finishing schools in the past for several months, schools were able to teach a variety of courses outside of the required etiquette course. Some course examples are languages, philosophy, book-keeping, staff management, logic, music, drawing, painting, floral arrangement, art history, and speech.
Some finishing schools also 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 ensues 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.
At these schools, they were also able to meet and live with women from different countries for many months. This opportunity offered them invaluable multi-cultural lessons that they would be able to use in the future when mingling with politicians, celebrities and businessmen from different countries.
Here is a short list 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.
For a visual understanding of what finishing schools are (and were) like, please watch the video below.
— excerpts taken from Wikipedia