Nicola here. An astonishing twelve years ago, I wrote a blog piece about what constituted a gentleman in the modern era. Is it dress, manners, background or behaviour? I was thinking about this again recently (and indeed, wondering what makes a "lady" in the equivalent sense) after reading a depressing article in the paper at the weekend which claimed that everyone is getting ruder as a result of the pandemic making us forget how to relate to one another and the pressures of modern life being to great. The article cited stories of drunken fighting in the theatre and abuse of waiting staff in restaurants, of cities like York overrun with Hen Parties and places like Cheltenham (surely not that centre of Regency society!) becoming no-go areas at night when the races are on. And yet, if you go online, there are any number of websites giving advice on the sort of qualities a modern lady or gentleman should cultivate. It seems there is still a demand for guidance on good behaviour. And a lot of us are still entranced by the manners and mores of past times.
It was all so much more clear cut a few centuries ago. In 1583 Sir Thomas Smith wrote: “One who can live idly and without manual labour and will bear the port (deportment) and countenance of a gentleman, he shall be taken for a gentleman.” The luxury goods and extravagant clothing of late 16th and 17th century London were an avenue to social mobility. Sumptuary legislation – the laws that governed the types of clothes that the different social classes were entitled to wear – had lapsed and a consumer revolution was taking over. Eighty years after Smith was writing, the diarist John Evelyn complained: “How many times have I saluted the fine man for the master, and stood with my hat off to the gay feather, when I found the bird to be all this while but a daw.” In other words, in the 17th century smart clothes and an appearance of wealth made the gentleman. Or perhaps gave the appearance of a gentleman.