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deportment consists in how one carries and moves one's body. The term ‘deportment’ came into English usage around 1600, and is allied with the earlier ideas of chivalry and courtesy, and the later ideas of etiquette and good manners — in short, with conduct according to the rules of behaviour accepted by polite society. These rules helped to provide social stability in changing times, and people clung to them to maintain the appearance of stability. Such ceremonial rules contrast with the more substantive rules of morality and law.


Since antiquity, rules for deportment have guided the behaviour of the more privileged classes and those who served them. Throughout the Middle Ages a person's position within the social hierarchy of the nobility determined proper deportment. By the thirteenth century, however, the disciplined restraint dominating the visible conduct of nuns became a model for the laity, and eloquent poems and texts on courtesy began to appear in Italy. A somewhat problematic causal relationship between chivalry and the development of courtesy exists. From the ninth through the eleventh centuries, codes governing knights' behaviour reflected crude and practical military exigencies. Later on, however, as economic and political developments during the twelfth century enabled knights to settle, the focus of chivalry moved away from the military and towards the social realm of ritual and ceremony. A romanticized notion of chivalry, with an elaborate code of conduct, began to emerge.

Thirteenth-century prescriptions for women's deportment focused on the manner of walking, the method of riding a horse, modesty of glance, and proper management of the gown. Men received admonitions against poor table manners, and knights received advice on the proper way to approach a woman in the open. Deportment was informed by the persistent notion that the inner character revealed itself through outward bodily movement.

Economic and social changes in the early modern period enabled people to rise in social standing by learning proper deportment in the service of the nobility as knights, squires, pages and ladies-in-waiting. For example, a fifteenth-century page learned how to display a proper demeanour, to defer to superiors, to effect the proper stances for serving and conversing, and to become skilled in aristocratic amusements such as riding, singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments. Noblemen's houses thus functioned as finishing schools for the young.

The control of the features in laughing, eating, and talking, and the control of larger movements in walking, sitting, standing, and greeting someone, formed the subjects of careful instruction. The bow and curtsy, very similar in the Middle Ages, diverged by the seventeenth century. Sliding the left foot backward, while bending the knee, gave rise to the expression ‘bow and scrape’. When greeting a superior, a gentleman doffed his hat, making certain that he executed this courtesy with the proper arm and body movements. A lady slid back her hood. Dancing schools acquired a particular importance, for dance involves gracious movement.

As many of the conventions of good deportment in Europe involved the wearing and handing of voluminous clothes, which reflected high social status, the rules did not readily apply to the peasantry. Shoes governed the manner of walking. For example, out-of-doors, well-to-do Elizabethans wore two pairs of shoes, an inner slipper and the outer shoe (pantofle), which required some practice to keep on while walking. The pantofle was removed indoors, particularly while dancing, so that one could ‘trip light-footed’. In some countries in the seventeenth-century, outer shoes had very thick cork soles, which resulted in a careful, slow manner of walking. When sitting or walking, women had to manage farthingales, trains, hoop skirts, or bustles, covered with voluminous petticoats and skirts, as fashion changed, all the while constrained by the wooden Elizabethan bodice (which led to wooden movements) or its successor, the corset. Men had to learn how to move elegantly in stiff, padded Elizabethan doublets, with swords at their sides — though their clothing became less restrictive as time passed. No one hurried; women walked in dainty steps and men in moderated strides. In standing, the whole leg was turned outward, a stance still seen in classical ballet.

The rules for deportment reached a zenith of artificiality at the end of the seventeenth century. Body carriage relaxed during the eighteenth century, but the fashionable set still made sure that their children received training in deportment, mainly at the hands of the dancemaster. In the nineteenth century, rules for standing, walking, and sitting were simplified. Though the corset remained in style, the erect posture of women in sitting and walking relaxed somewhat, while men's fashions achieved a modern appearance. Some were quite critical of the new ease that some men affected.

After World War I the earlier focus on gracious manners yielded to an emphasis on the rules necessary to avoid being snubbed. Jane Wildeblood, a historian of deportment, has attributed this change to a contemporary emphasis on efficiency.

United States

Etiquette in the US developed along different lines, as most of the colonists came from the peasant or working classes and brought no tradition of polite behaviour. Legislation and education brought some civility to the colonies, and during the eighteenth century certain groups looked to the English for higher codes of conduct. In the 1820s a steady stream of American etiquette books appeared, divided into two philosophies: one was the idea that manners are ‘character in action’, the other was an adaptation of Lord Chesterfield's views that manners are a set of rules to be learned. With their egalitarian origins, the Americans generally scorned European pomp, until a new wealthy class arose after the Civil War. A cult of elegance, borrowing heavily from the hereditary leisure classes of England, and especially of France, developed, and ended only with World War I.

Kristen L. Zacharias


Aresty, E. B. (1970). The best behavior. Simon and Schuster, New York.
Wildewood, J. (1973). The polite world. A guide to the deportment of the English in former times. Davis-Poynter, London.

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de·port·ment / diˈpôrtmənt/ • n. a person's behavior or manners: there are team rules governing deportment on and off the field.

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