Let’s begin with a confession: I am not a domestic goddess. I’m clean and tidy, but other demands on my time means my ironing is often a necessary sacrifice.
So I have no idea what to expect when I arrive at the beautiful St Michael’s Manor Hotel, St Albans, for a Sixties Housewife Masterclass in celebration of The Help DVD release.
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The idea is to discover what life was like for both maid and mistress in the time of the hit film, which won Octavia Spencer an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for her supporting role as outspoken maid, Missy.
In the film, set in Mississippi in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, Skeeter (Emma Stone) writes a tell-all book from the point of view of ‘the help’ that challenges the complex social rules in her community.
Under the expert guidance of William Hanson and Barbara Allred, from etiquette and protocol consultancy The English Manner we examine a day-in-the-life of a housewife and her help.
A clip of ‘The Good Wife’s Guide’ from a 1955 issue of Housekeeping Monthly tells me to remember my husband is the master of the house and that a good wife “knows her place”. It is shocking reading, but thankfully a lot has changed, particularly the way staff is viewed.
“You must give respect to employees to gain respect from your employers,” says William, 22. “The royal family knows how much they rely on their staff. The Queen takes great pride in knowing what her people should be doing.”
Barbara adds that respect between employer and staff is crucial, as in any business. Before joining the consultancy, Barbara held a senior position in the Royal Household’s housekeeping department.
“The Queen never calls her staff ‘servants’. They are always ‘staff’,” she says. It’s a matter of respect for Queen Elizabeth II, whom Barbara describes as a “very good employer.”
We are shown how to make a bed to VIP standards (complete with hospital corners), how to iron a gentleman’s shirt (leave double cuffs ironed but unfolded) and how to pack a suitcase.
Some handy tricks to look after your designer clothes best on holiday include using socks as makeshift shoetrees, using acid-free tissue paper to wrap delicate items, and rolling trousers to avoid creases.
William then shows us how to decorate spare loo rolls to make them more attractive for the bathroom. It’s rumoured that his method is common in the Royal Household, but Barbara confirms that toilet rolls are usually replaced before a spare is needed.
Later we move onto deportment, and as I sashay around the suite with a book balanced precariously upon my head, I realise that these lessons, all about adopting confident body language, are still valuable today.
In an interview or meeting, sitting correctly - either against the back of the seat or perched on the edge of the chair – can make you seem poised and interested without having to say a word.
The Queen and Duchess of Cambridge displayed this flawlessly during their recent Jubilee trip to Leicester, as they sat side by side with their legs demurely crossed at the ankle.
“If you walk into a room with a straight back and confidence, people are much more likely to make a positive assumption about you,” says William. “In the 60s people spent a great deal of time making their appearance work for different situations.
It feels a bit silly, but we practise entering the room (let the door shut behind you; avoid flashing your backside; smile) and start to make a positive first impression.
After lunch we settle down with June Gauntlett of The Leyton Bridge Club, Harpendon.
In The Help Skeeter and her friends often bond over a game of Bridge and a good gossip, and this very social card game for four was just as popular in the UK.
Our final lesson for the day is how to prepare for a dinner party – crucial in the days where home entertainment was as much about business as socialising.
“Dinner parties were very important in the 1960s. People dressed up more, often wearing black tie. There was a sense of occasion,” says William.
Far from the traditional dress codes of white tie, black tie or cocktail dress, now we are confounded by quirky command to dress ‘glam’ or ‘ready to party!’
“If you can’t confer with other attendees, overdress,” advises William on how to avoid a fashion faux-pas. “You can make yourself look more casual later, but guests will notice if you enter a party underdressed.”
I’m so grateful to reap the benefits of how past generations changed society, but I know my lessons in 1960s etiquette will help me navigate a minefield of tricky social situations. I leave the masterclass ready to network – and very careful not to slouch.
The Help is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from 12 March.
By Michelle Johnson
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