Charm schools are training facilities that teach their clients how to craft a pleasing personal appearance and a refined attitude. Historically, topics including etiquette, elocution, carriage, and personal grooming have been the subject of charm courses and instruction manuals.
Attending charm schools became a popular activity for young women and girls during the first half of the 20th century. Charm schools tutored clients in the etiquette, protocol, and customs that Americans associated with high-society culture and, as such, charm courses were viewed as an avenue for social promotion in the United States. While some schools operated as stand-alone private companies, charm classes were more frequently offered in a variety of other settings, including free lessons at local YWCA branches, the meetings of youth organizations, department store promotion events, and even employee training sessions in U.S. workplaces.
An example of popular 20th-century charm instruction can be found in the work of educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown. In 1902, Brown founded the Palmer Memorial Institute, an elite South Carolina boarding school for girls from the wealthiest black families across the nation. In addition to giving her students a rigorous high school education, Brown ran her female students through strenuous charm instruction. She taught these aspiring ladies etiquette, deportment, fashion, and manners in the hopes that such skills would better their lives. In one classroom exercise, Brown trained her pupils to balance a book on their head while walking— possibly the most famous activity associated with charm instruction—in order to guide her student’s posture.
As well as formal charm classes, published guides also offered to teach the basics of female style, eloquence, beauty, and glamour. In addition to Brown’s 1944 text, The Correct Thing to Do, to Say, to Wear, several other charm textbooks were published in the mid 20th century. These included model Barbara Watson’s 1948 guide, The Brandford Home Study Charm Course, actress Anita Colby’s 1952 text, Anita Colby’s Beauty Book, and British personality Helen Hugh’s 1955 manual Glamour School. Publications such as these focused on charm and beauty as a method for women to advance their lives. Reminding readers that such matters were “a passport to greater success,” the Beauty Fair Reference Guide counseled readers on over 140 charm and beauty-related subjects, including the selection of fashion accessories, methods of calorie-counting, cosmetic use, exercise, nail care, and deportment.
In addition to ordinary women, aspiring celebrities also used charm instruction to better their chances of success. In the 1950s, the leading British film studio Rank opened a charm school to guide actresses, including the star Diana Dors, on how to talk correctly, dress well, and behave in public. Similarly, in the 1960s, Detroit’s Motown Records opened an in-house charm school run by image-builder Maxine Powell, who prepared music artists such as Martha Reed and Diana Ross for the glare of publicity.
Reflecting an emerging feminist agenda, many Americans began to view charm instruction as propagating an outdated model of femininity in the late 1960s and 1970s. As a result of these changes, traditional charm schools all but died out in latter decades of 20th century. However, in recent years, many components of charm school instruction have witnessed a rebirth in professional skills courses directed toward both men and women. For example, today, DeVore Carter Communications, a New York City company specializing in professional preparedness, teaches its clients competencies such as visual poise and vocal dynamics in order to help businesspeople to succeed in the 21st-century marketplace.