Charm Schools

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.

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