This traditional rule of etiquette might seem quaint–even insulting–in a world where women lead major corporations, run for President, and fly to the stars. Yet, while it’s a foregone conclusion that they are more than capable of seating themselves at dinner, the ritual originates from a time when women weren’t quite so capable.
A woman’s capability (or lack thereof) to seat herself had less to do with their physical or mental abilities and more to do with their fashions. Unlike today’s relaxed fashion standards where jeans and a tee-shirt constitute acceptable (if not preferred) public attire, fashion dictates of old required much more complicated outfits.
Hoop skirts, corsets, and petticoats and various other accessories were de rigeur for any self-respecting female, especially if they belonged to high society, in the Victorian era. Often, “suiting up” in these restrictive, complicated garments required help from a mother or governess or BFF.
And that’s saying nothing about the bustle.
The bustle was a rigid frame that fit under the back of a dress, filling out her shape of. And while it was met contemporary fashion standards, it made many simple actions impossible (or at least, awkward and unseemly) such as–you guessed it, sitting down in a chair.
As an act of simple courtesy, civilized men would pull out a woman’s chair to give her enough room to accommodate her bustle. And you can believe that no one wearing these outlandish clothes ever felt insulted by the offer of a little logistical assistance.
In time, fashions have changed radically, and the once courteous act of pulling out a woman’s chair has developed from necessary assistance to a simply nice, even chivalrous, act.