Q: A great discussion occurred this week as my husband and I and another couple walked a brief distance from a parking lot to the restaurant where we had reservations for dinner. The discussion was as to the etiquette of whether the woman should walk on the man's right side, left, or does it matter any more. We decided we should ask you.
A: Yes, this is an interesting question with an interesting history behind the original etiquette rule of: The lady walks on the right side of the gentleman.
History says this rule of the lady walking on the right side came about in the Middle Ages when knights wore their swords on the left side of their bodies which thus allowed their right arm and hand available for a quick response to protect his lady and himself as well, of course, from an evil foe or other danger. Furthermore, having the lady walk beside him on the left side would mean that the sword and its sheath could interfere with her actual walking because of it getting somewhat tangled in her long, full skirt. Having the lady on the left could also prevent the gentleman from being able to quickly remove his sword. As a footnote, gentleman and ladies did not hold hands when walking together outdoors in this era. His left arm was offered to the lady when inside the house as he escorted her into the dining room for example, or when approaching stairs to the garden perhaps and only outside when necessary to assist her in some manner. I know, so much for all the old movies showing a couple strolling with his elbow crooked and her hand inside just below the crook.
In an area where horses were being ridden on the street or carriages being driven, this rule also applied so the gentleman could more quickly protect the lady if a horse got out of control or a carriage. With our first streets consisting of dirt, he could also protect her from splashes of usually very dirty water from the street as the horses and carriages went by. Another footnote: The gentlemen wore long outer coats to be able to catch more of the splash upon themselves rather than the lady.
As to the story or legend of a gentleman in those days removing this long coat and placing it over a puddle in the street before the lady crossed it — this is also very interesting. In addition to his being very chivalrous, he was also very gallant because his main purpose for placing his long coat over the puddle was not necessarily to protect her shoes and long skirts from the rain, but the fecal material or sewage which was on the streets. Perhaps this was also one of the more important reasons for his being on the left on rainy days because of the content of the splashes. One must remember there were no sewer systems in those days. Can you imagine what this long coat must have smelled like at the end of the day, as well as the poor woman who had to wash this disgusting long coat. I also doubt it was washed every day. Footnote: The man's overcoat, which remains a staple in the properly dressed gentleman of today's list of must-have-clothing items, evolved from this "long coat."
Another reason for this rule, which conjures up very displeasing thoughts in one's mind is this: Also during the Medieval era and for many, many years to follow, there was no indoor plumbing in businesses or homes in the cities or villages. A chamber pot, or in some cases, a bucket was the item used to relieve oneself. The contents of these vessels were then most often thrown out the back door, or front door or in many cases from a second or third story window. The safest place to be in these instances was as close to the building as possible, especially if there was an overhang below the second story. Thus with the gentleman walking on the left, he unfortunately bore the brunt of any ghastly repercussions from this ritual.
As the years have progressed, sewers and sidewalks were constructed on streets and indoor plumbing became available in most homes so the question becomes: is this rule still apropos? Here is the answer: to the extent possible, the gentleman's concern should always be one of protecting his lady; therefore, even though most of the traffic on our streets are now engine-powered vehicles, they can indeed be driven fast and possibly carelessly on our streets. By walking on the left nearest the street, the gentleman can more effectively protect his lady from a possible uncontrollable vehicle.
In another scenario, however, if walking down a street with dark side alleys or doorways where danger could lurk, it might be more beneficial if the gentleman walked on the right side of the lady.
The bottom line is this: The rule still applies in that it is proper for a man to be a gentleman and offer to protect his lady, whether that means being on her left or right, depending on his judgment of the situation.
Actually, what was believed many, many years should remain applicable in today's world: Adherence to this rule signifies that a gentleman is a true gentleman who will always be by his lady's side, through thick and thin, and will protect her from anything which may harm her. It is never to be construed as a weakness on his part, but a true sign of affection and respect.
Special note of thanks to the ladies of the Association of University Women, Belleville Branch, for inviting me to be their presenter last week to share excerpts from some of my vintage etiquette and manners books and discuss their value, relativity, or unfortunate absence in today's world. It was a delightful evening.