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Storm Clouds Over Party Shoes: Etiquette Problems for the Ill-bred Woman

by Sheila Norgate

According to pre- and post-war North American etiquette, women posed such a danger to themselves and society that if they did not adhere to strict rules of conduct something truly dreadful would happen. After all, a careless girl drowning in a sea of social ineptitude without proper manners to guide her was likely to run amok… she might, well, develop a slouch, beat her beau at tennis, forget to offer him his conversational prompt of “Oh, aren’t you wonderful!” every five minutes, or worse, bore him to death with her wit and intelligence. If she were to do these things the poor dolt might buckle at the knee, develop a stutter, and slip into a state of emasculated confusion – and then who would run the world?

Certainly not the procession of well-trained, well-groomed, well-muzzled poodle women who populate Vancouver visual artist Sheila Norgate’s Storm Clouds Over Party Shoes. Combining images from women’s magazines from the 1920s to the 1950s with insidious behaviour-modifying rules from etiquette books of the same era, Norgate presents a catalogue of female perversions that are at once riotous and appalling. Norgate, who for years has explored the dichotomy of Nice Girl-Bad Girl in her work, allows Storm Cloud’s gems of oppression to indict themselves, seldom labouring the point with additional narrative.

And for the thinking woman who imagines the world is now safe from these old-fashioned preoccupations, a quick glance at any newsstand will reveal that the same old insecurities that used to haunt grandma are still gainfully employed in the pages of women’s magazines today. But at least the language has changed dramatically. In 1923, for instance, a woman brushing up on her etiquette might encounter this: “… It is not deplorable to be stout, but it certainly is deplorable to dress in a manner which emphasizes that stoutness.” And what should the stout woman who risks deplorability do? Etiquette here does not beat about the bush: “…The butterfly looks very dashing in brilliant shades, but grey is, no doubt, more becoming to an elephant.”


Reviewer: Lisa Peryman

Publisher: Press Gang


Price: $18.95

Page Count: 75 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-88974-080-1

Released: Nov.

Issue Date: 1997-12

Categories: Reference